Small-Screen Style - Design Bureau

Gossip Girl sets ↓

Small-Screen Style

Monday, August 15th, 2011

by Felicia Feaster
illustration by Jesse Hora

As a set decorator for some of television’s hippest shows, Christina Tonkin is the master of subliminal design, turning unwitting viewers into her style disciples. Her sleek, monochromatic set decorations for shows like Sex and the City and Gossip Girl fulfill every fly-over fantasy of the luxurious lairs of Manhattan’s beautiful people.

Tonkin tends to favor a kind of meta-authenticity for her sets, as when she used Mikhail Baryshnikov’s own art collection for his Sex and the City character’s apartment, giving it the proper Euro-sophisticate vibe. “I shop where the characters

would shop,” she says. “Of course, I cheat a bit with regards to the budget.” Tonkin also has a bevy of residential interior design projects in the works, including a 5,000-squarefoot home in East Norwich, Long Island and an East Village garden apartment. “When I decorate sets for TV, I realize no one has to actually live there, however the same design sensibilities apply to both: a blend of sophistication and livability; comfort and beauty combined,” she says. Tonkin’s TV work has been a great advertisement for her real-world services; one Manhattanite contacted her after seeing her work on the living room set for Gossip Girl.

In 2012, Tonkin will open what she’s coined a “hip, urban oasis in paradise”—a retail space in Hawaii selling vintage items, Tonkin’s own creations, and pieces from her favorite NYC artists. As for her own style, Tonkin describes her space as a very “Charlotte York” blend of creams and whites combining affordable and high-end items, like a glossy white console table from Ikea paired with a Todd Hase mirror purchased at the Sex and the City wrap sale. A fashion-forward look that surely both Carrie and Serena would approve of.

Top Five TV Living Rooms

Tonkin picks her faves from over the years


“Looking back at that set, I thought it was so glamorous. Now, not so much—a bit over the top, but oh-so-’80s. Loved how the furniture was broad at the top like the shoulder pads in those suits of Krystle’s.”

The Mary Tyler Moore Show

“There is an episode where Mr. Grant agrees to have Rhoda decorate his apartment. He comes home to a modern white space, complete with shag rug, Saarinen coffee table and arc lamp. It was meant to be funny, but I thought what the set decorator created was fantastic. That was the very first time I said, ‘Wow, I want to do that.’ ”

Angels in America

“The sets were incredibly layered, detailed, and beautiful. My friend and coworker, George DeTitta, won a well-deserved Emmy for best set decoration on this.”

Sex and the City

“Before I was on the team, I was a fan of the show, and then I got to collaborate and create this incredible space for Charlotte’s apartment. I think [it is] one of the most beautiful interiors I have seen on television. We were nominated for a few Emmys, but never won.”

The L Word

“Bette and Tina’s home, season six, complete with Kiki Smith artwork, was a fabulous set.”

Tonkin’s Tips For Making Your Home TV-Cool

1. Blend textures and materials. Too much of one thing is never a good idea. If you find a table that you like with a stone top, balance the table with warm wood chairs and top it with flowers in a metal or ceramic vase. 

2. Place objects on surfaces around the room that catch and reflect light.

3. Do not start collections. And if you do, display them all in one area of the room. Collections spread around a room create chaos for the eyes. Who wants to walk into a room full of porcelain frogs or shot glasses?

4. Frame your art alike. It makes your space (especially a small space) flow and creates continuity.

5. Keep it simple and do things in groups of three: three colors, three objects, three types of material. You will be pleasantly surprised by the result.

6. If you love bright color, use it in objects, lamps, and small accents in the room, and keep it to three colors in each room.

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