Friends‘ Production Designer Says Monica Geller’s Apartment Would Be A Very Different Colour If The Show Was Made Today

Photo: Alice S. Hall/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images.
Before Monica Geller's apartment was painted that very memorable shade of lavender ahead of the first episode of Friends in 1994, production designers John Shaffner and Joe Stewart submitted three sketches of the set to the show's studio and network — their own audition of sorts. Despite initially being told they didn't have a track record in designing sitcoms, they landed a job on the pilot. 25 years later, Friends is regarded by many as the most beloved sitcom of all time, and Shaffner was there through its 10 seasons of extraordinary success, selecting the perfect purple shade for the girl's apartment and building a hotel ballroom for Monica and Chandler's wedding.
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Ahead of the 25th anniversary of that pilot, which is now as famous for its decor as the actors themselves, we spoke to Shaffner about his time working on the series. From his favourite aspects of the sets he created to the biggest design challenges he faced thanks to some absurdly hilarious scripts, Shaffner shares behind-the-scenes experiences from his time working on Friends.
Refinery29: Did you know how big the show would be? How did it change your career?
John Shaffner:
Well, first of all, I read the pilot script and thought hmm, this is pretty good. Then we designed the sets and imagined what it was going to look like and collaborated with the set decorator and the team and watched the rehearsals and the filming of the show. I went to dinner a couple of days later with friends, and I saw Matt LeBlanc sitting across the restaurant, and I turned to my friends, pointed at this kid, and I said, "You see that kid over there, he doesn't have any idea how rich and famous he's going to be." I just knew after that experience of watching the show happen.

In Hollywood, if you have a hit, it immediately leads you to more opportunities in work. So, it helped to build this huge career in multi-camera comedy. I've done 135 pilots, and I believe I'm at 54 series.
Did you think ahead about different details in the apartments becoming iconic?
As production designers, we reached into our experience of the visual world — work that we've done, places that we've seen. We had lived in New York in a sixth-floor walkup. So, that's why the apartment was cheap. It was a fifth- or sixth-floor walkup — I don't know if anybody ever made up their mind. There was all that noise about it being too expensive, but it was 25 years ago and it was a six-floor walkup so it was cheaper by the flight. That's a very New York thing, and most people in the country don't understand what it means to walk up six flights of stairs to get to your apartment. That's why it was cheap.

Leaning back into our experience of New York and as a designer trained in the theatre, it really became apparent that the first thing we wanted to think about [was] geography and architectural details. Then, the next question becomes where are we going to take our palette and what is the interior decor going to become?
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Were there any major changes in the sets over the years?
There was a sense that we wanted to keep it alive. So sometimes through product placement or through just getting some stuff, we would add things in. There was a little Bose music thing when that was big, so some things changed. The picture that hung over on camera right above the big dresser unit in Monica's apartment, that came and went. That Venetian lamp with Fortuny fabric was something that Greg [Grande, Friends set decorator] found in the prop house at Warner Brothers. Those lamps are actually very expensive — it’s a very fine Italian fabric designer from a long time ago and it's still in business. But he found that lamp and brought it in because we thought we need a lamp up here. We kept accumulating it in this eclectic manner.

Again, in the coffee house, we just collected things and just filled the space and made it different. One of the things that was decided upon was rather than just having one picture on the wall all the time, we would always be evolving the artwork in there. There's a wonderful artist — I think his name is Burton Morris — who did a lot of the work. There were a number of artists who we featured over time. Greg would find things or know somebody or people would submit, and every so often, we’d decided it’s time to change out the pictures.
Were there any features in the set that we didn't notice as viewers?
In the first season, we were on a rather small stage, and we didn't have room for much outside the windows of the coffee house. Because it was going to be a series and we didn't want to spend very much money, we got two backdrops from Warner Brothers that were all hand-painted and boy, were they old and tired. We tied them together and that was what was outside the main door of the coffee house. So I went to Greg and said, “I have a horrible backdrop so we're going to put frosting on the lower part of the window... I think if we can hang a plant in here, anything you can think of to hang down in front of these windows because we don't want to look out there too much…” 
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That moment when Rachel comes through the door in the wedding dress and everybody has to turn and react was a very strong entrance for her to make towards the camera. But every once in a while, I’ll go back and I see it and think Ooh, that painted backdrop looks so sad out there! When we moved from Stage 5 at Warner Brothers to Stage 24 for season 2 and then the rest of the show, it was a much larger stage so [producer] Kevin Bright and the team said, "Let's build a street outside the window so we can do things on the street and we're not looking at those crappy backdrops."
Did you have a favourite aspect of the set?
One of the things that we did was I made all of the doors from both of the bedrooms and both apartments walk right into the main room. It wasn't an archway to a sitcom hallway where the doors would be off-camera. I put the bathroom door on the opposite side of the bedroom doors so anybody that would be motivated to leave the bedroom to go to the bathroom would have to walk across the entire set... As a designer, you're always proud when you can contribute something that then becomes part of the storytelling and the directing. I'm glad that [director] Jimmy Burrows and the team accepted my idea of having all the doors open into the main room because it's such a classic theatrical technique to create comedy and farce. 
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What was the biggest challenge during your time as production designer for the show?
The biggest panic attack I had on Friends over the basic set was anxiety that was induced by the girls losing that game and having to give their apartment up to the boys. I was like, "No!" I went to Kevin once I'd read the script and we started rehearsal and said, "Okay, how long are they going to be there? And, please don't make me paint the apartment. I don't know what colour I would paint it, and I don't want to change this." He said, "No, no, we're not gonna change the purple. The boys have to live in a purple apartment and the girls have to live in the tan apartment."
We always used a fake wood floor that was made of linoleum — they print great wood floors on linoleum that works well on television — then they wrote in an episode that Monica was refinishing the floor in the boys' apartment. Well, you can't run a sander over linoleum so we had to, over a weekend, take out the stub floor for that whole part of the stage, drop it down a half an inch and lay in an honest-to-god, real wood parquet floor. Then she was able to do an area of it where she sanded it, and then we were able to fill it in with the pre-finished product, but it was a real wood floor.

Over the years, we did lots of crazy things. There were the huge sets like Caesar's Palace or the Caribbean holiday where it rained the whole time. Oh, god, that was such trouble to make. Then there was an episode where they were at a beach house, and it got filled with sand. It took forever to get rid of all that sand on the stage. There's probably still sand on Stage 24.
What design trends would Monica have in her apartment if the show was created today?
25 years ago, it was much more difficult to find furniture at reasonably good prices. There was no CB2, there was no Ikea. You couldn’t walk into Home Depot or Lowes or Costco — Costco sells sofas now, and they're cheap! 25 years ago, there was a much, much more limited market. Now, when I'm designing a show where we have characters of this age group, we often mixed in a little bit more of that contemporary look of things that you can buy and you can afford.

If we were to redo their apartment today, I would probably paint it light grey because that's the popular colour. When Ashton [Kutcher] took over on Two And A Half Men, I painted the apartment grey because I saw that trend coming. Of course, now it's all over the place.

Monica and Rachel probably would've had a nicer Ikea table and chairs in the kitchen. They might still have gotten the funky refrigerator. Then maybe in the living area, the retro mid-century desk might have stayed, but they probably would've had a more modern coffee table or maybe they would've had a coffee table that would have been an ottoman and they probably would've had a new rug.
What did they do with the set and set pieces from the show once it was over?
They knew the show was iconic so Warner Brothers had started to develop an archive. When I first started working there, they didn't save very much. When we did the first season of Friends and the second season, there had been a vintage art department there, and they started clearing out stuff and throwing away drawings of old movies and stuff, and we were always saying "Don't do that, don't do that!" They finally went, "Wait a minute, we should keep this stuff." So when Friends came down, everything on the sets was pretty much itemised. They kept it in inventory. Everything was put into storage.

The coffee house set — or a good portion of it — has been saved and built as part of the Warner Brothers tour. A few years back, Warner Brothers built probably the best Hollywood museum that there is in terms of the history of any studio. It's a spectacular place, and they've rebuilt the coffee house there. Even though they have to keep repairing and replacing the sofa, you can come through there and sit on the sofa and have your picture taken.
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