Girl meets boy. Girl falls in love. Girl confesses her love to him in a letter that she knows he’ll never read—until he does, years later. Girl is mortified. Now repeat that five times—one letter for each boy she’s ever loved.
Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and the recent sequel, To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You are both tender coming-of-age stories told through Lara Jean, an introverted romantic who’s constantly confronted with the emotions and memories of her past as she navigates the liminal space between adolescence and adulthood.
The stories of love, friendship, and family in the films are supposed to be universal. To establish that sense of familiarity, interior design plays a leading role in establishing that connection with the audience and creating deeply relatable characters.
“One of the things that we wanted to do throughout the film was to make it real—that’s one of the defining characteristics of how we wanted to see people,” says Chris August, the production designer for P.S. I Still Love You. “Lara Jean’s character is a very real teenage personality with very real issues and challenges, as we all experience growing up. We wanted to keep that paramount in our thoughts so everyone could relate to it...We didn’t want Lara Jean to have a perfect world; we wanted her to have a real world.”
That said, Lara Jean’s upper-middle class reality—her father is a doctor, her home is spacious, her boyfriend takes her to a super nice restaurant for their first official date—will read as aspirational to many. The imagery, however, is archetypal: She goes to a high school with wide hallways lined with lockers and a running track around a football field. She lives in a beautiful suburban home. There’s a funky treehouse in her backyard. She’s decorated her bedroom like a typical teen girl might, but each detail speaks specifically to who she is.
“Lara Jean is an introverted character who lives a lot in her head,” Jenny Han, the author of the bestselling books that inspired the Netflix films, tells Curbed. “But through her fashion and through her bedroom design, that’s where she really expresses herself.”
Her room would make many teens (and adults like me, who always wanted a personalized room like this) green with envy: There’s a collage wall of photos, her own artwork, magazine tear-outs, and other ephemera. (DIY collages like Lara Jean’s are on the way out, according to a recent New York Times story on the popularity of pre-packaged ones.) Books and clothes and trinkets are scattered throughout. There are more details in the space that the audience will never see on screen, like a collection of Nancy Drew mysteries.
In the sequel, the audience sees much more of Lara Jean’s house, which, while less visually vibrant than her room, is equally telling about her lifestyle. There’s a beautiful kitchen, complete with a massive island, marble counters, and new stainless-steel appliances. A formal dining room where she and her family share meals, and a tasteful living room that’s casual enough for her to craft handmade Valentine’s Day gifts at the coffee table.
“This story is very much a story about a girl next door—an ‘American girl’ type of story,” Han says. “The house fits with that. It’s a nice house, but it’s not like so over the top. It’s pretty standard. You go to West Elm and see a lot of the same designs. It feels very familiar to people and that familiarity makes it feel comfortable and cozy—like a place you recognize.”
Recognition and memory also drove the interiors for Belleview, the retirement community where Lara Jean volunteers. When August researched rest homes, he was struck by how most of them were spaces of last resort, for people who could no longer care for themselves. He didn’t want an institutional look—however true-to-life that is—for the film, so he based the interiors on the idea of a place where the characters would like to live out their years in style and comfort.
The location scouts found the perfect setting in Casa Mia, an ornate Spanish-style mansion near Vancouver. It was built in the 1930s for George Reifel, a nightclub owner and alcohol runner who made a fortune during prohibition. Reifel spared no expense on his house: he commissioned a full stage—where jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington played—with a sprung floor for dancing. He even hired a Disney cartoonist to draw murals for the kids’ rooms. It’s not a total fiction that such a glamour setting would end up as an old-folks home: The house was recently converted into a retirement community in real life, too.
“So much about the story is Lara Jean remembering the letters and how they’re affecting her in the present,” August says. “Once we latched onto memories, it allowed us to characterize the [senior community]. It was a warm and happy place, and one that basically serviced the memories of [the residents’] best years. So architecturally, we wanted something classic and had its roots between the 1930s and the 1950s—the good life.”
While working in the retirement community, Lara Jean slowly sees the rooms of the residents she befriends, like Stormy, a supportive and wise mother figure who, like Lara Jean, indulges in whimsy and has a creative spirit. Her room is filled with Art Deco-inspired furniture and eclectic knick-knacks she likely purchased when she was a flight attendant. There are jewel-tones throughout her room, and the retirement community as a whole. Each of the spaces in the film has its own color palette. For Belleview, August looked to the magentas, pinks, blues, and greens that Gucci used between the 1950s and 1970s, when the folks in the community would have been young.
“I always believe we have a collective unconscious and if you can hit those notes colorwise, you can bring out emotions in people,” August says.
One of the most pivotal spaces in the film is the treehouse, where Lara Jean and her friends—some of whom she has fallen out with—shared bonding moments during childhood. The treehouse has since fallen into disrepair, though Lara Jean still retreats to it for moments of solitude and reflection.
“Growing up as a kid, you don’t have that many spaces that are just yours,” Han says. “You have a room, but your parents can come into your environment whenever they want. But a treehouse sort of stands alone as a bit of a hideaway.”
The treehouse has a ramshackle quality to it, as if it was slowly evolved over time, like the characters’ memories. There was a rope ladder, mismatched furniture, a tattered piece of fabric used for the roof. The space was worn out and neglected and by the end of the film, it was demolished—a symbol of growth. The characters all revisited the treehouse for a send off and reminisced about their past.
“They were looking back at their memories of younger years, a more innocent time, where they were developing their personalities,” August says. “The treehouse was very formative for Lara Jean.”
Netflix has already filmed the third (and final) installment of the To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. It will focus on Lara Jean’s next milestone: going to college. August teased the guiding principles to the interiors for that film:
“In Lara Jean’s fantasy world, she didn’t have to make those [hard] choices, but now she has to,” he says. “We definitely play on that all the way through: about hard choices, about relationships, if relationships can continue over a distance in time and space.”