Squid game staircase
A number of stunning sets have graced TV over the past decades - delve into different interior styles with us as we pick our favourites. Image Credit: Netflix

Curling up on our beloved couches with a snack after a long day, and immersing oneself in a good TV show offers an indescribable comfort… and over time, the show becomes a safe space, especially when there are 10-season juggernauts like 'Friends' that you can burrow into whenever you need some cheering up.

A side effect, of course, is also endless inspiration for interior décor. At this point, fans know every nook and cranny of the classic 'Friends' New York City apartments, having sat there endless times watching Joey and Chandler binge-watch TV, Monica serve Thanksgiving dinner year after year, and the girls have their heart-to-heart talks on the couch – to gravely walking down Downton Abbey’s Victorian corridors. K-dramas that are ever-increasingly popular on Netflix also typically depict the chic and cavernous lofts of rich chaebol (business conglomerate) heirs and the often cute bedrooms of female leads.

Here we go through our top five picks for our favourite TV interior sets from TV shows, discussing each style era, and our favourite statement pieces:

1. Friends – Monica’s Apartment

Style: Shabby Chic

Friends TV show house living room
Monica's apartment is a shabby chic and bohemian wonder of dark wood and bold colours on the edges balanced by soft, textured neutrals in the middle. Image Credit: IMDb

We’re back here. The iconic lavender purple walls with wainscoting, blue kitchen set against bare brown bricks, neutral mismatched sofas, French-style posters and distressed furniture is a defining moment of shabby chic. Despite New Yorkers in unanimous agreement that Monica’s spacious apartment was not realistically affordable for the young duo, the furniture was put together to display the best of thrift and flea-market finds, according to Greg Grande, the set designer.

The bold coloured walls and dark wood floors are offset by the neutral sofas, light wooden coffee table but supported by the orange dhurrie pouf (the blob by the table) that unites for a satisfying colour palette. The yellow frame around the peephole? It was originally a picture frame with broken glass – the creators removed the interior to set it in its iconic place for a pop of bold colour. Shabby chic inspirations include patterned throws on the sofas, a vintage refrigerator, distressed end tables not only in the living room but also both bedrooms and rustic headboards. The subtle floral patterns on the sofa, rustic wooden floors and panelling on the balcony all combine for a fine balance of bold colours and dark wood on the edges, balanced by neutrals, patterns and soft textures in the middle.

Some other iconic pieces are the French-style Jouets posters above the TV, the traditional neutral Iranian rug and of course, the 80s style plush orange mohair couch in Central Perk that is the main character of the series, really.

2. Mad Men office – Don Draper’s office

Style: Mid-Century Modern

Mad Men TV show - Don draper office
Mid-century modern style furniture shines through spectacularly in this show about New York's ad business in the 1960s. Image Credit: IMDb

This award-winning set design is the on-screen gold standard for mid-century modern furniture – or furniture deemed modern in the 1950s, known for sleek geometric patterns, more usage of steel, glass and plastic, neat, balanced proportions and often earthy hues. An emphasis on functionality, simplicity and elegance.

As an advertising genius at Sterling Cooper in the 1960s, Don Draper’s office features warm wood tones on the wall, cart and arc lamp over the dark grey floors, framed against steel and glass backdrop of the classic urban New York skyline. His desk is a sleek 7-foot dark wood piece, next to a vintage typewriter, globe and IBM, Hamilton framed ads on the walls. The orange accent chairs have steel tapered legs, much like most other sofas and desks in the series – another characteristic of mid-century modern.

The rest of his office? Think more steel, glass and geometric shapes with staunch pops of earthy, primary colours. His swanky seating area includes streamlined tufted sofas in primary colours overhung by an abstract artwork.

Senior partner Roger Sterling’s office, meanwhile is a study in abstract monochrome – tensely contrasting black and white, with a dizzying op art. The statement furniture pieces? The corona chair (the name is somewhat unfortunate) by Paul Volther, contemporary steel arc lamp, the Saarinen, Eames office chairs (classic for Mid-century modern), globular metal accessory on the table and concentric ovals of the black desk mat over the shining white desk.

3. Hometown Cha Cha Cha – Chief Hong’s bachelor pad

Style: Rustic and Zen

Hometown Cha Cha Cha house
Wooden beams, a gallery wall and soft warm lights lends a cozy warmth to this rustic delight. Image Credit: IMDb

If you want to see the stereotype of a messy bachelor pad overturned with a vengeance, this is the house to watch. A recent K-drama beloved in the UAE, Hometown Cha Cha Cha features a home fitting of the mysterious, charming and jack-of-all-trades Chief Hong. Who said atypical part-timing male leads can’t decorate?

Picture a dream and delight in rustic wood fittings – with a mahogany floor, dark wood panelling running along the walls and ceiling as girders, myriad minimalist wooden furniture, not to mention actual tree trunks, all lit by warm diffused lights from rattan lamps and natural sunlight let in from windows. The structure is so organic that the wooden panel naturally extends into an uneven floating shelf, held together in the middle by the trunk of a small tree, separating the workspace and seating area from the kitchen. The colour palette is overly warm, biophilic – like being housed in a mahogany tree house or a giant amber hug, if you will.

hometown cha cha cha house 2
The neutral sofa offsets the dark wooden furniture. Image Credit: IMDb

How does it work without being suffocating? The girders are separated throughout by white walls– and the cream carpet, neutral curtains and neutral grey platform sofa offers relief. But what makes it so distinctive is the unmistakeably personal touches and handmade items that characterise the sunny wooden cabin-like house – whether it’s soap, wooden carvings, twine-strung jars, vintage vinyls, books or the uneven shelving. Chief Hong’s workspace features a low light worktable for his endless DIY over a neutral carpet, a sparse desk with yet another branch coming out of it, framed by a dreamy, black arced lamp and dense muntin on the windows. His photographs line the walls with tasteful disarray over an open wooden credenza featuring an extensive camera collection.

We get it - the man is a Nature-loving intellectual, can make practically anything and dabbles in the arts with expertise. Not complaining.

4. Squid game – The ‘relativity’ staircase

Style: Minimalist, absurdist, brutalist

Squid Game staircase
A brutalist set design that reminds one of the 'Relativity' lithographic by M C Escher. There's actually a real one by architect Ricardo Bofill built in 1973! Image Credit: Netflix

Not one to try and replicate at home, trust us, but the hyper-violent survival game show that was nothing about squids and all about the horrors of capitalistic inequality, has been widely acclaimed for its stunning set design. Adult violence, but childlike, absurdist settings that unnerve. We’d like to zoom in, in particular on one defining set – the staircase maze.

This disorienting, stark and colourful set was inspired by Dutch graphic artist Mauritz Cornelis Escher’s lithographic ‘Relativity’, which shows featureless characters on winding staircases that extend from the walls, ceiling and floor. The catch? There are actually three centres of gravity and this contributes to a rather confusing effect – it is an optical illusion. In the TV show, pastel shades of pink, green and blue twirl in hypnotising but austere lines of concrete – and as viewers, it feels like a rather chilling parody, especially when spattered with blood and really makes your skin crawl.

The style might seem like a headache inducing trio of ‘ists’, but here’s why it holds. According to parkwestgallery.com, Absurdist art shows an inverted side of reality that contrasts things that shouldn’t exist together in a realistic style, and as per Masterclass, includes notes of satire, dark humour, nihilism, and the surreal. Michael Cheval, Absurdist painter, said in an interview with Park West Gallery, “It implies everything that outlying of common rules or boundaries.” This is true for the whole premise and set of Squid Game.

Moving past the sleek minimal lines, nothing makes sense in this design – the staircases don’t go in any specific direction, there is a house carved into a wall at the bottom, one staircase goes through a pink circle, and bright blue window frames dominate for no reason. It is labyrinthine and the players seem almost mass-produced objects on conveyor belts. The geometric severity is also reminiscent of brutalistic design.

There, now we’ve labelled it!

What you might be surprised to know is that a similar staircase actually exists in real life, and has since 1973, in the Spanish coastal town of Calpe off the Mediterranean sea. Titled ‘La Muralla Roja’ or ‘The Red Wall’, it is part of a building complex by Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill, where you can actually live.

5. Downtown Abbey – Highclere castle

Style: Victorian, traditional

Dowton Abbey TV show
This show is a traditional treat for the eyes, with a variety of plush, ornamental Victorian looks. Image Credit: IMDb

Of course, we had to include this classic period drama in our list. This six-season show that centres on the opulent Grantham family through World War 1, the roaring 20s and beyond is a charming vista in ornate Victorian furniture. Watch out for rich coffered ceilings, an abundance of Iranian rugs, gilded frames on classic oil paintings, linenfold panelling, damasks and tassels galore. There’s really not a plain space in sight.

The library’s plush warm red look is achieved by the built-in bookcases lining all the walls, thick wooden pillars and a wooden coffered ceiling that looks down on a velvet red sofas,(a classic knole sofa included) and the antique geometric carpet. The carved mahogany mantelpiece, intricate detailing on the walls, wall sconces, and the Carlton House desk, that had belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte are some other notable items in the large room.

Did you know that silk and even leather were used as wallpaper back then? The drawing room, scene of extensive plotting in the show, showcases a stunning pastel green silk damask (that was actually gifted to Almina, the wife of the 6th Earl of Carnavon, who owns Highclere castle in real life), while the Great Hall has Spanish gold-embossed leather on the walls. Our favourite is the rather jewel-like drawing room: with the pastel green walls complemented by gold tasselled curtains of the same shade, gold crown moulding and an ornate gold and white patterning on the ceilings punctuated by the statement chandelier in the middle. Fine china is put on display over intricate consoles, and a soft pastel pink damask sofas circle the marble fireplace next to gold leaved wainscoting – a picture in plush, delicate sophistication.

The dining room beautifully showcases gallery walls, another classic characteristic of Victorian era interiors. The statement piece is the Van Dyck painting with an equestrian portrait of King Charles I looking down on the room. Ormolu, a gilding technique that uses gold mercury amalgam also features on consoles and candelabras around the castle.

Note: This article was published in August 2022