In Focus

August 6, 2014

Interior designers reimagine college dorm rooms

Halfway between the family nest and your fabulous future may very well be a dorm room. Smaller than a walk-in closet in a new suburban home, it often comes with a roommate, not enough storage space and the most generic furniture the university can buy. On the upside, there are no parents down the hall, and short of spray-painting the walls, you can decorate it any way you want.

Halfway between the family nest and your fabulous future may very well be a dorm room. Smaller than a walk-in closet in a new suburban home, it often comes with a roommate, not enough storage space and the most generic furniture the university can buy. On the upside, there are no parents down the hall, and short of spray-painting the walls, you can decorate it any way you want.

In advance of move-in day, roommates often will collaborate on a comforter color choice, thinking there is little else they need to do. Wrong. There is a lot lacking in a dorm room, and within days of moving in, college freshmen are on their way to The Container Store or Target to purchase additional storage and decorative items.

There are plenty of online packing lists to aid freshmen. Some of them are useful, but many of the retail outlets’ lists are self-serving and include a plenitude of things that are not needed.

Here are some suggestions from three college students majoring in interior design and one recent graduate. They vividly remember living in residence halls and decorating their dorm rooms.

They looked at packing lists online and found there were things missing — not one suggested a printer, paper and ink cartridges, and only one reminded students to bring important papers, such as proof of citizenship if they wanted to get a job, or their financial aid information. So, look at many lists, they advise, as none of them is perfect.

These dorm pros adamantly checked “yes” for a mattress pad, as dorm mattresses are covered in some heinous material, and you really don’t want to think about that surface too much. Light bulbs, plants and scales were in their “don’t need” column, but microwaveable bowls and plates, a good shower caddy and bed skirt to hide the storage boxes were on their “to bring” list.

They all admit to making mistakes their first year, but rallied with a strong finish their last year in the dorm. They came up with 3-D renderings depicting tricks they used, the design skills they have learned, as well as resources they have discovered to create colorful and inviting rooms. Here are many of their good ideas for decorating rooms that come bland as a bowl of cafeteria oatmeal.

Brooke Petty started her dorm room design with the linens, as they are the largest blast of color in the room, she says. She found a fabric with a navy and turquoise ikat pattern and used it for a duvet cover. She especially liked the turquoise in the print, as so many desk accessories, such as lamps, are available in that color this year.

The indoor/outdoor carpet was added for warmth and sound muffling. She elevated the bed with risers, providing 2 feet of clearance underneath to accommodate storage boxes.

She jettisoned the university-issued desk chair and replaced it with a more comfortable and stylish one. Her first dorm room had only a rocking chair, she says, so a good desk chair is a must-have.

Petty lived in one of TCU’s oldest dorms her freshman year, and there wasn’t a built-in closet — just an armoire — which put storage space at a premium. She says she only brought what would fit in her car the first year. Within days of moving in, she found herself trekking to The Container Store and Urban Outfitters to supplement the lack of storage.

“The fridge cart was the best thing I bought, as it added more storage,” she says. She also added a desk organizer and a shoe rack. The curtains were easy to install using a tension rod.

A cork board was a necessity, as she said she needed to have her deadlines posted where she could readily see them. The string of lights was added because without it, all she had were the desk lamp and overhead fluorescent lights, which “were super bright. I wanted something softer so the room would feel more homey.”

Many of the online lists include an alarm clock, but students rarely, if ever, need a watch or a clock; they use their phones for alarms and timekeeping. The iPod dock with speakers gives her a loud alarm and provides her music, a tidy and space-saving unit for her desk top.

The university does not allow students to paint the walls of their dorm rooms, or wallpaper them, but Andrea Becerra found a way around that her freshman year by attaching wallpaper with thumb tacks to two of the walls. “It only took one roll, as I didn’t have much wall space,” she says. This made a dramatic difference to her room, and to her thinking, it was homier.

Her first dorm room also had an off-center window, which she found visually awkward. She remedied the situation by covering the entire window wall with curtains, which helped mask the problem. Her second year at school, she brought a headboard from home to help the look of the bed.

She says she made a mistake her first year buying an intensely bright turquoise duvet cover that overpowered the space. For her redesign, she went with a more neutral, versatile gray linen duvet from Restoration Hardware that wouldn’t fight with the Schumacher trellis print wallpaper. Isn’t she afraid it might show Cheetos stains or something? “I never eat in my bed,” she says emphatically.

Although Becerra had a large closet, she had to add additional storage. She used stackable cubbies and plastic drawers for under the bed, and small bins were placed on top of the dorm-sized refrigerator for snacks.

The lamp came from Target, but as she has been in the designing workforce, albeit briefly, she is already looking beyond the retail stores for her resources. She found two mirrored side tables at West Elm, a flat weave, berry-colored rug from Jonathan Adler and a circular mirror from Baker with a sunburst frame. The chair she suggests in her design is both an attractive side chair and desk chair.

Becerra found it difficult to study in her first dorm room because it wasn’t calm enough, she says. “Plus, I didn’t know how to study.” Making her second room a more peaceful place helped. Now her vision of a dorm room almost suggests a boutique hotel. She’s come a long way since her freshman year.

“I started by looking at fabrics,” says Stevenson of her dorm room design. “I wanted patterns that pop and colors that are vibrant.” She mixed her colors and patterns, but says the interplay will work if the patterns have a similar shape. So her florals and polka dots do a masterful job of invigorating a gray wasteland. She takes on a dorm room for two and squeezes as much style as she can into a live/study space.

Stevenson is well on her way to getting her portfolio in shape for her job hunt after graduation in 2015. In June it was announced that Stevenson won first place in a contest sponsored by Sherwin-Williams for her residential design of a Miami Beach condominium. (The results of the student design competition will be posted on the company’s Facebook page.)

For her dorm room design, Stevenson began with fabrics, then went to the retailers that have products with good price points for students. She recommends Target, T.J. Maxx, Bed Bath & Beyond and Wal-Mart. The poufs came from Target, and the refrigerator cart with polka dot fabric drawers came from PB Teen.

Even the ubiquitous backpack works with the room design. The one in her rendering, below, with a Vera Bradley print, is from Stevenson’s imagination by way of a design program.

She is a believer in Command strips and says they can hold up the many shelves and the bulletin board. She fills her mid-space with Chinese paper lanterns for an alternative to the florescent lighting. The chairs are an Ikea design that she covered with fabric.

Stevenson can juggle a vibrant palette with aplomb and uses it to good effect in a dorm room, giving an uninspired space an energetic spark.

The color turquoise was Thy Nguyen’s departure point. She says it is in such quantity, it should be the dorm color of the year. She found it on lamps, fabrics, desk accessories and storage containers.

Nguyen was the only designer who worked solely with the furniture provided by TCU in one of the newest dorms. The plain front desk, bed and dressers are finished in a mid-range brown wood finish, neither light nor dark with an orange cast that makes it difficult, as it doesn’t recede into the background. By surrounding the desk and dressers with brighter, happier colors, she renders the basic bland case goods as neutral as possible.

The fabric storage cubes are housed in a wire cubicle that can be stacked in towers or in horizontal rows. The fabric adds a blast of color and hides the junk. A patterned rug helps animate the space, and a simple floral is used for the duvet cover.

The box shelves look as if they would be difficult to mount, but Nguyen says short nails work for shelves such as these. She says a close inspection of the dorm room walls will reveal years of tiny pockmarks left from tenants past. Whatever cannot be hung with Command Strips, she insists, can be fastened with nails.

She moved into her first dorm room with her things packed in plastic totes that would slide under the bed. Using her storage containers as moving boxes was easy, she says. They were waterproof, had good strong handles and were useful after she unpacked.

Some things that Nguyen says she shouldn’t have brought to school her first year were so many sweaters; the dress code for college is much more relaxed than it is for high school, and she found herself wearing sweat shirts rather than sweaters.

On the “should bring” list? She includes a hand vacuum and a full-length mirror.

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