Gimme Shelter

Architecture and design possess personalities as distinct as the characters that inhabit these noteworthy animation homes.

Greenhouse style inspired Poison Ivy's sophisticated city apartment.
Image courtesy off Warner Bros. Animation.

A year into shelter-in-place living, we’ve discovered that being stuck at home for the long haul can trigger voyeurism. Tired of our own dwellings, we rubberneck at others’ Zoom environs and binge HGTV shows. 

But for pure escapism, there’s arguably nothing better than a cartoon home. They can combine reality with flights of fancy, and in these gerbil wheel days, they offer plenty of opportunity for pandemic pondering, like whose house would you rather sip a quarantini in—the Flintstones or the Jetsons? 

With few constraints when it comes to building budgets and physics, animation art directors, production designers, and background designers can become architects and interior designers of the highest order, stretching the imagination to create captivating and often fantastical living spaces. 

Not only have we assembled a unique collection of homes from TV cartoons and feature films here—we talked to the talented people who created these visual backdrops. So close your eyes and imagine jumping into any of these memorable abodes with the ease of Mary Poppins leaping into one of Bert’s charming sidewalk chalk drawings.

Harley Quinn
Warner Bros. TV
Art Direction: Bill Wray

This plant-filled living room serves as a reflection of its owner, botanist Poison Ivy.
Image courtesy off Warner Bros. Animation.

Supervillains’ lairs tend to be dark and scary, the kinds of places regular humans avoid. But the airy bachelorette pad that Poison Ivy lets her partner-in-crime Harley Quinn crash at has surprising appeal. 

The dreamscape mixes crisp lines and contemporary furnishings with an abundance of greenery. According to Rodel Gravo, one of Harley Quinn’s background key designers, “Ivy is a botanist, so I imagined her lair to be full of space [with lots of] green and light to emphasize a clear mind.”

Gravo wanted the living room to feel habitable, and he worked with Supervising Producer Jennifer Coyle and Art Director Bill Wray to decide on how many plants were overly excessive, and how they would fit into the overall look. Ultimately, the room ended up with so much vegetation that it literally colored the atmosphere, with Wray painting green shadows on the white furniture. 

The plants themselves were designed to match Poison Ivy’s hip, stylish, and very green anti-heroine appearance. As for the architecture, Gravo wanted a mix of old and new. He blended arched doors and windows with a peaked roof to create an “aesthetically pleasing, stylish, and striking greenhouse/lair.”

Shelter-at-home verdict: The perfect abode for those seeking a luxe lockdown with opportunities for indoor gardening on the side.

Kim Possible
Disney Television Animation
Art Direction: Alan Bodner

Shape, space, and flow drove the design of Kim Possible’s sleek midcentury living room.
Image courtesy of Disney Television Animation.

As design began on the sleek family home for Kim Possible, Art Director Alan Bodner says, “We knew what she was going to do and who [Kim] was, and it was like, how can we make this be cool?” He and his team gravitated naturally toward a midcentury aesthetic, not only because it felt like the best answer to the question, but because of the genre’s strong shape language. 

Hitchcock fans have noted the similarity between Kim Possible’s home (with Key Art by Nadia Vurbenova-Mouri) and the iconic cantilevered home in North by Northwest.
Image courtesy of Disney Television Animation.

“In Kim Possible all the characters themselves were very shape oriented,” says Bodner. “The amount of information was really minimalized, and that’s what married them to those backgrounds.”

“We were trying to keep the details to a minimum and then being very specific about where we put the texture,” adds Nick Filippi, a storyboard artist supervisor. He also notes the importance of using color and value in a way that allowed the removal of lines. 

Doing this, Bodner explains, directs the eye to specific spaces within a room. An Eames-esque chair, for example, or an overhanging lamp that creates “a neat flow of design. I was always thinking, how much can I not put in and still have it be dimensional. That was kind of the game.”

Among his favorite influences were Disneyland’s attraction posters from the 1950s. “They had a great streamlined look, but they also had strong shapes and foreground, middle ground, background. [The background is] split into three levels, and it’s very distinctive.”

Director Chris Bailey was a fan of this graphic approach, but only “as long as [the shapes were] grounded in reality and perspective,” Bodner says. “I think that’s what makes it work for me. If you look at the backgrounds, it’s all the right perspective, [so] you buy it. You don’t think, oh my God, I need to see more … That’s what really makes it exciting.”

Shelter-at-home verdict: A spacious and groovy pad for socially distanced chill-out sessions. 

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
DreamWorks Animation
Art Direction: Lamb Chamberlin and Elizabeth Kresin

In She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, fan-favorite Glimmer always wakes up to a perfect setting for a Zoom chat with her Best Friends Squad. Elizabeth Kresin, the show’s Art Director since 2018, says that Glimmer’s home—the kingdom of Bright Moon on the planet Etheria—is a fancy place, inspiring the bedroom’s look. “We didn’t want anything to feel flat or matte, and everything is high gloss.” 

Kresin credits Background Painter and Color Stylist Amanda Winterstein for the opalescent look, while Elle Michalka, a visual development artist who worked on the series early on, came up with the idea of the magical floating bed, because “what kid wouldn’t want bunk beds? So we took that and we made it as extreme as possible.” As for the space itself, “a round tower bedroom is just the ultimate princess fantasy.” 

Bright Moon is the antithesis to the evil world of the show’s protagonists, The Horde, where the designs are jagged and haphazard. To emphasize this, Kresin says, Glimmer’s bedroom is spherical, her bed is a golden ball, and there’s lots of yonic imagery. “We wanted to keep everything as soft arches [and] really round towers … every detail is meticulously considered for its beauty.”

Glimmer’s bedroom is also the only place in her Crystal Castle where she’s guaranteed some alone time. Since she’s the only one who can teleport, Kresin says putting the bed high up ensures she can get “as far away from everything else as possible.” 

Shelter-at-home verdict: A transcendent escape whose who soothing mood (and Zoomtastic ambience) makes isolation less lonely. 

Kung Fu Panda 
DreamWorks Animation
Art Direction: Tang Kheng Heng

This intricately designed mountaintop haven, overlooking a soaring valley, offers the perfect setup for enforcing the six-foot rule—not to mention an atmosphere conducive to contemplation. 

The Jace Palace was designed to feel both majestic and intimate at the same time.
Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.

Tang Kheng Heng, Art Director on the first two Kung Fu Panda movies, explains that the Jade Palace was inspired by the Temple of Confucius in Qufu in China’s Shangdong Province. Its design unites references to classic Chinese architecture and the yin-yang theory, to reflect elements being in harmony with each other.

Color plays a key role in the palace’s design. It was given its name because in the realm of Kung Fun Panda, green symbolizes wisdom. There is also a yellow roof to symbolize good and blue water patterns in the floor to express a sense of government or order. 

The enormity of the spaces—like the Hall of Warriors, filled with artifacts of past kung fu masters—could feel daunting and impersonal, but Heng says that he and his team created intimacy by always lighting the Jade Palace from ground level. “The fact that it’s a jade floor created this really beautiful reflectivity [bouncing] light back into the space.” He compares the jade to an infinity pool or mirror that shines up around the characters with each step they take. “At the same time,” he points out, “it makes the space feel even bigger and more grand.”

Shelter-at-home verdict: Tops for quaranteam getaways with bonus activities like color therapy and lessons in ancient Chinese philosophy.

Reflective floors were designed to create the illusion of walking on light or water.
Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.

Sleeping Beauty 
Walt Disney Productions
Art Direction: Eyvind Earle

In most fairy tales, woods are dark and foreboding. Maybe it’s their bad reputation that allowed Sleeping Beauty’s Princess Aurora (AKA: Briar Rose) to hide undiscovered in this otherwise tranquil one for nearly 16 years—a proponent of the Tiny House Movement long before Tiny House Nation premiered on the small screen.

Her petite, triangular cottage features a thatched roof, built-in tree, and just enough extra space for a few opinionated fairies. Fox Carney, Manager of Research at the Disney Animation Research Library, says the directive from Disney during the film’s production was that this 1959 animated musical should look like “a moving illustration” because it was going to be shown in Technirama. This would mean a larger frame with a lot of space to fill. 

Eyvind Earle, Sleeping Beauty’s influential color stylist, researched late-medieval tapestries, Persian miniatures, and Japanese prints where “everything is sort of in focus for both your foreground and background,” Carney says. Earle became “keen on the heavy use of horizontals and verticals [to create] a lot of shape language.” A notable example: The cottage’s vertical beams “aren’t necessarily straight up and straight across … you see lots of slight curves in there.”

When it comes to the incorporation of the tree in the architectural design, Carney says, “[It]was a deliberate choice to show that the fairies and Briar Rose were apart from … the bricks and stones and hard edges of the castle [and were] more connected with nature.” 

Shelter-at-home verdict: A sure pick for idyllic isolation, but this doesn’t mean you can go mask-free since you never know when a prince might come wandering through the woods.

Big Hero 6
Walt Disney Animation Studios
Art Direction: Scott Watanabe

Concept art for Hiro’s family home.

Not only is the family home in Big Hero 6 a reflection of the movie’s fictional San Fransokyo, a portmanteau of San Francisco and Tokyo, it is also a deliberate reflection of its inhabitants. For example, when the character of Aunt Cass—guardian of teenage Hiro and his older brother Tadashi—was developed, Art Director Scott Watanabe says, “an idea formed that she could be a kind of boho/hippie, and [a] setting in the Haight-Ashbury district seemed a no-brainer. So [the house] became a mash-up of San Francisco Victorian architecture mixed with a [ground floor] café from the Meiji/Showa periods of Japan.” 

In addition, Watanabe says, “I found that sometimes there was beauty and charm in simple mundane imperfections, such as an inconveniently placed structural beam in the café or cramped living spaces for Hiro and Tadashi. Something to keep it specific to the architecture while filling the spaces with the embodiment of the characters that lived there.” Hiro’s room, for example, is “just a mess of tech and robots,” while Tadashi’s is “more organized and well rounded. The goal being that the viewer could tell who lived in the house without ever seeing the people.” 

The then-new Hyperion Renderer was used to create the effect of light coming in through a window and bouncing around the attic bedroom.
Image courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studio.

This design approach overlapped with efforts to show that the house had a past. According to Production Designer Paul Felix, “We tried to give the idea that someone, at some point, had taken out the original layout of the house and then replaced it with something else. We came up with some small differences in floor levels that you would have to navigate, and some odd placements. While none of this really gets seen in the film, “It was nice that we all had a shared sense of what the history of the house was. I think on some level, in the story, [that makes it] feel more like a real place.”

Shelter-at-home verdict: A homey abode where you can immerse yourself in your passions, from coding to baking sourdough bread to tackling DIY house projects.