If you've already watched the big event, which just made its debut on HBO Max, you may have noticed that the set seems to have been restored almost perfectly. It looks frozen in time, like it's just been sitting there waiting for the cast to return since the 2004 finale. That is, of course, far from the truth. Production designer John Shaffner, who designed the set with his life and work partner Joe Stewart all the way back in 1994, worked tirelessly to track down every piece of the set that could be found, a full 17 years after it had all been taken apart. And Ben Winston, who executive produced the special, wanted every single piece.
"When Ben called, it was like, 'You want what?'" Shaffner recalls to E! News. "This was a long time ago, and at that point, there was really very little indication of what had been saved and what hadn't been saved."
Luckily, a lot had been saved, whether in archives, in Shaffner's own home, or in the literal Friends museum on the Warner Bros. Studio lot. And while you might think that the museum part would actually make things easier, it most certainly did not.
Unfortunately, while fans can go and enjoy and take photos in the restored Central Perk set, the way the museum was originally set up meant that it was almost impossible to take it apart and easily set it back up on the soundstage.
"There was great discussion about how we would move the museum set over to the main stage, and I went and examined it and realized it was simply not truly feasible, because so many alterations had been done to make it fit into that space," Shaffner explains. "So we built a new set."
The coffee shop and the street outside of it are the only sets that had to be completely rebuilt for the special, and the street might not even be totally correct because it was never well documented and required a lot of research to figure out how it was put together.
While the sets for both the girls' and boys' apartments were mostly intact, the set dressings—the art, the cookie jar on top of the fridge, the blankets and pillows, etc.—were another matter. Most of Monica's (Courteney Cox) decor was easy to find, but Joey's (Matt LeBlanc) apartment did not fare as well and many things had to be created from scratch.
They also had to reprint Monica's carpet pattern on a piece of plain carpet, and track down a scrap of the linoleum used for the parquet floors to scan and reprint onto stock linoleum.
"They did a tremendous job replicating things," Shaffner says of his team. "Boy, you sure couldn't have done that 27 years ago."
Winston wanted everything to be as exact as possible, and if they couldn't make it exact, then it had to be close. Or, covered with flowers.
"If it was simply not going to happen, it would be better to not happen than to have something that was obviously wrong," Shaffner says. "But I think we made up for it. [Art director Greg Grande] arranged for lots of flower arrangements in the apartment, so there's lots of flowers. It's like, who died?"
It all came together in the end, and then tragedy struck.
"We managed to pull it off, and the biggest disappointment was on March 13, a year ago, it was all sitting on A-frames outside near the stage, ready to be rolled in that weekend, Shaffner remembers. "And that's when they pulled the plug."
The set was almost completely ready to go, after several months of hard work, when the decision was made to delay the special due to the pandemic. When the special was finally ready to go into production a full year later, some changes had to be made.
In order to have a sizable audience for the interview portion of the special, they had to move that segment outside, due to California's rules about indoor gatherings at the time. That meant not only would everyone be very cold, but they also couldn't have regular bleachers in order to keep separate parties a safe distance away from each other, and they feared that any regular audience seating would look strange with only a fraction of the seats filled.
Shaffner came up with the idea to make the seating like a giant set of stairs, and then cover it with pillows, fabric and lamps to give it the same vibe as Central Perk. The original plan was to match the couch with an orange carpet, but then David Schwimmer heard about the orange carpet and thought it was "a terrible idea."
"I said, 'Well, I wish you wouldn't have asked him,'" Shaffner remembers. It was then Schwimmer's idea to go with maroon, and if you didn't even notice the color of the audience seating—which is a good thing—the credit goes to Ross himself.
Shaffner didn't get to watch the cast explore the set for the first time, but he got the chance to talk to them afterwards.
"Their eyes were all big," he says. "They were like, 'We can't believe this could happen! How did you do this?' They were so taken aback. They were so startled."
Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston, in particular, were in awe.
"Jennifer was so sweet, as she always is, and was just so, 'Oh my god, 27 years have disappeared,'" he says. "Schwimmer was like, 'I don't believe it. I don't know how you did this.'"
Shaffner just credited the fact that he's had a lot of practice, and a lot of direction from Winston.
"As much as some of us thought, 'Really, do you really need all this?,' he said he really felt that emotionally, for the cast to reenter those spaces would trigger an emotional response," Shaffner explains. "And take them out of all the years that have come in between, and bring them back. And so it worked very well."
Beyond being a big job for him to do, the reunion allowed Shaffner to take a trip back through his own career. He's now known for his sitcom sets and is also responsible for The Big Bang Theory, but Friends was the first sitcom he worked on at the age of 42. It started him on a whole new career after years of designing talk and reality show sets, but Friends is extra special. He and Stewart even based the apartments off of the New York home they had lived in together. The hallway is a replica of their own apartment hallway.
Around 15 to 20 members of the original crew returned to work on the special, and Shaffner says it was an emotional reunion for them, too.
"I mean, how many times in your life did you move out of your folks' home, they sold the house and everybody moved away, and then you had to recreate exactly how it was 17 years later?" he says. "And then you can go home and see it all still there, just the way you left it."
Shaffner is now retired from sitcoms, and has a long and fruitful second career to look back on, that started and ended with the same show.
"I did 156 pilots, and out of what I've done, 60 of them went to series. That's 2996 episodes—I actually had to hire someone to figure that out for me," he says with a laugh. "But bookending it with Friends was a special treat, from whoever passes out treats."
Scroll down to go back in time with Shaffner and see where the original inspiration for the Friends set came from.
The Friends reunion is now streaming on HBO Max.