Sixteen-year-old Bethesda resident Ginger Looney was ready for a new room. “She was 12 when we moved in,” says her mom, Kathy Looney. “She’d picked ‘Barbie Blue’ wall paint, hot pink bedding and had boy band posters everywhere.”
But Ginger says redoing her room was about more than just outgrowing the design. “The way my room was set up before wasn’t terribly functional, and I had a hard time finding a place for everything,” she says.
Organization is critical in the often chaotic lives of teens. Designers say it’s important to incorporate zones for sleeping, studying and lounging, as well as designated spots to store things, whether schoolbooks, bobby pins or baseball bats.
The Looneys turned to Northern Virginia-based interior designer Carrie Miller, who owns her own design firm, Lapis Ray, to help them create a more orderly and calm room. Miller suggested a soothing palette of dusty pink, rich coral, soft cream and smoky brown. She also installed draperies in the windows and a valance above the bed to give the space a more grown-up feel.
Miller says that even more important than color, texture and pattern was purging and reorganizing. “I wanted Ginger to have a place for everything,” Miller says, “so she could focus on homework and enjoy the space with her friends.”
Miller and Ginger spent a couple of hours going through her books, posters and other knickknacks, figuring out what was worth keeping and what could be donated or put into storage. “I really didn’t like the idea of sorting through my things at first,” Ginger says. “I thought it would take a long time, but once we got started, it wasn’t that difficult to do.”
Ginger’s new room has baskets for her needlework hobby, shelves for her books, pegs for her handbags, a display easel for her artwork, and an end-of-the-bed trunk for out-of-season clothing. She also has two places to study, either at her desk or on her settee, where she can read textbooks while propping her laptop on a ceramic garden stool. The settee and stool are also useful as casual seating when she’s hanging out with her girlfriends.
For Kathy, the redesigned room serves two purposes. “My intent was to have Ginger enjoy her space,” Kathy says. “But I also wanted to be able to use the room for guests when she goes off to college.”
Miller says making that transition should be easy and inexpensive. “By changing out the color of the walls and switching out the pillows, using more masculine shades, the room can become a neutral space for guests. But, of course, it will always be Ginger’s room.”
For teens—and their parents—the transition from kid to adult is rife with challenges. On top of heavy homework loads and schedules packed with extracurricular activities, teenagers are figuring out who they are and trying to fit in socially. Designers say one way to help children through this sea of change is to create serene, functional rooms for them, where they can have their own private space to do homework, spend time with friends and decompress.
Some kids, especially boys, are not particularly interested in redecorating. Take 14-year-old Trey Valenta. Trey didn’t care that his clothes were bursting out of his childhood dresser and that his feet hung over his bunk bed. His Germantown room was lined with dinosaur posters and stuffed animals, and accented with candy-striped valances.
“The mother came to me,” says Potomac-based interior designer Syntha Harris-Wendel, whose company, StoryBook Rooms, started out by specializing in upscale kids’ rooms before expanding into full house design. “He was comfortable enough there and he worried it would get unfamiliar,” Harris-Wendel says. “He especially didn’t want anything too designery and pretty.”
Harris-Wendel says she tried to be sensitive to Trey’s reluctance. She and Trey’s mom, Kelly, slowly began to show him photos of other boys’ rooms that they thought he might like. Finally he saw something—a duvet in a navy, brown and tan check. Harris-Wendel and Kelly acted quickly.
“He was in Boy Scouts, so we decided he could earn his work badge by painting his room,” Harris-Wendel says. Trey chose a steel blue paint that transformed the room at little cost. Next, a custom-made desk was ordered for a niche, and a queen bed replaced the bunk bed. Trey’s bedding was switched to more grown-up linens, and his red and white window treatments were tossed in favor of tailored box valances in tan with blue ticking.
Designers say one of the best ways to make a reluctant teen feel more comfortable is to incorporate personal collections of favorite objects from childhood. Anything from Matchbox cars to dollhouse furniture can be tastefully displayed in a teenager’s room, not as playthings, but as meaningful connectors to the not-so-distant past. The same is true of framed photographs. It’s worthwhile talking to kids about what they don’t want to part with, and then involving them in how and where the items are displayed.
Harris-Wendel took a treasured U.S. map that was tacked to the wall in Trey’s former room and had it professionally mounted and framed. “It instantly became more adult-looking, but it was also an element from his old room that meant a lot to him,” she says.
She also found a place for a metal lizard sculpture that Trey had purchased on a family trip to Costa Rica. “We edited and picked the more sophisticated items, so the room remains reflective of him,” she says.
Girls can be ready for a renovation at a younger age. Rockville-based interior designer Samantha Friedman says she’s currently designing a room for an 8-year-old Bethesda girl. “She has an older sister and wants a room that feels older,” says Friedman, who is decorating the girl’s room in a chic palette of soft gray walls and lacquered gray woodwork, plus fabrics in pops of jewel-toned teal.
For parents looking to keep costs down, designers suggest using existing furniture where possible and pairing it with new pieces that will last. Friedman picked a queen bed for the girl, and now it’s set up as a daybed. When she’s older, it will be pulled out into the room. Adding a headboard or a canopy to an existing bed can be a quick fix, too. Another option is to pick furniture and accessories that enable the space to double as a guest room when your teen goes off to college, just as Carrie Miller did in Bethesda with Ginger’s room.
One item parents say they like to invest in is a good desk and bookshelf. Kensington-based interior designer Regan Billingsley recently redid a 14-year-old girl’s room in Friendship Heights, where a small desk was overflowing with books. “We added a built-in with bookshelves, file drawers and a computer desk, as well as a messaging board for keeping track of important dates,” Billingsley says.
Lauren Clark of GTM Architects in Bethesda says homeowners don’t often realize how little space you need to accommodate built-ins. “All you need is 24 inches to build out,” she says. “If you have a wall with a window, you can combine full-height bookcases, a desk and a window seat; that gives you a neat reading nook instead of an armchair or settee, plus you can store items beneath the bench.”
Some parents even take it to the next level—adding built-ins in a kid’s bathroom or closet. Bethesda-based architect Jim Rill recently added an en suite bathroom and walk-in closet to 15-year-old Kate Vargo’s room in Potomac.
“I used to share a bathroom with one of my brothers,” Kate says. “In my new bathroom, I have a place for shampoos and bath things, a medicine cabinet for toothpaste and brushes, and drawers for my makeup and hair accessories. There’s even a vanity area in my closet for when I’m getting dressed.”
Now that’s a happy teen.
Charlotte Safavi is a freelance writer living in Alexandria, Va. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.