When Young Huh left for college in the 1980s, she brought “one giant poster of The Cure, bedding from the local bed-and-bath store and maybe some desk accessories.” Like so many Gen-Xers, her one creative touch was asking a supermarket for leftover milk crates to use as bookshelves.
Now an interior designer, she has helped her own children decorate their dorm rooms, and she’s amazed at the design expectations among college students.
“It’s a level of decorating that did not even exist in my world view when I was in school,” Huh said.
Today, there are lots of products “that cater entirely to the college crowd,” she said.
Interior designer Jon Call sees the same phenomenon: While his main business is designing luxury homes in Manhattan, he also gets asked to design college living spaces.
“This new generation has grown up under the influence of home magazines, HGTV and the virtues of ‘democratic design.’ They understand the value of creating unique spaces for themselves,” he said. They want their dorm rooms “not only to function, but also to reflect who they are.”
We’ve asked Huh, Call and small-space design expert Theodore Leaf, host of the Design Network series “Living Big in Under 1,000 Sq. Ft.,” for advice on infusing a college dorm room with style and personality, while keeping budget and function in mind.
Choose your vision
As with any design project, Huh recommends beginning with an overall vision for the space. “Is it all one color and soothing? Is it ethnic eclectic? Are you going for pink extravaganza? Clip some pictures or start a Pinterest page,” she said.
Then, choose a focal point for the room, something you would like to see every day. “It could be your bed with an oversize art work or a fun suzani wall hanging over it,” Huh said. “Having something over-scaled or very interesting to look at distracts the eye and makes you forget the size of the space.”
If your focal point includes saturated, dramatic color, it also will help disguise the fact that a room is small. “This could be a red bed in an otherwise neutral room,” Call explains. “It allows the eye to focus on one thing and the defining walls to disappear.”
Call also suggests adding a beautiful headboard to the existing bedframe, elevating the look of basic dorm furniture.
Another trick: Keep your color scheme to just three colors to help make a small space feel bigger, and “focus on fewer pieces of furniture at a larger scale,” Call said.
Leaf said the few furniture pieces you bring should do double-duty, such as a storage ottoman large enough to function as a mini coffee table or as seating.
Call agrees: “Your end table may have a drawer that is outfitted with chargers and cords to make it an electronics station. Your bed could have bolsters on it to convert it into a daybed for additional seating.”
Huh suggests adding a loft to lift the bed, or at least adding risers to create under-bed storage space.
You also can use window draperies to make the room seem larger. Dorm rooms often come with vertical blinds, Leaf said, and you can transform the look by adding inexpensive sheer curtains hung high on a tension rod over the blinds. To make it even more dramatic, use a larger rod (even a tension rod made for a shower curtain) and run the sheers across an entire wall.
A colorful rug is an easy way to add style and warmth. Temporary wallpaper also can make a dorm feel less institutional. Candles (or artificial candles, for safety) can make a room feel “a little bit more tucked in,” Leaf said. And an oil diffuser is great for scenting the space.
Lighting is another powerful room-changer: Instead of living with harsh fluorescent lights, Leaf suggests gathering a few hand-me-down lamps from parents or grandparents, and changing the lamp shades if you don’t like them. Dimmers make a difference, too: You can use technology like Philips’ Hue bulbs, which are controlled via an app, or simply bring plug-in dimmers.
Lastly, said Huh: “Fairy lights are de rigueur dorm decor.”
And don’t forget personal items from home.
“Anything that you can bring from home will make a dorm room feel more personal and comfortable,” Huh said. “A favorite mug and something you love from your room at home should also come with you to school.”