If there is one element of college life that has not changed, it is the always utilitarian, ever-dependable dorm room, where students have been dropping milk crates onto the linoleum floor and unpacking their shower caddies for what seems like a millennium.
Yet, while the cubbyhole-like quarters have managed to keep their plain-Jane design, let’s just say these aren’t your parents’ dorm rooms anymore.
Today’s generation of students is leaning away from the week-at-summer-camp look and more interested in turning these close quarters into places of refuge. Through choices in everything from bedding to wall decor, they are pulling together homey spaces they actually want to hang out in.
Maxwell Ryan, an interior designer and CEO of Apartment Therapy Media that includes the home design blog, apartmenttherapy.com, has seen the trend take off within the past few years.
“When we started, in 2001 to 2004, college students were not as interested in design as they are today. … In the last two years I’ve felt like it’s been a sea change, there has been a lot more interest at the college level in not just decorating your room but making it comfortable and personal,” Ryan said.
What makes this generation different, he noted, is a stronger desire to express individuality, even if it is something as simple as putting a vintage dresser from a consignment shop next to the dorm-room futon.
Jeff Gawronski, CEO of the online dorm-room supply company DormCo, thinks the uncertainty of the economy has played a role as well. Some students are just not sure if they’ll have their own apartment right after graduation. The dorm room is their chance to start “putting their stamp” on something, he said.
“It’s viewed more as … ‘I’m leaving mom and dad for the first time, this is my first home,’ ” he said.
Among the most popular items on his website are bedding and plush rugs in colors that range from cool aqua to bright lime, he said. Peel-and-stick wall decor “has just exploded” with choices that include frames for personal photographs and motivational quotations such as, “Do what you love,” and “You can go your own way,” he added.
Dorm rooms offer a great place for young adults to express their individuality because the space is essentially a blank slate and small enough not to be overwhelming, the experts said.
Ryan said students simply need one item for inspiration, such as a photograph that represents the feeling they want to create in the room, and can let the decorating flow from there in terms of color and design.
Artwork, furniture or other items from home that have special meaning, even care-worn vintage items found in resale shops, are a great way to personalize a space and make it cozy, added Ryan, who is the author of “Apartment Therapy’s Big Book of Small, Cool Spaces” (Potter Style, 2010).
The sterile feel and even echo-like acoustics of a dorm room can be softened by adding textiles, from window treatments to wool pelts thrown over chairs, he added.
Getting away from the harsh, overhead lighting so common in these rooms is also essential. Ryan recommends bringing in three points of softer light that rest below eye level, such as table and floor lamps. Students can take it a step further by modifying the lamps with dimmer switches, he said.
Aimee Beatty, in-house stylist for Pier 1 Imports, noted that some of the best ways to cozy up a room are to accent the bed or futon with decorative pillows and throws, and bring in framed photographs.
“The first thing you want to do when arriving in a plain dorm room is to make it your own. Frames help you to decorate your space with memories of family and friends, so home doesn’t feel so far away,” she said.
And, of course, it’s always important to have fun.
Some sources for both shopping and decorating inspirations, according to Ryan, include Ikea and its P.S. Collection, West Elm, Dwell Studio and Etsy.
Nancy Blau, a local interior designer who helped her two daughters set up dorm rooms, suggests going to resale shops and garage sales for items that can be repurposed.
Old, wooden chairs, for example, can be brightened up with paint or colorful cushions, she said. Two used file cabinets or end tables topped with wood remnants from a cabinet shop can serve as a desk or work space.
She also suggests checking out stores such as T.J. Maxx and HomeGoods that are great places to find inexpensive decor items and dorm-friendly furniture such as stacking stools that can provide extra seating when friends drop by.
“Something that’s really important is that everything has to be accessible and lightweight, functional and movable,” she said.
Students should not be afraid to try do-it-yourself projects. Personal photographs, for example, can be copied and adhered with decoupage sealants to pieces of old furniture. There are also rolls of cork found at stores such as Home Depot. The cork can be glued to boards made from soft wood, decorated or covered with fabric, then used as bulletin or inspiration boards, Blau said.
“I think people just need to understand proportion and size, but also not be intimidated by trying to do something a little bit out of the box to make the room a little more special,” she said.
Bringing in favorite colors “that you feel happiest to be around” is another way to add life to a dorm room, she said.
Finally, although personal touches are key to making these rooms unique, space is always a consideration in such tight quarters. Creating a homelike feel in a dorm room, in fact, is usually a balancing act between form and function.
When it comes to arranging the room, it’s always a good idea to start with the largest pieces of furniture. Dorm-room beds, for example, ideally should be moved to the longest wall and as far away from the doorway as possible to open up the room, Blau said. Ryan also suggests keeping the desk and bed far apart, perhaps putting the desk by a window and the bed along a far wall in the quietest part of the room.
There are a plethora of space-saving items as well. DormCo, for example, has ottomans and bench seats that provide storage, as well as shelves and stackable storage cubes that can be used for everything from shoes to books.
There are also bed risers that can be purchased online or at stores such as Bed, Bath &Beyond, that raise beds several inches so boxes can be stored underneath.
Beatty suggested using baskets as attractive storage solutions for everything from laundry to snacks and also points to furniture that suits minimal spaces. Pier 1, for example, has its colorful Weldon Low Shelves, which provide shelving in narrow areas about 14 inches wide and 3 feet high.
Whatever direction a student wants to go, according to the experts, there are plenty of ways to create a personal space that is unique and, probably most important, feels like home.