TV shows' kitchens reflect characters

October 03, 2001|By Beverly Bundy | Beverly Bundy,FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

Television sound stages have come a long way since Ralph Kramden threatened to send Alice to the moon.

Ralph's bus-driver salary meant that he and Alice had little money. But surely they could have afforded more than a gingham tablecloth and a few lonely appliances in their grimy kitchen.

Certainly one of today's TV set designers could have worked some magic with the Kramden kitchen.

As the new TV season kicks off, we can again be voyeurs into the homes of America's imaginary TV families. More than simple props, set designs often offer subtle clues to the characters.

"I'm the lucky guy who gets to read the script and be the alchemist who makes the ideas turn into reality," says John Shaffner. He, with partner Joe Stewart, has won three Emmys for set designs. The pair helped turn James Burrows' vision of six friends' adventures in New York into must-see TV, including designing that cool Monica/Rachel/Chandler apartment and kitchen.

They're not wealthy, these Friends, just kids trying to cope in New York. Shaffner used his own experience for the main apartment's kitchen look.

"I thought about the homemade shelves I made in my New York apartment with lumber I hauled up the stairs from the street. So we made open shelves and added mismatched chairs and mismatched china because they don't have a lot of money," Shaffner says. "And if you'll look by the refrigerator, you can see exposed two-by-fours where the wall was torn out between the kitchen and the dining room. It's a make-do look."

Designing for television isn't all glamour. There are quirky space considerations. The entire kitchen must be fitted onto three walls instead of four, allowing for multiple camera shots. The glass in those pretty cabinet doors is nonexistent - to prevent glare. And hot, bright colors are a no-no, as is white, which produces a glare.

For the kitchen on the Drew Carey Show, Carey showed the set designer snapshots of the kitchen he grew up with. The resulting set is one of the most realistic sets on television - the washer-dryer connections are visible, as is the home's hot water heater.

"We designed that kitchen to look aged down, and the pieces just get more and more worn-out every year," says designer Shaffner. "In the beginning, the cushions on those chairs were new, and now they're all frayed. But it goes with the look of that kitchen, which is a single guy's kitchen."

And sets do evolve.

"When we first did the pilot for Friends, the characters weren't fully evolved. Monica wasn't a neatnik yet, or a crazed chef. But now we've added the professional stove, thinking it would have been one nice thing that Monica would have saved up for."

Now there's an idea Ralph and Alice might have considered.

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