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How To Decorate Like Your Favorite TV Character (With The Thriftiness Of A Professional Set Decorator)

Rebecca Linde  |  June 5, 2020

How to have an apartment to rival Mrs. Maisel, or Rachel and Monica — all on a thrifty set decorator’s budget.

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about home decor. Rather than spend money on throw pillows, cute candlesticks or colorful area rugs, I put my discretionary funds toward cable television and streaming services. I love good TV, and while I may not pay a ton of attention to my own apartment’s aesthetic, I have an eagle eye when it comes to the dwellings of the characters I watch.

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As an avid TV watcher, I always find myself trying to determine the affordability of the homes and apartments I see on screen, especially in terms of a given character’s income. Would the marvelous Mrs. Maisel really be able to buy back her old apartment (which cost around $30,000 in 1967, or $213,000 in today’s dollars) with the money she earned as a stand-up comic? Could Carrie Bradshaw even find a New York City apartment that could contain her massive shoe collection, let alone afford one on a freelance writer’s income? 

Don’t get me wrong, I recognize that television is entertainment and characters’ lives are often aspirational. As viewers, we must constantly suspend our disbelief, and I can’t argue with that.

Making The Magic Happen 

In the entertainment industry, those responsible for creating characters’ homes and the places they inhabit are set decorators. A set decorator’s job is to express the lifestyle, taste, and personality of the characters through physical space — essentially, interior decorating for a fictional person. And while television is populated with wealthy characters who live opulently, here’s the thing — set decorators have budgets, too. Budgets they have to adhere to. 

“There are always budget constraints,” says Christina Tonkin Noble, who was responsible for the fashion-forward sets of Sex and the City and Gossip Girl. “We never have enough time or money to do it right, therefore we have to compromise and utilize our resources.” Of course, a set decorator on a well-financed series has a lot to work with, but still, there are limits.

“If you looked at the total budget to produce a show, after salaries and postproduction, licensing, salaries to producers—all that stuff—what I spend is a teeny tiny percentage,” says Peter Gurski, the set decorator for Will & Grace during both its original and revival runs. 

So, how can you transform a studio apartment into a pied-a-terre worthy of the Waldorfs? Noble and Gurski share some of the simple things they do to decorate like their characters would without spending like they do.

Want A Creative/ Fresh/ Expensive Look? Plan Ahead

Both Gurski and Noble keep an eye on current trends to ensure their sets are fresh. “I take inspiration from fashion,” says Noble. “Usually what’s trending on the runway that season will show up in our interior design arena shortly after.” Gurski has a rotating list of interior design websites he frequents, including houzz, 1stdibs, and Architectural Digest

A personal warning: do not browse these sites unless you are prepared to mentally furnish each of the five bedrooms of that fantasy home in your mind. Use these resources to get a sense of what you’re looking for, then seek out less expensive alternatives. “Putting all your options on a board and looking at them together before deciding to buy is very helpful,” says Noble.

Focus on a Specific Space, Element, or Item

Less is always more in a small space, Noble says. She recommends adhering to a three-color palette and mixing in items like mirrors or glass bowls and vases that catch and reflect light. And keep things simple. “Elegance is simplicity,” she says.

For Gurski, it’s all about finding one or two elements to give a space more personality. When Will & Grace returned to television, he wanted to keep the iconic sets from the original run and add some small updates. “I try and find colorful, graphic, or well-shaped items to punch up a set when I’m low on funds.” 

He says it’s often the small, simple things that make the biggest difference. “You can get the pre-stick, removable wallpaper to do one wall. If you punch up an accent wall with some color or some graphic art, it will totally change your point of view.” Removable wallpaper is inexpensive—the price to cover a single wall can be as low as $30, and rarely climbs above $120—and won’t damage walls. “And if you’re in a studio, just redressing your bed,” according to Gurski, can make your space feel fresh and a little more formal. “Just use bigger, oversized pillows instead of regular sofa pillows. Get bolsters or huge euro pillows and create a nesting space on your couch or bed.”

Be on the Lookout for a Bargain

“Like everybody else, I like to shop the discount shops. Home Goods is a total go-to for me. Pier One, CB2, Cost Plus Imports,” says Gurski. Looking for something a little more unique? “Go out and shop at Goodwill, or a secondhand shop, or a vintage shop, and find stuff to pop in that doesn’t cost a lot.”

And perhaps two of the most important tips from both decorators doesn’t cost a thing: simply rearranging your furniture is a great way to change your space, and above all else, keep your space clean. “Clutter makes a space feel confined,” says Noble. “Closed doors and drawers are key to keeping messy items away from view.”

If you’re short on storage, Gurski recommends “curating your clutter” by arranging stacks of books in corners and topping it with a tchotchke. “Lining things up and making things neat is a way to curate it. Hide your crazy crap, but curate the rest.” 

And if there’s nothing else you remember, “Dust!” pleads Gurski. “Always dust and vacuum!” 

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