Since the earliest days of television, homes on the small screen—from the suburban ranch with its white picket fence to the loft with its views of the city skyline—have shaped our reality and our desires. In the 1950s, networks built entertaining, “everyday” shows around a lifestyle that was, in reality, privileged and restricted—the white middle-class suburb—and made it look quintessentially American. In later years, viewers raised on these reassuring, essentially static shows wanted to see television reflect political and cultural reality. The “situation comedy” slowly evolved to a point where not every character was white, and real-world controversies and conflicts could pierce the walls of the set.
Television also offered outright fantasy, the chance to escape into outer space or back in time. Shows like The Waltons, Happy Days, Mad Men, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel took the style of a few decades before their air dates and repackaged it as nostalgia, throwback glamour, or kitsch parody. Sometimes the fantasy was closer to home: a world just a little more polished than our own, where the people were prettier and the apartments nicer than their inhabitants could really afford. The gritty metropolises that characters once hoped to escape evolved into the quirky, cupcake-dispensing playgrounds of young adults who don’t want to grow up. Whether shows were set in suburbs or cities, and whether their characters were wealthy or struggling, the interiors audiences saw on television night after night, year after year, affected how they decorated their own homes. From I Love Lucy to Friends, here are some of the most influential small-screen interiors we’ve seen over the years.
The Classic Family Sitcom
At first, television combined a vision of the future with domestic familiarity. In the spring of 1939, NBC televised the opening of the New York World’s Fair, which showcased “the world of tomorrow” via technological marvels like dishwashers and automatic typewriters. At the RCA Pavilion, visitors could be captured on a television camera and see themselves pictured in the small, grainy, curved screens. This combination of futurism and intimacy offered an experience quite different from the escapism of the movies. Television’s domestic focus was also a practical strategy to grab viewers in its early days, when it was a niche, experimental format. (In 1947, some 40 million households owned a radio, but fewer than 45,000, mostly in New York, had a television.) Familiar shows like The Honeymooners and The Goldbergs, developed first on radio, spoke to this small audience, showcasing working-class, urban families and simple, stage-like sets that were anything but aspirational. But after World War II, the possibilities of the format exploded as the numbers of people watching soared. By 1954, over half of US households owned a television set, and by the early 1960s, the figure had reached 90 percent. In this new era, television producers, and the advertisers that drove and financed their shows, understood that TV could not only reflect reality, but also shape it.
I Love Lucy (1951-1957)
Like its contemporary The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, I Love Lucy showed the fictionalized domestic lives of established performers. Lucille Ball and her Cuban-born husband, Desi Arnaz, played lovable ditz Lucy Ricardo and struggling bandleader Ricky in the CBS hit, filmed in New York City in front of a studio audience. The Ricardos lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan before moving, like many of their viewers, to the suburbs. Theirs was one of the earliest examples of the merchandising tie-in, as the exact bedroom set seen in the show was produced for the “Fashion Trend” line of the Roanoke, Virginia, Johnson-Carper furniture company. Comprising a double bed with a built-in bookcase headboard and a double dresser, in white or walnut, the set retailed for $198 in 1953. It was advertised with an image of the couple kissing chastely under the covers, wearing matching plaid pajamas (also available for sale), which helped allay the scandalous hint that a TV couple might do anything in bed beyond sleep.
Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963)
The home of the Cleaver family, with its literal white picket fence, was the on-screen encapsulation of American suburban family life at its most sanitized and idealized. Unlike earlier sitcoms, Leave It to Beaver was told from the child’s point of view, and established the home and the neighborhood—the fictional community of Mayfield—as the boundless playground of the white American boy. Unusually for a sitcom, the show featured several scenes in the boys’ en-suite bathroom, the setting for pranks like hiding a baby alligator in the toilet tank. The entryway to the house displayed reproductions of famous paintings of children—Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy and Thomas Lawrence’s Pinkie, so that even in decor the gender-balanced 2.4-child ideal was underlined (never mind that the Cleavers actually had two boys). June and Ward Cleaver’s bedroom, with its separate twin beds and its portable television, combined the anxiously traditional with the ultra-modern. After all, these shows and this lifestyle were not, at the time of their production, meant to be nostalgic, but instead to represent the best and most up-to-date way to live in the nuclear age.
The Brady Bunch (1969-1974)
In an early episode, stepmom Carol tells young Bobby that the only “steps” in the house are the ones leading upstairs, smoothing over both the potential conflict within a blended family and the shock value of this reinvention of the traditional nuclear model. Although divorce was on the rise, the network refused to make Carol Brady explicitly a divorcée. In other ways, too, the show avoided the issues of the day, particularly the Vietnam War. To the children who discovered the show on cable reruns in the 1980s and ’90s, its vision of a rambunctious but harmonious family ensconced in a laid-back suburban pad embodied an appealing lost innocence, and fueled the popularity of retro-kitsch shows like Happy Days (1974–1984) and That ’70s Show (1998–2006). Appropriately for a show that centered on an architect, the Brady Bunch house is about to become a design-TV star—the A-frame in Studio City, which featured in the show’s exterior shots, was purchased by HGTV in 2018. Its renovation to groovy 1970s glory is at the center of a new series, A Very Brady Renovation, which will debut on the network in September and feature the actors who played the six children on the show. It remains to be seen whether the show will inspire a revival of wall-to-wall carpeting, sunken living rooms, floral prints, and avocado green, although the floating stairs, skylights, indoor plants, and exposed brick of the ’70s are firmly back in vogue.
Television’s influence on the American home extended beyond straightforward imitation. The ever-changing sets of popular variety, music, and comedy shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In offered avant-garde artists and designers a way to showcase modern styles, graphics, and eventually colors, informing fashion and interiors. The 1960s were also the heyday of futuristic and speculative shows, which had a similar influence on audiences’ design sensibilities.
The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
Rod Serling’s iconic supernatural show used visual motifs derived from surrealism to create a sense of otherworldly menace. This artistic flair carried storylines that dealt with contemporary social and political issues through a science-fiction lens, from racism to capitalist greed to the stifling suburbs so lovingly depicted in contemporary sitcoms. (Jordan Peele’s contemporary reboot revives the original’s anxieties over mysterious government powers and possible alien invasions.) As in Black Mirror, another surreal anthology show, the most powerful episodes tend to take place in outwardly tranquil, domestic settings, as everyday objects—like “Talky Tina,” a talking doll, or the telephone through which a young boy is convinced he can speak to his dead grandmother—take on a chilling power.
The Jetsons (1962-1963)
ABC’s short-lived but widely syndicated cartoon was the network’s first color broadcast, and is renowned today for the many home tech innovations it accidentally predicted. Following a formula well established in the first decade of television, the Jetsons are a family made up of a male breadwinner, female homemaker, and a pair of mischievous-yet-lovable children. The difference is that they live in Orbit City, in an apartment complete with futuristic design and the floor-to-ceiling windows beloved of modern new-construction high-rises. Rosie, the robot maid, takes care of the home, and people talk to one another via video chat. Food appears at the touch of a button, and George reads the newspaper on the screen of a device that looks like a computer. Houses are even kitted out with treadmills and a tanning bed, which would not be widely available for home use for another two decades. Yet the family still struggles with classic, trivial sitcom problems. Technological innovation doesn’t make things better or worse on its own: Humans simply adapt, and remain stubbornly human. A couple of things haven’t come to pass in our world (yet): neither the flying cars nor the fact that George Jetson only works an hour a day, two days a week are a reality—the show didn’t imagine that such a lavishly technology-assisted world would make people work more, rather than less.
Star Trek original series (1966-1969)
Star Trek and its many rivals in the mid-’60s brought the awe-inspiring prospect of space travel into daily life, and made it familiar and fun. On television, spaceships became a shinier version of the traditional sitcom living room. The interior of the Starship Enterprise—the bridge’s swivel chairs in blue plastic and the captain’s imposing black leather armchair, the bold flat colors, the orange upholstery in the captain’s quarters—embodied a particular mod-chic modernity that soon found its way into interior design, pushing out the flounces, plaid, and chintz of a previous era. Star Trek’s sillier, campier contemporary, Lost in Space (1965-1968, rebooted in 2018), melded the sitcom and sci-fi genres by shooting an ordinary suburban family into space in a takeoff on The Swiss Family Robinson.
The Sitcom Gets Real
Network television, in the years before VCRs and cable syndication, was a great uniter. In a country that felt unstable and in some ways unrecognizable amid the ongoing strife over Vietnam and equal rights at home, the low-stakes comic antics of cookie-cutter suburban families started to look like a fantasy. In the 1970s, innovative creators wanted to push the envelope of what popular genres like the sitcom could tackle politically. Legendary sitcom producer Norman Lear created worlds and characters that looked like the messy, imperfect ones their audiences knew.
All in the Family (1971-1979)
Lear’s era-defining hit was based in part on his own relationship with his father, and directly inspired by the British comedy Till Death Do Us Part, which revolved around a racist working-class patriarch and his long-suffering wife, extended family, and neighbors. The American version was set in Astoria, Queens, but the exterior of the Bunkers’ home belonged to a modest house in suburban Glendale, Queens, where the house exteriors were more uniform.
The show took the sitcom trope of tension with the neighbors and raised the stakes, confronting the Bunkers with a changing world, and the audience with lightning-rod issues of race, religion, sex, and politics. The title sequence established a format Lear would follow in most of his future shows, using recognizable footage of New York City to establish a sense of reality and mark an evolution away from the everywhere-and-nowhere suburban settings of older sitcoms. But the characters clung to the past: The show’s neutral, faded colors were chosen, according to costume designer Rita Riggs, to evoke the sepia tones of an old family photograph album. The furniture, similarly, was deliberately worn down and lived-in, but over the years, acquired an iconic status. Archie and Edith’s chairs, purchased for next to nothing in a neighborhood thrift store, were donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 1978.
The Jeffersons (1975-1985)
George and Louise Jefferson and their son, Lionel, began life as the Bunkers’ next-door neighbors on All in the Family and were spun off into the new show after five seasons, following a path of upward mobility after George’s dry-cleaning business expanded. The show focused less on interracial dynamics than on the tensions inherent in the Jeffersons’ changed class status. The famous title sequence of the show, and its theme song about the characters “moving on up… to a dee-luxe apartment in the sky,” make the location literally something to be looked up to. In an era when New York City was struggling under the weight of neglect, poverty, and crime, the apartment “in the sky” at 185 East 85th Street was a haven, literally above, and safe from, that street-level reality. Accordingly, the dominant feature in the Jeffersons’ living room was the view from the wall of full-height windows.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977)
Like Donna Reed and Lucille Ball before her, Mary Tyler Moore lent her name to a sitcom that relied on her bubbly charm, but unlike her predecessors, Moore played a woman who put career and independence ahead of domestic bliss. After a broken engagement—the network refused to allow her to be divorced—30-year-old Mary Richards moves to Minneapolis and a job at a television news station. The traditional line-up of quirky neighbors and friends filled out the cast, but unusually, they included fellow single women and men who were coworkers and platonic friends rather than love interests. Mary lived in a quirky, turreted Victorian house in the upscale Kenwood neighborhood, befriending her neighbor, Rhoda Morgenstern (who would get her own spin-off after six seasons). Moore knew the hold that “warm, cozy, and soothing” house had on viewers: “As the nest of all these characters who invaded people’s hearts, the house was going to receive similar affection.” That affection wasn’t always welcome—when producers wanted to film some new footage of the outside of the house, its owner draped it with huge banners reading “Impeach Nixon.”
Glamour and Excess
The prime-time television landscape of the 1980s was dominated by two dueling shows, CBS’s Dallas, which premiered in 1978, and Dynasty, on ABC, which first aired in 1981 and took deliberate aim at its Texas rival. A world away from the homey interiors and low-stakes family conflicts of earlier eras, these shows ratcheted up the drama, the hair, and the square footage. According to David Jacobs, the creator of Dallas and its spinoff, Knots Landing, while wealth was the engine driving both shows, Dynasty was “a better expression of second Reagan administration values.” Its focus was not on getting rich, but on being rich, about “the things that money could buy.”
Dallas revolved around the fortunes of the oil-rich Ewing family. It was partly filmed at Southfork Ranch, just north of Dallas, built in 1970 on 200 acres. By the standards of modern McMansions, the Ewing mansion was relatively modest, at under 6,000 square feet (for comparison, Kim and Kanye’s Bel Air pad was 9,000 square feet). Nevertheless, the opulence of the oil tycoons’ lives enthralled audiences around the world, helping to shore up the global image of American wealth and power. Dallas was one of the only Western shows that Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu allowed to be broadcast in his country, in the hope of disgusting audiences with its vision of capitalistic excess—a move that backfired when audiences eagerly swallowed its cocktail of luxury and steamy drama. After the president was overthrown and executed in 1989, the first episode of Dallas was re-broadcast on now-liberated state television.
What Norman Lear was to the 1970s, Aaron Spelling was to the 1980s, shaping a ritzy and playful television landscape in which everyone was beautiful and young, or engineered to look it, and homes sprawled out under eternal sunshine. Although it was set in Denver and inspired by I, Claudius, a novel and BBC television adaptation about backstabbing Roman emperors, Dynasty was filmed at lavish estates in California. Audiences got the chance to buy the lifestyle through merchandising tie-ins of luxury housewares like silver ice buckets, china, bed linens, and wall coverings. According to Jacobs, the Dallas creator, it was “perhaps the most extravagantly produced series in the history of episodic television.” That excess suited the era perfectly, and Alexis Carrington’s penthouse, her white chaise longue, and her lucite bar stools with gold-plated legs seemed like the epitome of opulence.
By the early 1990s, the ostentation of Dallas, Dynasty, and their many imitators had paled into a punchline. Viewers wanted to see homes where real people might live, and a TV world that reflected the shifting cultural realities of the day. Gay characters, working mothers, single-parent families, and nonwhite characters began to move to the forefront, with the real innovation that they weren’t introduced as vehicles for social commentary, but as ordinary people leading ordinary, even aspirational lives. Family homes on ’90s television were shown as a respite, for both parents, from their high-powered jobs. Even when they were lavish—as in Will Smith’s star vehicle The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—the show took pains to point out how hard professionals worked to afford their success. Increasingly, though, the family focus of the suburban sitcom gave way to groups of single friends, living together in city apartments, falling in and out of love, gathering at the local coffee shop or bar, and refusing to grow up and settle down like their parents.
This spinoff of the juggernaut Cheers moved its pretentious psychiatrist Frasier Crane across country from Boston to Seattle, and installed him in a chic, perfectly curated modernist apartment. After his cranky ex-cop father Martin moves in, along with his dog and his equally down-to-earth British nurse, the show uses Martin’s ratty, Archie Bunker-esque armchair to symbolize the show’s fundamental clash between aspiration and authenticity.
The rest of the open-concept apartment is designed to be admired, with its split-level living room and high-end furniture chosen for style and pedigree, including the now-ubiquitous Eames lounge chair. The apartment’s most notable feature is its geographically impossible view of the Space Needle, stylized in the show’s credit sequence. In 2004, as the show was ending, Seattle Times journalist Kay McFadden explored Frasier’s effect on the city, noting that although his “condo-dwelling, wine-sipping, opera-going ways” once struck locals as absurdly mismatched to Seattle’s identity of “grunge and Gore-Tex and the great outdoors,” the city had swung around to Frasier’s point of view. According to a local high-end real estate broker, an episode in which a tech executive moves into Frasier’s building and recreates his apartment became simple fact: “My upper-end dot-com millionaires […] They wanted that decor, with the oak floors and the designer fixtures, and the Space Needle view.”
Living Single (1993-1998)
Predating Friends by a couple of years, Living Single starred Queen Latifah and Kim Coles as part of a crew of six friends sharing a Brooklyn brownstone, years before the borough became shorthand for every hipster style trend. “We didn’t have the Friends budget,” show creator Yvette Lee Bowser told the Atlantic in a recent retrospective article. “And they went out into an all-white New York. Our New York, our Brooklyn, was as diverse as it is in reality.” The main apartment was huge, cozy, and colorful, featuring an eat-in kitchen with a breakfast bar, a terrace, and a pink-and-green-tiled bathroom big enough to let all four female friends perform The Temptations’ “My Girl” together in their pajamas. Their upstairs neighbors and on-off love interests, Kyle and Overton, shared an apartment that took visual inspiration from Kyle’s Afrocentric style.
NBC’s hugely successful comedy about another six attractive friends, this time white, who live together, date each other, and eventually just about grow up has been embraced by a new generation on Netflix enthralled by its ’90s trappings—plaid, chokers, feathered haircuts, face-swallowing coffee mugs, purple walls everywhere. The show was notorious at the time for the question of how on earth Rachel, a coffee-shop waitress, and Monica, a semi-employed chef, could possibly afford the gigantic loft-like pad at the heart of the show. Today, its whitewashed vision of New York is all the more egregious in an ever-more-diverse television landscape, but the show has always owed more to sitcom history than urban reality—beginning when Rachel, like Mary Richards, flees her engagement to find herself as a single girl. Both the setup and the sets have proven perennially influential: Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl (2011-2018) takes place in Los Angeles, but also begins with a young woman fleeing a breakup to start over in a stunning industrial-chic loft apartment that (despite a few plumbing-related quirks) seems well beyond her means, even with a trio of roommates.
Will & Grace (1998-2006, revived 2017)
The original Will & Grace trafficked in plenty of troublesome stereotypes, but nonetheless broke ground as a hit network show centering on a gay man and his friends, and putting his romantic life on par with his straight female roommate’s. Their shared apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, originally Will’s, was distinguished by its masculine decor—lots of dark wood, rattan, leather seating, a distinctive blue couch, and what appears to be, in a Marie Kondo-influenced world, a lot of clutter. The show’s more flamboyant characters, Jack and Karen, both insult the apartment, with Jack calling it “the apartment that sex forgot” and Karen a “poorly decorated crack house.” Given that Grace plays an interior designer on the show, it’s deliberately ironic—and perhaps realistic—that her own home doesn’t look overly styled. A few details on the set, however, caught the eyes of viewers. A small painting of a shirtless man, vaguely resembling Eric McCormack, who plays Will, proved particularly popular. The actor claimed it wasn’t supposed to look like him, or have a backstory, “But it became so iconic people would write in about that (like) ‘Where can we get it?’ We should’ve put it on T-shirts.”
The Modern, Diverse Television Home
The history of the network sitcom has been dominated by whiteness and a determined effort not to look too closely at the world beyond the picket fence (or the coffee shop couch). That has begun to change with shows that not only star, but are also created and written by, people of color—including Fresh Off The Boat, loosely based on the life of Taiwanese-American chef Eddie Huang, and Kenya Barris’s Black-ish, which updates The Jeffersons to explore the tension between race and class in an affluent African-American family. In 2017, when Netflix rebooted Norman Lear’s classic mid-’70s sitcom One Day at a Time, it was reimagined to center on the family of a Cuban-American army veteran and single mother.
Today, the TV landscape is fracturing so fast that our friends are hooked on shows we’ve never heard of, which offer up any number of competing aesthetics. The streaming and rebooting of defunct shows means that we can take design inspiration from previous eras and sets that once looked simply modern. Meanwhile, design shows and networks like HGTV have given viewers a familiarity with interior design trends and styling tricks that early audiences mostly lacked. But amid all the different worlds television can show us, the homes of characters we love, or love to hate, remain places that we visit over and over again, with the power to shape how we want our own homes, and our lives, to look.
Joanna Scutts is a writer and curator, and the author of The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It (Liveright, 2017).