When I was a teenager, nothing was more comforting than watching The O.C. I returned again and again to Ryan and Marissa’s meet-cute in the Cohens’ driveway, Summer and Seth’s iconic Spiderman kiss in the rain, and Sandy Cohen’s bagel-schmearing, but it was the spaces the characters lived in that made the series truly feel like home: the indie-rock posters covering Seth’s blue walls, Summer’s pink-saturated room where she watched The Valley every week, and Ryan’s barebones poolhouse, where he spent his prime teenage years brooding and bedding the women of California.
For many teen TV shows, it’s the set, especially the main characters’ bedrooms, that makes the show memorable. If a show goes on for as many years as you’re in high school, those characters’ bedrooms can begin to feel like your own. And when the show ends, seeing the rooms disappear can be as heartbreaking as watching the characters say goodbye.
I recalled what I loved about my own favorite teen bedrooms again recently while watching PEN15. The lead actresses—Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle—are full-grown adults playing middle-school versions of themselves. On the show, Anna’s bedroom is the epitome of girly-girl, with a clear landline phone and cloud-printed bedding, while Maya’s bedroom has a bit more of a true teen aesthetic, with striped bedding, floral wallpaper, and images of crushes on her wall. Their striking resemblance to teen bedrooms of the early 2000s provoked a wave of nostalgia for my own upbringing. It’s a nostalgia most of us can relate to—and the teen bedrooms we’ve come to love on TV bring it back.
Before Netflix’s reboot, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, with Melissa Joan Hart as the titular character, was a cult favorite in the mid-’90s. Sabrina’s bedroom was a centerpiece of the show, a mix of the playful and the mystical: The walls were coated in periwinkle paint, while the mahogany bed featured a cascading white canopy and a golden sun in its center. Instead of traditional windows, Sabrina had jewel-toned stained glass that complemented her lava lamp. But Sabrina’s bedroom was much more than the space she slept in. It was also where she practiced magic—especially magic she wasn’t supposed to be doing—with the enchanting Magic Book. Of course, as a half-mortal, she was also a typical teenager, so we’d often witness multiple envy-worthy outfit changes in front of her floor-length mirror (with the help of her powers) as her talking cat, Salem, offered sarcastic guidance. Sabrina’s bedroom was sacred, but it was also the space every free-spirited teen wanted as their own. And over 20 years after the show premiered as part of the ABC TGIF lineup, it remains iconic.
Less-mystical bedrooms have become iconic for the stories surrounding them. Dawson’s Creek, which premiered in 1998, centered around four high school friends in the fictional town of Capeside, Massachusetts, following the dramas in their friendships and relationships. It began with Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek), boy next door and aspiring filmmaker, and his best friend, Joey Potter (Katie Holmes), who often visits him by climbing up a ladder through his bedroom window. Together, the two of them watch movies and have sleepovers in Dawson’s room, which was essentially a second home for Joey.
The bedroom is emblematic of Dawson: On the walls are posters of films like Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, which reflect Dawson’s obsession with becoming “the next Spielberg.” The blue-and-brown plaid bedspread and curtains are reflective of Dawson’s affinity for plaid button-downs, and sailing accents like a boat-shaped shelf represent the show’s larger setting of Capeside in Cape Cod. “[There’s] the classic image of him on the show standing in the boat with the oars in the creek, so we wanted to bring the creek into the room by having the bookcase in there,” says Matt Sullivan, longtime set decorator on Dawson’s Creek. Dawson’s bedroom remains a constant throughout the series, a setting for coming-of-age moments like talks with girlfriends and tears over first heartbreaks and a reminder of who Dawson really is when he needs it the most. If you were a teen during the era of Dawson’s Creek, you likely wanted a friend like Dawson whose window you could climb through.
Premiering just four months after the series finale of Dawson’s Creek was One Tree Hill, which focused on the relationship between half-brothers Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) and Nathan Scott (James Lafferty), who forge a relationship as their lives become intertwined after their parents’ marriage. Lucas’s room is minimalistic. It conveys his love of basketball through a mural of the river court where he plays basketball in Tree Hill, with plenty of empty space meant for daydreaming and writing. His brother Nathan’s room is centered around winning, team-building, and trophies. To some degree, these bedrooms illustrate the way we think about teenagers in American culture: They’re one-dimensional. But both characters are more than their stereotypes.
As One Tree Hill moved forward, Peyton Sawyer (Hilarie Burton), Nathan’s ex-girlfriend and the longtime love of Lucas, became a central focus, and so did her bedroom. Peyton, a cheerleader for the Tree Hill Ravens basketball team, feels like an outsider in the popular crowd. She leads a double life: cheerleader by day and visual artist and music aficionado by night. “With Peyton’s room, she did have that indie vibe that dovetailed into the alternative music scene,” says Sullivan, who also worked on One Tree Hill as a set decorator. “She was a departure from some of the other characters on the show, and we really strove to let the personality of each character come out in their individual rooms.”
Peyton’s emo, art-studio bedroom encapsulates all of the parts of herself she felt she couldn’t fully express. Painted red, with an entire wall of vinyl records, it is a music fan’s dream. The murals and artwork she showcases often inform the plotlines of the show, and vice versa. At the start of Season 3, Peyton paints the number 6,470,818,671 over a black-and-white photograph of faces on her wall—the number of people in the world at the time—as she reckons with knowing her birth mom. At another point in the series, she paints “Where Are They Now?” above her headboard, with two sketches: herself and her birth mom, and herself and her dad with a gravestone. The red bedroom becomes even more like a character in Season 5, when Peyton decides to start her own record label, “Red Bedroom Records.”
Peyton’s bedroom was like the inside of her brain: It was the room in the series that perhaps provided the most depth for a character. “With Peyton’s bedroom and any set I do, whether it’s someone’s living or working space, my approach isn’t necessarily to decorate a set but to create an environment,” says Sullivan. “I try to build spaces that reflect the characters that inhabit them.” That bedroom not only allowed Peyton to express herself in high school, but also helped jumpstart her career and fulfill the artistic side she hid from the world. For any emo teens who were listening to punk music and finding their way as creatives, her bedroom was aspirational.
The bedrooms on Gossip Girl were aspirational in a different way. On the teen soap that chronicled the privileged lives of Manhattan prep school students, characters spend a lot of time in the bedroom. The most memorable bedrooms are also a stark contrast from one another. Blair Waldorf’s (Leighton Meester) bedroom was fit for a princess, and it was everything you would expect from a budding Upper East Side socialite with a queen bee complex. According to Gossip Girl production designer Loren Weeks, Blair’s penthouse was based on the work of two architects of the 1920s and 1930s, Rosario Candela and James Carpenter, whose work is still coveted on the Upper East Side. Filled with champagne and cerulean blue hues, the room’s palette is lavish but generic, like an upscale hotel room. The one prop that hones in on Blair’s personality the most is a photo of Audrey Hepburn. “Blair was the princess and the New York socialite,” says Weeks. “Whenever I had the opportunity to create a backdrop for her I always strived to give her a regal setting. In her bedroom I saw her headboard as a throne.”
At the other end of the show’s wealth gap, Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) lives in (gasp) Brooklyn, which is another universe to most of the characters on Gossip Girl. Unlike Blair, Dan is a scholarship student and the intellectual outsider of the prep school crew. Dan’s room overflows with books, and his desk and additional reading material spill over into the defunct freight elevator between his and his sister Jenny’s rooms. In the middle of the spectrum on Gossip Girl is Serena van der Woodsen’s (Blake Lively) room. Though Serena is as wealthy as Blair, the show’s designers wanted to convey that she is a freer spirit, and her room is much more modern. Above her bed is a sculpture of butterflies by Paul Villinski—in a composition that was created just for Serena, says Weeks—and on one of the walls is a piece of artwork by Marilyn Minter.
It’s hard to know which current TV teen bedrooms will have the same staying power, but Riverdale, which is based on the characters from Archie comics, has that potential. As the perceived “girl next door” of the group, Betty Cooper’s (Lili Reinhart) bedroom is an explosion of pink and white hues in a suburban home. As a budding reporter, Betty does her investigating at a white desk. A collage of abstract artwork and posters sit above her bed, which is covered in light pink bedding. The room is representative of how the Riverdale community sees her and how, before she took on those investigations, she saw herself. Betty’s best friend, Veronica Lodge, has a room with a more regal look. The headboard mimics a throne, and the neutrals and gold accents make sense for the daughter of a mob boss. But perhaps the most defining bedroom of the show is Cheryl Blossom’s (Madelaine Petsch): It’s a gothic statement bedroom that reflects the darkness surrounding the Blossom family. Like Veronica’s room, Cheryl’s headboard is fashioned like a throne, because she maintains she’s the true queen bee of Riverdale.
The release of Hulu’s PEN15 this year added another layer to our nostalgia for teen bedrooms by placing adult actors in those rooms. In the show, Erskine (who plays Maya Ishii-Peters) and Konkle (Anna Kone) play middle-school versions of themselves in the year 2000. Even with topic-driven episodes (on thongs, AIM, and smoking cigarettes, for example), the set design has become one of the biggest talking points of the show. The characters’ bedrooms epitomize what it was like to grow up in the early 2000s. Maya’s and Anna’s bedrooms are filled with nostalgic props, like flower pillows; Got Milk?, boy band, and troll posters; boom boxes; floral wallpaper; and cloud bedding. “Anna’s bedroom is more little girl-ish,” says production designer Grace Alie. “She hasn’t gotten rid of some of her stuffed animals from growing up, and she’s really into animals, so we have the whale print sheets that are reminiscent of Lisa Frank, and the butterfly sheets, and then for Maya’s bedroom, we incorporated some Sailor Moon and some references from her childhood that represented her Japanese heritage.” Props acquired from eBay and Craigslist, like a Polaroid iZone camera, a clear landline phone, and a beaded dolphin lamp, helped Alie and set decorator Ali Rubenfeld recreate bedrooms straight out of the early 2000s. “Everything is really scheduled for kids and teens…so I feel like the teen bedroom has become such an iconic design because growing up, that is one of the only things you have control over,” says Alie.
And that’s what a well-designed bedroom on a TV series does: It enhances the personality of an already well-developed character. For the viewer, it may even unconsciously create a stronger connection with a show, or, like a real-life place, spark nostalgia for people and settings who were once deeply familiar.
Ilana Kaplan is an editor and freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn with her two cats. She has written for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, GQ, Billboard, and more.