While Sally Rooney bestselling books might be beloved by readers for their vibrantly shaded characters, their physical environs play a crucial supporting role. The new Hulu adaptation of Rooney’s debut novel Conversations With Friends—which tells the tale of Frances (played by Alison Oliver), a college student who engages in an illicit affair with the married actor Nick (played by Joe Alwyn)—brings the novel’s ménage à quatre to life with settings that provide the ideal counterpart for the series’ wealth of personal drama.
Much of the action in the 12-episode series takes place in modern house of Nick and his wife Melissa, with exteriors shot on a hedge-lined suburban Dublin hedge and interiors on a Belfast soundstage. “I always felt the house for Nick and Melissa had to be cool and interesting, and not necessarily done with the most expensive taste,” details production designer Anna Rackard, who turned to Karen McCartney’s design bible, The Alchemy of Things: Interiors Shaped by Curious Minds, for inspiration. “It was eclectic in how we put it together.”
Rackard and set decorator Sophie Phillips imagined that Melissa, an accomplished book author who gets things done, would have overseen the interiors. “We felt she was the driving force behind the choices. In our heads, we were channeling Melissa more than Nick, who was slightly passive and reacting to whatever is happening to him instead of taking decisive steps.”
The modern kitchen where Nick and Frances first meet is set against a backdrop of a cool grey-charcoal or grey-blue (depending on the lighting) textured concrete finish. “The overall color palette of the house has a moody ambiance contrasted with the light palette of Frances’s apartment,” says Rackard, who describes the looks as “relaxed but not strict minimalism.” Not one to pay attention to trends, Rackard went for a sparse look, detailing, “They don’t have loads of furniture, but the pieces have to be a statement. We spent a lot of time looking for a sofa, and all the pieces were strongly chosen. I quite like places that are not cluttered with stuff.”
Phillips chose furniture from London prop houses and Larsen for draperies, while the artwork was curated from Irish artists: Anthony Lyttle’s Meander and Yellow Flame prints hang in the kitchen and dining room, while shelves are filled with stoneware pottery from Annadale Brickworks. “We went for the kind of works you can have on-screen and no portraits as it’s too distracting and becomes like another character,” explains Phillips. “Instead of serious pieces, we found it more interesting to use local artists as it gave the spaces more meaning.”
Frances’s flat, which she shares with her best friend Bobbi, was designed to create a direct contrast with Melissa and Nick’s dark, moody interiors. “Frances is still figuring out who she is and a blank canvas, while Melissa is very definite,” explains Rackard. “There was something about Frances’s character that made me think of water and how it’s always slightly changing. We went to great lengths to use blue tiles in the bathroom to create that water-like aspect.”
The dreamy beaches of Croatia became another important set—not to mention one that will likely increase tourism to the country’s Mediterranean coast. Filming at a villa on location, the designers completely redecorated the house and selected their own furniture. “Croatia feels like an idyllic time and place, and we wanted the villas to reflect that. It felt very old-world, eclectic and bohemian, and we sourced everything locally in [the capital city of] Zagreb,” says Rackard, who used a local basket weaver to make the house’s thatched lampshades.
Conversation with Friends is currently streaming on Hulu.