Artists time travel to the ‘80s with ‘Imagined Interiors’

Courtesy Jen Shelley
Imagined Interiors ce;ebrats the details of TV and film characters, like this quilt of Barb's in their imagined room of hers. 

By Ariel Parrella-Aureli

It begins with brunch, then it continues with cruises around Chicago to concoct creative conversations. Next is the setup, styling and photographing of a room imagined to be Barb Holland’s, from the Emmy-winning Netflix show “Stranger Things.”

Barb’s retro teal dial-up telephone sits on her bedside table next to her bowling trophy, a salmon-colored ceramic kitten and old VHS movies. Her bed is covered with a colorful quilt, on which sits a 1981 Seventeen Magazine and her bright blue eyeshadow. Complete with NASA and boyband posters on the wall and her puffy red jacket hung up, Barb’s room looks lived-in and homey.

Behind the lens are Rebecca Strzelinski and Jen Shelley, designers of the room who are in their 30s and live in Chicago. It is the latest from their project Imagined Interiors, a website that hosts photographs of the imaginary rooms of vintage or vintage-inspired TV and movie characters. The rooms have never been on screen.

In addition to Barb’s room, they have created Melanie Daniels’ room from the 1963 film “The Birds,” Jane Henderson’s from the 1984 film “Paris, Texas,” and Libby Mae Brown’s bathroom from the 1997 film “Waiting for Guffman,” which was the first room they created when they started the project in April 2016. The duo hopes to take road trips and travel to find new locations and inspiration for upcoming projects, which are constantly brewing.

Strzelinski, a local stylist and DJ, said the idea to create the project came to her in the shower. She thought of Shelley’s “killer instinct” in photography and her experience as a wedding photographer and decided their interests and expertise meshed to create the balance. 

“It was a perfect merge of our worlds,” Shelley said. “I was always looking for a creative photography project where I could break out a camera besides my iPhone.” 

Strzelinski said Barb’s room came to be not only because of her admiration for the ‘80s but also because of “Stranger Things’” popularity. Strzelinski and Shelley thought Barb deserved justice for being killed off early in the show. They also wanted to show Barb’s character development and her attempt to find an identity and shake off peer pressure, something everyone experiences in high school—which was cut short for Barb.

“You don’t get sucked into doing something you know better, and Barb didn’t let that happen to her,” Strzelinski said. “[She was] about to break out into the new Barb, but then she [got] distracted by her idiot friend [Nancy].” 

Shelley said Barb was on the brink of discovering herself, ditching Nancy and taking that art class she wanted to. Showing Barb’s multifaceted interests through the bedroom symbolized her budding maturity. 

Barb fan Cat T. also jumped on the “Justice for Barb” bandwagon after the character experienced a “cruel death.” Cat, who is 17 and requested The Chronicle not print her last name because she is a minor, creates “Justice 4 Barb” buttons in the show’s signature typeface and sells them on her Etsy shop ShopQueenB-tch. She said they are one of her most popular items and has sold more than 20. Initially, she made them for herself and her friends but seeing the craze for Barb, decided to take part and sell them. Barb’s ‘80s fashion style and her outsider status appealed to Cat, who is still in high school and can relate to Barb. 

“Even though she dies pretty quickly, that is part of the appeal because she is never really  fleshed out enough for their to be any specifics about the character,” she said. “The vagueness makes it easier for people to project certain things about themselves onto the character and to relate to her, which tends to be true of the majority of the internet’s Barb following.” 

The hype surrounding the unfortunate character has brought Barb to life, Cat said, allowing people to relive her personality and visualize her development. Imagined Interiors is an example of this, adding that she thinks it is an accurate representation of Barb’s room. 

Strzelinski and Shelley said they are drawn to characters, such as Libby Mae and Barb, who experience transient life changes and grapple with their identity. These characters have minimal development on screen, so Imagined Interiors fills the gap and creates a more robust storyline.

“The good thing about this project is that’s what we are imagining, so we could do our own version of Barb and nobody is wrong,” Strzelinski said.

 She said most objects for the rooms come from dollar stores or thrift shops, Amazon and items lying around their houses. Even the shopping can be inspiring, she said. 

The creators shared their upcoming project, scheduled for April 22: table settings for all of the characters from family board game “Clue.” Both enjoy hosting parties and dinners, so their interest in glassware and table setting was the natural next project. They also plan to showcase male characters and use black-and-white photo shoots.