On the 22nd of September 1994, Friends made its debut. It ran for ten years, and, in that time, it became the defining sitcom of its era – spawning catchphrases, hairstyles and a whole culture of coffeehouse hangouts. Arguably, it was the last great megahit of network television, and it changed how a whole generation of young people saw the world. Its depiction of six friends balancing life, love, career and friendship in Manhattan created a framework for a certain kind of aspirational twenty-something lifestyle – and the show influenced the expectations and ambitions of a generation.
A large part of this can be credited to the work done by the show's production designers and set decorators. Through their work, they created iconic spaces that became the quintessential ideal of what life in your twenties could be. The show's characters became totems for a generation of viewers – symbols for a certain type of social and material success. How they chose to decorate their surroundings provided viewers with a blueprint on how they, themselves, could manifest this type of successful lifestyle.
Surprisingly, the spaces that these characters inhabit are decorated predominantly with illustrated posters. These illustrations may reveal something about each character, but they also lend themselves to a broader reading that speaks to the culture of the time. The illustrated posters that appear in Friends span a fascinating period of history. Not only do they provide us with a diverse variety of illustrated work to examine, but they also offer us an overview of the history of the poster.
To understand why illustrated posters are so ubiquitous throughout the show, we must keep in mind the fact that Friends was created in the 1990s. It was a decade where style was being defined by casual chic; gone was the heavy emphasis of 1980s expense (something that the show openly lampooned). Instead, style could be defined by a sense of eclecticism. Anyone with the right eye could be stylish in the '90s; they just needed to be willing to spend their time searching out that perfect item. From mismatched dining chairs to tasteful vintage posters, this chic-style interior was sold as something that could easily be obtained if you were willing to simply spend enough time at your local thrift stores, flea markets and swap meet.
This casual and eclectic approach to style is epitomised perfectly in the apartment of Monica and Rachel. Here, the walls are adorned with vintage posters for sewing machines, toy shops and old stage shows. It's homely and unshowy; a space where art isn't spelt with a capital A. Their vintage posters aim to be stylish yet unpretentious. This is art simply as décor. While the illustrated poster may have initially existed as a means to sell products and entertainment, it didn't take long for it to develop into a popular art form all of its own. For this reason, it is quite interesting that the most prominent poster in the apartment (if not the show) is by French poster artist Jules Chéret (1836–1932).
Known to many as the “father of the modern poster” – Chéret started as a traditional artist, but he transitioned into producing advertisements in the 1870s. His work helped to move art out of the gallery and into the streets. One of the main factors behind his success was his pioneering efforts in a type of printing known as colour lithography. Chéret developed a three-colour process that effectively invented the lithographic poster and enabled a host of great artists to bring colour into their work.
Along with other talented artists (including Theophile Steinlen, Alphonse Mucha and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec), he created a poster craze that shook the streets of Paris. People were tearing these posters off walls and kiosks and bringing them into their homes. Many people amassed large collections, and some even started to create private trading circles where they could swap their posters in secret. The poster craze of the 1870s was so popular that, by as early as 1872, the art critic John Ruskin was already declaring that “Giotto's time had passed”. He wrote: “the fresco bill-sticker is likely to become the principal Fine Art of Modern Europe”. A golden age of posters had dawned, and the age of modern advertising had arrived.
The Chéret poster that we see in Friends is an example of one such modern advertisement. It is promoting toys at a department store near Paris' Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Why this image – an image for toys – that they have chosen to hang so prominently in the show? Perhaps it is to suggest a sense of homeliness – the apartment as a surrogate family home? Maybe its message is more knowing – a playful dig at the show's infantilized twenty-somethings? Personally, I believe that the poster's message probably carries little significance. Instead, it can simply be read as a shorthand for Parisian style and sophistication. Chéret's work captured the vibrant spirit of the Belle Époque, and its appearance in the show attempts to appropriate some of that vitality. This was America in 1994, a time when the country at large was prospering. It is not too difficult to draw a parallel between the optimism, peace and economic prosperity of the Belle Époque with the early days of the Clinton years. This poster is saying: “We are très chic... We have joie de vivre!”
Chéret's poster is not the only work from the Belle Époque that hangs in the apartment. Another can be found on the wall next to the front door and features a portrait of Maïna La Voyante (or Maïna the Clairvoyant). Produced by French illustrator Louis Galice (1864–1935), it features Maïna – one of a number of popular astrologists that enlivened the streets of Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The emerging middle-classes of the Belle Époque had a fascination for tarot readings and fairground psychics. The thrill of discovering what one's future might hold became an enjoyable leisure activity for many, with seers and fortune-tellers providing an opportunity for customers to gain an insight into their own lives and develop a better understanding of themselves and their future. With middle-class life providing more opportunities, it also brought more uncertainties. Some turned to things like astrology as a way to navigate the complexities of the era. Later generations might have found similar solace through the plot lines of popular sitcoms. Things like fortune-tellers, circuses and carnivals were the popular entertainment of the day. They were the popcorn movies and mainstream sitcoms of their time. This embracement of antiquated popular arts is something that we see throughout the posters in the show time and time again.
Moving from the apartment's living room to Monica's bedroom we see the trend for French posters continue. This time, it is the work of René Vincent with a 1920s Art Deco poster advertising Ramos Pinto Port. The Golden Age that was the Belle Époque may have ended with the outbreak of the First World War, but the popularity of French style continued through the emergence of Art Deco. Again, we can read the appearance of this poster as an attempt at a type of French sophistication. These images act as a means to move away from the absurd excess and aspirational decadence that America had seen in many parts of its previous decade.
To understand this better, we really should attempt to ask ourselves why French culture became a sort-of accepted benchmark for all things stylish and sophisticated during the twentieth century. Obviously, the reasons for this are many-fold, yet one could argue that it stems from the country's ability to stand in direct opposition to the hegemonic culture we see in America. The American writer and academic Richard Kuisel argues that it was France's relationship with America that helped the country to configure such a strong national identity during the last century. “To be French was not to be American,” he writes. “Americans were conformists, materialists, racists, violent, and vulgar. The French were individualists, idealists, tolerant, and civilized. Americans adored wealth; the French worshipped la douceur de vivre”.
Whether or not any of these statements are true is barely the point. French identity is so fundamentally intertwined with these values that they have successfully built their identity around them. This notion of cultural sophistication can only truly exist in a world where there are cultures that are deemed unsophisticated. Throughout the twentieth century, it was American culture that was broadly caricatured as being somehow lesser. If France was highbrow and sophisticated, then America was lowbrow and kitsch.
Here, the use of French identity is appropriated to inform us about the types of characters we see in the show. Monica and Rachel are to be seen as stylish and worldly. Their walls are decorated with images from another country, another culture, and from another time. We are to buy into an understanding of this so-called French sophistication. We are to romanticise a bygone era.
Across the corridor, the posters in Chandler and Joey's apartment tend to contrast with these specific themes of sophistication and romance. Monica and Rachel's male counterparts are, perhaps, meant to be seen as less sophisticated and less chic – yet their selection of vintage posters continues to intrigue and, at times, even impress. While the homeliness and romance of Monica and Rachel's apartment may be gone, we still are presented with a bold collection of illustrated works…
Perhaps the most striking poster in this apartment is for Les Mystères de New York. Again, we have another French poster (quelle surprise), yet its subject is a little more Transatlantic. It is advertising both a film and a newspaper. Les Mystères de New York was a series that was first released in France in 1915. It was a re-edited version of three chapters from an American serial called The Exploits of Elaine (1914). Written by French writer Pierre Decourcelle, the series screened weekly in theatres between December 1915 and May 1916. At the same time, Decourcelle's version of the story was being published in the daily French newspaper, Le Matin. This work stands as an early example of a cross-promotional campaign.
As posters go, it remains particularly eye-catching. Its gun aims directly at the viewer – acting like a warped version of James Montgomery Flagg's iconic propaganda work I Want YOU (1917). Like all posters, it is designed to grab your attention. Its function as a tool to inform is only secondary. It reaches out and is visually aggressive. The American essayist Susan Sontag also defined posters by these qualities in an essay that compared the poster to the public notice. “The poster aims to seduce, to exhort, to sell, to educate, to convince, to appeal,” she wrote. “Posters are aggressive because they appear in the context of other posters.”
Sontag wrote this essay in 1970. It was at a time when America was experiencing a new wave of poster mania. Described by some as the “second golden age”, this renewed popularity saw the poster continue as a tool for advertising – but it also brought about a pronounced resurgence in the poster as something to be used for decoration and self-expression. For critics like Sontag, there was something absurdly perverse about this. Posters were fundamentally a product of capitalism; they were a tool specifically designed to sell us things. The fact that these pictures themselves had become desirable commodities was almost farcical. This resurgence in popularity came at a time when nearly any two-dimensional artwork could be reproduced. Why would we choose to allow such an overtly commercial artform into our homes when we had access to countless other possible images? Why would we be so actively willing to allow the imagery of the public space to invade our private spaces?
One possible reason for this lies in the visual language of these images. As Sontag noted, a poster aims “to seduce, to exhort, to sell, to educate, to convince, to appeal”. The popularity of the poster-as-décor exists because it speaks in a way that differs from that of traditional art. We allow these commercial images into our private spaces because they offer us something that can't be found within other art forms.
We have already noted how posters can have the ability to romanticise a bygone era. Alternatively, we could describe this as the commodification of nostalgia. As the world faces a period of accelerating change, many have felt a wistful longing for a connection to the past (this very essay being a case in point). When this is combined with fast capitalism, we see nostalgia become commercialised. From re-issued albums to remakes and reboots, nostalgia has become a powerful tool for profit. Vintage posters can offer us a sense of nostalgia that we then use as lifestyle décor. In a period of frantic change, our homes can become static reminders of a period of time that we miss — or, at least, an abstracted and commodified version of that time.
In Friends, perhaps the most overt example of this is seen with the Guinness advert that appears in Chandler and Joey's apartment. The appearance of this poster feels somewhat like an anomaly – it is the only illustrated work in the show that features English text. The illustration is the work of illustrator John Gilroy (1898–1985), who began producing work for Guinness in 1928 through the advertising agency S. H. Benson. Gilroy's work was so popular that it continued until the 1960s when – eventually – the brewery moved away from their fun and playful campaigns and transitioned towards something slightly more mature and serious. Despite this, the Gilroy campaigns remain popular to this day, and Guinness continue to profit from them – selling merchandise, vintage posters and even a range of collectable cans. The popularity of such work is a testament to the profitability that can be found when commercialism is re-packaged as nostalgia.
Capitalism has become so effective and efficient at this process that it often ends up manifesting in strange and unorthodox ways. Take, for example, the poster of the boxing kangaroo that we see in the apartment. This is one of at least four Soviet posters that appear in the show.
Much like the inclusion of the poster for Maïna La Voyante (1910) in Monica and Rachel's apartment, this boxing poster features a forgotten star from a bygone era of popular entertainment. In this case, its origins lie with the circus. The text at the bottom reads "Vladimir Durov Junior" and the logo above the kangaroo's shoulder is that of GOMET – the State Department created, specifically, for the regulation of musicals, theatre and circuses. The Durovs were a hugely important family of circus performers who were responsible for bringing renown and prestige to the Russian circus. Still in existence today, this particular poster is advertising a boxing match between the animal trainer Vladimir Durov Jr. and a kangaroo.
During the era of Stalin, arts and entertainment were regulated heavily by the Ministry of Enlightenment, and the inclusion of the GOMET stamp indicates that this was state-sanctioned entertainment. In the world of capitalism, everything – including communism – can be transformed into a commodity.
We see a variation of this again in Joey's bedroom. This time, it is a poster produced by the Puerto Rican Division of Community Education (DIVEDCO). Established in 1949, this program was modelled after the New Deal-era agencies that were established in the US during the Roosevelt era. Running until 1989, DIVEDCO aimed to raise awareness of social and cultural issues in Puerto Rico. The program provided work opportunities for graphic artists throughout the island, including the much-celebrated Puerto Rican artist Eduardo Vera Cortés (1926–2006).
Cortez did not like to sell his work, and yet, here it appears simply as a set-dressing on a TV sitcom. Produced in 1965, the poster promotes the 1959 documentary Hurricane. Based on the book Que sabemos del huracan? ("What Do We Know About the Hurricane?"), the documentary was also a DIVEDCO project designed to educate the public about the effects, dangers and preventive measures that could be taken during a hurricane.
Asking why, or even how, such a poster appears in a mainstream US sitcom goes to demonstrate the ability that capitalism has for transforming everything into a commodity.
In Ross' apartment, we encounter more Soviet posters. The first is a work by two relatively unknown artists by the names of A. Lebedinsky and S. Shukhman. This poster shows a portrait of a young man who seems to be studying engineering, and the text below the image reads: "To build you need to know, to know you have to learn". Produced in 1958, it would have been used at a time between the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite (1957) and the State's first manned orbital flight (1961).
The history of the poster in the Soviet Union is often told as the history of propaganda, with the poster acting as a tool for the Bolshevik government to control its citizens. While some argue that these posters were designed to brainwash citizens, the historian Peter Kenez argues that the Bolsheviks were not interested in the techniques of mass persuasion, "they thought of propaganda as part of education". No matter what the intended purpose of these works was, it is clear that the state produced an incredible array of posters throughout the twentieth century. These ranged from highly symbolic avant-garde works to powerful social realism. While the West was producing posters that would shape the desires of the proletariat, the Soviet Union were creating posters that could shape their ideologies.
Why does this poster appear in Ross' apartment? His character is frequently shown as being smart and intelligent, and so the subject matter reflects this personality. Yet Ross is nearly always the butt of the joke. He might be thought of professionally as someone who is clever and respected, but, in reality, he is clumsy and awkward. When the show first began airing in the 1990s, the Soviet Union had ended, and Russian–US relations were generally warm. It seemed, at the time at least, that Russia was on a convergence course – rather than a collision course – with the US. Perhaps it is too much of a stretch to say that the inclusion of this poster – and others – acts as a way to undermine the legacy of Soviet propaganda following the end of the Cold War – but we can clearly say that capitalism had won over communism. By the end of the 1990s, the Soviet legacy was reduced to being a mere set dressing on an American sitcom, and even their former leader could be seen selling Pizza Hut when the show broke for commercial.
A third Soviet poster appears by Ross' door, and this time it is for a Saint Petersburg Comedy Theatre production by Nikolay Akimov of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's surrealist play The Physicists. Illustrated by Igor Alexandrovich Ivanov, its imagery could be interpreted as reflecting the role of the set-decorator; a large anonymous hand is shown picking and choosing what appears on the set. Is this a knowing inclusion or simply a coincidence? Is it Jungian synchronicity – or – is there an intention in why it was included? Much like the abundance of French posters, the sheer variety of Soviet art in the show suggests that there may be some broader reason for these posters.
Finally, the most modern illustrated work to appear in Friends is a series of posters designed for the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games. The inclusion of this set of posters is yet again another curious inclusion from a US sitcom. In 1980, the US was protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by boycotting the Games. Their boycott led to a total of 65 nations refusing to participate.
Somewhat ironically, a large part of the promotion for the Games centred on the Soviet Union welcoming different nations to the city of Moscow. Artists Mikhail Avvakumov and Olga Volkova produced You Are Welcome! posters that featured imagery of (predominately red) flowers and the You Are Welcome! slogan is written in a variety of different languages.
Should we choose to read this as the US finally moving on from the era of the Cold War? Can these posters be seen as America working to enhance Russian–US relations? Or, did the set-decorators and production designers simply just find a nice picture of some flowers and thought it would look good in Monica's room?
In my opinion, the illustrated posters in Friends were not chosen to provide us with any great insight into the broader world or the history of the poster. I believe that their selection is merely random and that any meaning that can be extracted from them speaks more to the power of the poster than the intentions of the show.
The history of the graphic arts is inescapably the history of the broader world. The poster is both form and content. While they may have become the go-to interior art for a generation of aspirational twenty-somethings, their adoption as lifestyle–décor has not completely eroded them of their original purpose. The poster still remains an adaptable and malleable art form. It can subvert, educate and inform. It can be used to shape both desires and ideologies. The poster is a tool for protest, self-expression, and profit. Twenty-five years ago, the illustrated poster was a commodity that could represent a particular type of social and material success. One wonders what, if anything, it might represent in twenty-five years from now…
This was a bonus essay from Illustration Chronicles – a website that explores the history of illustration through the images, illustrators and events of the past 175 years. Other essays on the site that you might enjoy include:
A Hedonistic Pilgrimage to the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec
An essay that looks at the important influence of Toulouse-Lautrec on the history of the poster
“I Want YOU!” – The Story of James Montgomery Flagg's Iconic Poster
An essay that explores James Montgomery Flagg's hugely influential World War I recruitment poster.
Music and Illustration
An essay that explores the relationship between music and images throughout history