The show's production designer shares her secrets for creating a cute, livable space for Kimberly, Whitney, Bela, and Leighton.
Part of the fun of watching good TV is admiring the intricate sets that bring the stories to life. But far too often, college dorm room sets simply miss the mark. Rather than giving the impression that they’re inhabited by real college kids, they look like they’re torn from a Pottery Barn catalogue — walls painted in pastels no RA would ever allow, clothes and books stacked neatly as if they’ve never been touched, and decor way more expensive than the 99-cent-ramen-consuming population could afford.
A rare exception to this rule is HBO Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls. The dorm rooms in Mindy Kaling’s spunky coming-of-age comedy are fun and personalized while still, you know, looking like actual dorm rooms. Bela has a touch of neon floral peel-and-stick wallpaper by her bedside, and Leighton’s bedding is pristinely embroidered with her monogram, but there’s still the standard textbooks and clutter gathered on the dorm-issued desks and floors. It’s aspirational, yet totally attainable.
Fans have production designers to thank for this true-to-life feel in the suite of the four Essex College freshmen. Angelique Clark, production designer for Season 2 of the series, sees her role to be as crucial as the story unfolding with the actors on set. “For me, sets are a character as well because that’s my contribution to the story,” she tells Elite Daily. “I’m trying to tell a story through decor and visuals.”
As the drama and hilarity unfolds on The Sex Lives of College Girls’ newest season, Clark opens up about her vision for the fictional college dorm — and for extra credit, she shares some tips on how to bring the charm of their suite into your own college dorm.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Elite Daily: You took over production design for The Sex Lives of College Girls starting in Season 2. How did you approach the physical world-building that was already established in Season 1?
Angelique Clark: After talking to creators Justin Noble and Mindy Kaling, we decided to continue the world that we’ve already built and just add the life layers as we move along. For instance, in the college dorms, everybody was very happy with the first season, so the idea was just to stick with what had already been established. Plus, it’s not like we’re starting a new year in Season 2 — we’re coming back to the season after Thanksgiving break. So for the dorm rooms, we were very conservative in terms of restoring what had been built last season and then gradually adding in the layers as we went throughout the course of the season.
ED: How did you strike the balance between screen-ready sets and realistic dorm decor?
AC: For this approach, we wanted to be very realistic, but also make it beautiful for camera because, of course, this is a visual medium. I think it always starts with making sure that we have the right elements in place, like real dorm furniture. That was established in the first season, so of course, so that was the basic bones.
Then from there we built up and did a lot of research in terms of what college girls are putting up on their walls right now and what these girls would want. We considered for each character: We have Kimberly, who has a different style from Bela and Leighton and Whitney. So we did very targeted research for each character to basically build their rooms in terms of what would be realistic but also play visually well.
ED: Walk me through some of the personal touches for each of the four main characters.
AC: Kimberly is much more straightforward and more academic, so we were looking at people that are pro-climate activists and stuff like that. Plus, we couldn’t forget about the socioeconomics of where she’s at as well. Taking that into consideration, we would try to bring in some cheaper items and add to her room as the season progresses.
Bela’s a wild child. Really, anything goes for her character in terms of decor, so it’s always fun to just be like, “Oh, this is random and wild and fluorescent. Let’s throw that into her color story.” And Leighton, of course, is bougie, and midseason, we introduced some monogrammed pillows and wall decor, which would be very her.
Then Whitney, when the show starts anyways, is the sporty one. But of course, she has other stuff too. It’s always my job working with a show to figure out what kind of stuff she will have on the walls. I always try to imbue the spaces, especially her personal space, with what’s happening in her internal world. As the season progressed, my team was always layering things in that we felt like were personally appropriate. She’s not the one that’s going to be like, “Oh, I’m going to get monogrammed pillows,” you know? We always kept that in mind because I don’t want any one piece of set decor to stand out and force the audience to say, “Wait, what is that doing there?” I want to make sure that I’m always supporting the story.
ED: What tips do you have for a college student who wants to give their space more character and emulate the vibes of Essex’s dorms?
AC: My advice is always to take some time to do some research on Pinterest or Instagram and ask yourself “What is my style?” There’s a million different styles to choose, from boho to Hollywood Regency. (If there was any style for Leighton, I’d say that would be the one for her.) There’s always a way to make it happen, regardless of anybody’s budget.
If a college student wants a frame gallery wall, but feels like they don’t have the budget, go to the 99-cent store and grab a bunch of different size frames. Find magazine cutouts, throw them in there, and paint.
When I went to Berkeley, I didn’t have any money. I was working at the library, and I remember I went through this phase of... well, I just bought tulle. I shared my dorm room with two other girls, and I found tutu material and I just put a seascape on the ceiling and stapled it. You can do anything if you have inspiration and an idea.
ED: What specific techniques do you use to make a dorm room feel complete?
AC: I always respond to coziness. I love a throw pillow moment. That’s a way to tie everything together. And for dorm rooms, lighting just is so underrated. Even fun little sparkle lights always make everything look so pretty and nice. In The Sex Lives of College Girls, we got to use tons. We tried to go to town on all the little decor lightings. You’ll see it in all the frat parties and in all the dorms, and that to me always really made it look so good. I think that can really change a space, whether on set or in real life.
The Sex Lives of College Girls releases new episodes Thursdays on HBO Max.