Designs Inspired by Movie and TV Sets - and How They Can Go Wrong

By Linda Merrill
Designs Inspired by Movie and TV Sets - and How They Can Go Wrong

Some do's and don'ts when using movie or television decor as inspiration.

Movies and television both play an important role in shaping our cultural landscape. Major brands will pay large sums of money for product placements within a show or film. These indirect advertisements enter our subconscious minds and can stick around, especially when we are inspired by the actors, or characters or the cinematic themes. Additionally, costumes and stage sets are designed to specifically move the story along or to enhance the understanding of a character beyond their words and actions within the storyline.

It comes as no surprise then that movie and television sets have long inspired design trends among viewers. In most cases, these are aspirational trends – most of us won't be living at Tara or the mid-century modern cliff house in North by Northwest – but we can certainly take inspiration from these settings. And many people do.

Designs Inspired by Movie and TV Sets - Something's Gotta Give Living Room
Photo: Architectural Digest

Based on my own deep but completely non-scientific anecdotal research, I'd have to say that the stage set of the 2002 Diane Keaton/Jack Nicholson movie Something's Gotta Give is the big winner by far when it comes to influential movie set décor of the last decade and likely of many a decade prior. Architectural Digest has a slideshow of some of the better still images here. Currently there are well over 250 pins on Pinterest tagged with the movie or director's name and over 700,000 items come up on a Google search for Something's Gotta Give movie. Nearly every design blog has made mention of the movie at least once, including my own which turned into an interview in the Washington Post in 2007 about the popularity of the kitchen design alone.

To this day, I receive several daily hits on my blog from people looking for information on every last detail from the paint color on the walls (a movie paint color that is not available commercially) to the fabric on dining room chairs (Lee Jofa's Bordeaux Toile) to the glassware (Simon Pearce) to the candlesticks (unknown) and everything in between. The sets were beautiful and classic in a comfy Hamptons moneyed manner and you can't go wrong with taking inspiration from set decorator Beth Rubino's work.

Designs Inspired by Movie and TV Sets - Something's Gotta Give Kitchen
Photo: Modern Country Style

Except that in my experience, many people aren't satisfied with taking inspiration from a set or doing their own homes "in the manner of..." as a designer might do with a design icon’s work, they want the exact items. Unfortunately for the average budget, much of what was used in the movie is high-end, trade-only merchandise. I've given out the fabric price, at a significant reduction off of the SRP, a hundred times and only made one sale. I've received phone calls from people looking for the exact flooring and wall paints (and I had nothing to do with the movie!). When explained that the floors were concrete, painted to look like wood, and the wall paints don't resemble the actual final color on film, there is dissatisfaction, annoyance and outright skepticism, as if I'm holding back information.

If there is a downside to wanting to "copy" a movie set, it's the desire to do an exact copy or not do it at all.  As we know, every house is different as is every geographic location. The perfect butter cream paint will look one way in the mountains with a northern light and like something else entirely by the ocean with a southern light. I think if a client pointed to that or any movie or television set and asked for a copy, I'd be spending a lot of time explaining this. On the other hand, if a client is open to an interpretation then they will be ultimately happier with the outcome that truly fits their own house and needs.

More recently, the critically acclaimed series Mad Men has been a big hit with the design and fashion conscious set. In fact, mid-century furnishings had already been gaining popularity among the young and hip who shop second hand stores for great buys on stylish pieces.  Since so much of mid-century furniture was mass produced for the middle-classes, there is a lot of it still around and unless it's a truly original first run piece, it can be very well priced. Mad Men came long at a time when we were looking back with nostalgia at a period of time that seemed sophisticated yet uncomplicated. Of course, the storyline blows that concept out of the water...But it doesn't mean we can't capture the essence with a smart cocktail placed on a stylishly low cocktail table. Again, one doesn’t want to slavishly re-create the look and end up with a dated looking museum, but we can certainly take inspiration.

Here are some do's and don'ts when using a movie or television set as inspiration:

  1. DO: Figure out what you truly like about the space and come up with a handful words to describe it.

  2. DO: Evaluate the space to determine its overall decorative scheme. For instance, with Something's Gotta Give we have dark floors, pale walls, blue/white/cream fabrics, white millwork and cabinetry and dark stained furnishings.  There's a lot of contrast within a fairly neutral palette.

  3. DO: If it's within your budget to purchase available products used on a set, or to buy them at a movie auction, it's okay. A little touch of a favorite space is fun.

  4. DON'T: Feel things need to be all or nothing. There are many moderately priced fabrics available that will be similar to the Lee Jofa item that won’t break the bank. Keep an open mind.

  5. DON'T: Ask a designer to do an outright copy of another space. It's infringement on the intellectual property of the original designer and undercuts the creativity of your designer.

Linda Merrill is a residential interior decorator based in Massachusetts. Linda's design style can be described as "comfortable luxury" and she believes in working closely with clients throughout the entire design process. Her clients are mainly located between metro-Boston and Cape Cod and the Islands. Linda writes a nationally regarded design blog called ::Surroundings:: and is the host of the design podcast series The Skirted Roundtable.