We never grew out of hating blank space.
Said another, perhaps more accurate way: Posters damaged paint with scotch tape so that gallery walls could carefully nail it. I’m speaking of course about the origins of our home decor tendencies, and in my view, Generation Cover-Your-Walls-In-Tiger Beat grew up to become Gallery Wall Nation. Let’s discuss.
Posters, for those of you who have only lived with the finest of framed artwork, are flimsy pieces of paper ranging in size from 8x10 to roughly the length of a bedsheet that we plastered all over all our bedrooms as teens via the assistance of tape, tacks, or that weird tacky goo we’d steal from school. Gallery walls, by contrast, are meticulously planned, measured, and installed features that now serve as the backgrounds to our professional Zooms. Chicken, egg.
Teenage decor options in my day, which we’ve established was the 90s, were limited to whatever you could get away with or convince your mother to purchase from Wal-Mart. The curation of our walls was an important, highly affordable expression of autonomy, and one of our earliest lessons in resourcefulness. The things we’d turn into art, my friends—the things! If inspiration was required, one need look no further than Clarissa, who actually explained very little, or my personal favorite, Katarina Stratford.
I don’t know about you, but as a teen, nothing was more visually offensive to me than my own bare walls. If every square inch wasn’t coated in magazine tears, passed notes, old caution tape found on the street, or photos from camp, shit was awry. I was very committed to this personal curation, constantly tweaking and re-arranging until I felt that my very essence was thoroughly communicated via a glossy mosaic of images from dELiA*s, Jane, and Seventeen.
Wall space in our teen years was a blank canvass ripe for self expression, during decades when things like social media and blogs and other ways to spout your creativity to the world weren’t available. That’s why it was such a big deal to show someone your room. It’s the 90s-equivalent of letting them follow you on Instagram.
Translated to modern day, we still want stuff on our walls. Only now, that need for self expression has been refined, and the pressure to perform increased. At this point in our lives, our wall jewelry has to be framed, chaotic but organized, and for heaven’s sake completely level. Our teenage bedroom posters have matured into gallery walls. It is the inevitability of time combined with the muscle memory of our earliest forays into home decor. I like to think this what nature always intended.
Personally, I find gallery walls a little too perfect, still craving the collage-like vibes of my youth but finding them entirely uncomfortable whenever people come over to my house. But you see the connection, the natural progression of a need to express your personality in the style you surround yourself with in your sacred space. Combine that with the fact that we can now show our spaces off to the world, not just to those who attend the housewarming, and you’ve got a whole industry centered around brackets and mounts and framed prints that add just the right amount of whimsy to the other generic pieces you found at Home Goods.
I’ve come a long way. In my teen years it was creased magazine pages and letters and one-hour photo prints. In college I covered every visible centimeter of my dorm wall in Rolling Stone covers I’d spent two years collecting and harvesting from used bookstores. Now I live in Brooklyn, so one large piece of art or focal point will suffice, but I like to think that someday I’ll give wall Tetris a try.
Don’t forget where your taste in home decor came from. Don’t forget the fold-out posters being flattened under textbooks, and the way you had to get everything to overlap just right. Remember the exasperated sighs of your father who knew how much it would cost to touch up the paint when you went away to school and he turned your room into a gym. Our style always starts somewhere, and for 90s kids, for poster people, we’ve always liked our self expression hanging right where we can see it.
Shani Silver is a humor essayist and podcaster based in Brooklyn who writes on Medium, frequently.