Gianna Henke’s preteen bedroom was a study in boring -- a matching, if uninspired, mix of tan walls, tan carpet and leopard-print bedding. Then came high school, and with it Henke’s burning desire to shed her room’s parent-approved color palette for something more reflective of the teen she had become.
Out went the carpet, and in came the hot pink throw rug. Gone were the yawn-inducing beige walls, repainted with eye-popping yellow and orange. The animal-print comforter was swapped for a Hawaiian theme, the glare of megawatt overhead lighting replaced by the ambient glow of star-shaped lights dangling in the corners.
The days when a new beanbag chair, bedspread and pop poster sufficed as a remodel are long gone. Today’s teen rooms reflect a decorative savvy that rivals their parents’. If pictures of Ashlee Simpson or Orlando Bloom are present, they’re often on the back of the door, overshadowed by purple walls and black lights, tie-dye bedding, tattered curtains and markered walls -- designs that could prompt well-meaning parents to double-dose on their Xanax but appeal to adolescents’ evolving sense of self.
Earlier generations weren’t subjected to the nonstop eye candy of quick-cut commercials and effects-laden video games that today’s teens experience. They weren’t bombarded with TV decorating shows, youth-oriented home furnishings stores or magazine articles on how to customize their own space. Celebrities weren’t same-age peers buying and decorating their own homes.
Today’s teens can’t escape the cultural tilt toward design and decor, and their bedrooms show it.
“What we’re noticing now is that teens are very, very advanced. They’re more adult than teens of previous generations,” said Rob Callendar, senior trends manager for Teen Research Unlimited in Illinois. “Instead of putting up concert posters or cutting things out of magazines, some are very interested in the very adult idea of getting furniture that reflects their own personality. Part of it is their own savviness. Part of it is there seems to be enough money that the parents can afford to and are willing to do this.”
And part of it is that home furnishings companies are finally opening their eyes to the $170-billion annual spending power of the country’s 35 million 12- to 19-year-olds.
The same stores that for decades have targeted grown-ups, college kids and parents-to-be are now pursuing teens. In the last couple of years, Urban Outfitters has expanded from being near college campuses to suburban malls. Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel have each launched youth brands, offering items that not only speak to teens visually but do so in lingo that tries to be hip. A worktable with folding legs is a “flip-out desk”; a throw for girls is “furlicious.”
“As kids grew up, there was this group spending more on home furnishings who had their own opinions of how they wanted things to look, and our Pottery Barn and Pottery Barn Kids brands weren’t it. They were a little bit funkier,” said Abigail Jacobson, public relations manager for PBTeen, the teen-oriented catalog and website that launched last year.
“Other industry sectors are catering to them big time -- food, movies, electronics, clothes,” she added. “They expect it from furnishings retailers as well.”
PBTeen and Target are at the forefront of this growing market trend, offering free-spirited and offbeat designs at prices that acknowledge the fleeting nature of adolescent taste and the limits of parents’ willingness to pay for it. Think cargo-pocket pillow shams for $16, hot-pink telephones for $60, disco ball lamps for $33 and “diva” and “little miss drama” fun rugs for $70.
In the case of 17-year-old Alexandra Manzano of San Gabriel, it’s green drapes, purple walls and glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling -- a design scheme that appealed to her interest in the stars, moon and sky.
“I kind of thought my room was boring because it was all white,” Manzano said of her old decor -- the pencil-themed bed, shelves and Mickey Mouse rug she banished three years ago. Now, she says, “I love coming into my room. It’s kind of cool because it’s darker.”
Others don’t have it so easy. Alena Henke, Gianna’s 12-year-old sister, has had no luck convincing her mom to let her switch to the room she envisions: something “retro-y, like pop-artish,” she said. “You know, Andy Warhol paintings.”
Alena’s sensibility has been informed and shaped by TV, specifically VH1 retro shows such as “I Love the ‘70s” and decorating makeover programs on HGTV. Right now, Alena’s room is “garden-y,” with lemon yellow walls and floral, picket fence wallpaper. Painted on the wall above her bed: a Tinker Bell-size fairy.
“It’s kind of really girly, and it’s just not me,” the Arcadia eighth-grader said with a sigh. For now, Mom won’t go to the expense of changing Alena’s room because she suspects her daughter will only want to change it again.
Let her, says teen psychologist Michael Bradley.
“A teenager’s job is to figure out who they are and to break apart from the parents in an appropriate way, so the bedroom becomes the initial outpost of this new adult that’s emerging through the adolescent years,” said Bradley, author of the books “Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy!” and “Yes, Your Parents Are Crazy!”
“The point of adolescence is identity exploration. They try on 10,000 different hats to see what fits and what doesn’t,” he said. “You want to encourage them to do crazy, zany stuff. That’s healthy.”
For the most part, it’s the girls who want to applique their curtains, customize their armoires and put their personal stamp on their space. It’s the rare adolescent boy who cares about the color of his lampshade or the shape of his pillows.
Most are content to hang a poster, prop a trophy on the shelf and call it a done deal. They don’t seem to care. Their rooms are nondescript crash pads. Overhauling the decor has always been much more of a girl thing.
“This whole generation has lots of stuff, including their own cellphones, and definitely their own voice in how they want their rooms to look,” said Nan Sloan, contributing designer to HGTV’s “Decorating Cents.” “Particularly the girls who grew up with these purple and pink frilly little rooms, now they’re early adolescents. They want to make a statement.”
And they’re making a statement in their bedrooms, with designs that are closely related to their clothing. Trends in today’s teen rooms tend to mirror the racks at Forever 21, Planet Funk and other shops frequented by girls without a driver’s license. Junior high is the time when girls begin to pay more attention to how they look and dress, and the more self-conscious they are about their own appearance, the more self-conscious they seem to be about remaking their rooms to reflect their taste.
These days that taste is running toward splashy colors, mix-and-match patterns and items that are handmade.
“A lot of the personalization and color you see in their fashion, they want reflected in their room as well,” said Sloan. “That’s why a lot of time a parent will call me in, because they know it’s a passing trend. In some cases, these are obnoxious colors for parents doing tasteful homes. She wants lime green walls and a watermelon bedspread and orange draperies. Help!”
For teens, the already blurry line between fashion and home design is only getting blurrier. Hipster fave Paul Frank offers Julius the Monkey bath mats and bed sheets. Delia’s, the mail-order purveyor of low-cost, high-hemline teen fashion, sells chiffon curtains, flamingo-print laundry hampers and other “roomwares” along with flouncy miniskirts and floral applique tops. Celebrity-oriented magazines, such as US Weekly, In Touch, ELLEgirl and other magazines teens read, monthly home-decorating articles along with beauty tips and dating advice.
“It was a natural move for us because we do a lot of DIY fashion things, which is very big right now,” said ELLEgirl senior editor Melissa Walker. “We were ordering all this cool fabric from Reprodepot.com and telling them to make dresses with it. We thought, let’s do some decorating.”
Among the “50 ways to make your room look cool” in the September HomeGirl column: tying tassels to dresser drawer knobs, hand-sewing burlap pillowcases and pasting stickers on the bed frame to spell “relativity.”
As a parent, if you don’t like the fuchsia walls, decoupage windowsill or stencils on the antique bed frame, remember this: All too soon, the kids will be going off to college, taking their purple butterfly chairs and electrifying taste with them.
Susan Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Groovy pads or cool cribsA quick glimpse of teen tastes through the years.
Butterfly chair is designed in 1938 by three architects for an Argentina apartment building. Millions are made by the 1950s.
Autograph hounds, used to collect signatures, enliven poodle-skirt era bedspreads.
Princess phones, invented in 1959, become a hot accessory -- in pink, of course -- for chatty teen girls in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Lava lamp: Nudist Edward Craven Walker helps usher in the rage for all things psychedelic (tie-dye, beaded curtains) by thinking up the “Astrolight” in 1963.
The smiley face is created in 1963 by a Massachusetts ad agency. It jumps from button to poster to (decades later) common e-mail punctuation.
Pulp nonfiction: When teens look up from Tiger Beat or 16 in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they see walls plastered with pop posters ripped from their magazines.
Beanbag chair: Three Italian designers create the “Sacco Chair” in 1968 for a firm that still makes them today.
Black lights turn teen rooms officially spooky in the late ‘60s.
Boom boxes kick out record players in the 1980s.
2000: What goes around...: Butterfly and beanbag chairs, lava lamps and tie-dye fabrics cozy up to the latest must-haves -- computers and iPods.
-- Lisa Boone