It’s Frasier Week at IndieWire. Grab some tossed salad and scrambled eggs, settle into your coziest easy chair, and join us. We’re listening.
As part of ongoing Frasier Week festivities, we reached out to several acclaimed production designers to break down the iconic Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) apartment. We asked them what made “Frasier” such a great example of sitcom production design, and they dug deep into how the flow, colors, style, and composition all contribute to the comedy and the characters on the show. Great production design often goes unnoticed, especially on shows with a contemporary setting, but sends tons of signals to the viewer about the characters: their taste, their pretensions, their personality.
“Through the right use of lighting (or lack of), the decoration, the age, the cleanliness, a general feeling can be conveyed and then the amount of detail and texture only add to the believability or success of a set,” Shayne Fox, the production designer behind a house with some entirely different vibes on “What We Do In The Shadows, told IndieWire.
Sara K White, the production designer behind “Swarm,” reflected, “I think a lot about how each item would have been brought into the space, working with my set decorator to create intention with every item. Was it found or purchased? Is it a hand-me-down or was it a splurge? A memento from the history of their life? Part of an aspirational future? It’s those considerations that make a space feel authentic, and it’s why (the) ‘Frasier’ design was so effective for me. As stunning as those spaces were, as outside my frame of reference as they could be, they felt like honest representations of the characters.”
And Glenda Rovello, who not only crafted the set for “How I Met Your Father” but also the newest version of “Frasier,” told IndieWire, “For the Frasier Crane character the set should tell us how his tastes have evolved and reflect this moment in his life. He is an educated man who has extensively traveled, very successful — gravitas!”
Here are the characteristics that make Roy Christopher’s “Frasier” apartment as exquisite an example of production design as Frasier Crane’s taste in wine.
A Paragon of Post-Modern Aesthetics
Alec Contestabile, the production designer behind “Physical” and Season 2 of “Hacks,” pointed out that the posh wood paneling and post-modern balance to the room works on the viewer’s brain without us even realizing.
“While the audience’s attention naturally gravitates towards characters, it’s their subconscious perception of the backgrounds that provides us, as designers, with the canvas to paint our narrative. Our job is to design sets that allow the audience to intuitively grasp a character’s identity, their history, and sometimes their future,” Contestabile told IndieWire.
Beyond that, the set was aspirational for viewers, as well. “As a kid in Ohio, I didn’t know production design was a job when I watched ‘Frasier.’ I only knew that I watched every week hoping to see more of the world of the show. The Crane’s living room awed me,” White said. “I was so intrigued by the set’s post-modern design — the arched fireplace wall, the inlaid wood on the doors, the column base interrupted by an open shelving unit — and of course the modern furnishings. Every time Frasier went on an impassioned rant about a Japanese door knocker or boasted about his Wassily chair, I wanted to know more.”
Martin’s Chair Is the Chef’s Kiss
Even though contemporary sets strive not to draw undue attention to themselves, one of the best details about the “Frasier” set is the one that sticks out like a sore thumb. According to Paul Cripps, who knows a thing or two about revealing character emotion through after creating the cheeriest soccer football sets for “Ted Lasso,” the central comedic tension in Frasier is reclining in Martin’s (John Mahoney) chair.
“The chair center stage of the set, along with Eddie the dog, visually tell us that (Frasier) has had to grudgingly accept his father into his new life (but) the acceptance of his father’s things is a token gesture (and) that presence will be a constant reminder of his past to prick his bubble of pretension. This is the heart of the comedy of ‘Frasier’ that, like Basil (John Cleese) in ‘Fawlty Towers,’ Frasier and Niles’ attempts to be the height of sophistication are balanced by the fact that if they were just less pretentious, they would be much more likable and get themselves into less trouble. This whole idea is summed up beautifully in this set in a very simple visual motif,” Cripps told IndieWire.
A Contrast With Niles
Both White and “Wednesday” production designer Mark Scruton called out a wonderful point of comparison to the main spaces on “Frasier.” The show doesn’t visit Niles’ (David Hyde Pierce) apartment as often, but according to White, “The dark paneled walls and moody lighting, the curvaceous furniture and side rooms layered vertically like a cake, I suddenly understood Niles’ life and passions so much more clearly. Both sets were equally telling, but the stories they told were so different.”
Scruton praised Niles’ (and, technically, Maris’s) manse as an example of “Frasier” yes and-ing itself to create the ultimate extension of the show’s production design.
“It’s even more pompous and pretentious than Frasier’s apartment, with stone walls and chandeliers and a faux sense of history. It feels more like a stage set for a Noel Coward comedy or a 1920s murder mystery. There’s multiple entrances and exits and levels, and the writers always used this to great effect, making everything feel very theatrical,” Scruton said.
Production designer Amy Williams, who well knows how to color character with their own taste choices from her work on “WeCrashed,” agreed that the contrast between Frasier and Niles tells us more about the brothers’ relationship than either set would on its own. “Both brothers homes accomplish so much storytelling with so few elements, a testament to the set decorator and designer’s understanding of the characters. You know exactly who these two characters are just by looking at the design, decor, and contents of their respective abodes,” Williams told IndieWire.
It’s All In the Details
Even working with a level of theatricality, every detail builds a realistic picture of Frasier Crane. “The dressing is vital, especially the smaller props. You have one canvas to give your characters history, so everything has to be considered and, in its way, tell the story of the residents, so the viewers understand more about who they are and where they’ve come from,” Scruton said.
Contestabile agreed that “a well-designed TV set not only offers insights into a character’s persona but also serves as a versatile space that will last multiple seasons, providing directors and cinematographers with opportunities to discover new angles for multiple seasons. Every detail, from the color and texture of the walls to the flooring and even the door hinges, is considered. The real magic and fun lies in our ability to convey a wealth of information from the most mundane details and decorations of a set.”
A Place for Everything
Susie Mancini, production designer on “Wilderness,” praised the clarity of the set’s design both for viewers and for the more technical demands of shooting. “In a single frame, you know exactly where you are, or even better, which show you are watching,” Mancini told IndieWire. “For me, a perfect set (if you are not working on a sci-fi or fantasy show) is the set that you don’t see. That just belongs to the story, and the audience is not distracted by it. At the same time, it is unforgettable. It might be just a detail, but it makes the place resonate with the actor and their actions. In all of this wonderful and groovy creative flow, we have to remember that these sets are not for our personal enjoyment but for a movie or show to be shot in, so there are many, sometimes an infinite amount of, details and rules to keep in mind at all times. (We first need to) create something that would make sense in camera and somewhere a crew of 100 people can work with a flow.”
“Sitcom design is often a poor relation of other styles of production design, but it is a specific and difficult art to master and definitely often under-appreciated,” Cripps said. “I would say it’s more akin to stage design, as whilst designing a set to reflect the characters, one must also allow for the myriad blocking and camera movement, sightlines for a studio audience and different story scenarios throughout a potentially long-running show.”
What Great Sitcom Sets Do
“For enduring shows like this one, the set ends up becoming another character, really. Every week the cast can be found living life (the mundane and the exciting andeverything in between) within the confines of the stage created by the show, and essentially, we come to love their space as much as the characters,” Fox said.