How To Keep Your Dorm Room From Looking Like Bed, Bath & Beyond


For many, back-to-school shopping means creating a home away from home: The dorm room. So, how do you make that room yours when you’re working with ugly, standard-issue furniture and very little cash?

Avoiding the generic, drab, crappy-chic look is a challenge, but with a little ingenuity — and a clear concept — it’s easy to make a space that reflects what you love.

For me, decorating can be a lot like getting dressed: I start with something I like, and build around it. In my current apartment, I really wanted to hang a picture of shoes on the wall — my red heels next to my boyfriend’s black and white oxfords. Once I decided that, black and white and red were “my colors.” The red couch and black and white zebra rug fell into place, and, when shopping, I didn’t even look at anything blue, pink, orange or green.

Colors that flatter your skin tone are going to look great when you’re surrounded with them — when you start living in the glow of dorm’s flourescent lights, you may find your self actually caring about this. Some people look great in neutrals, others shine near jewel tones. If you have a purple dress that you love, and get lots of compliments on, don’t be afraid to try purple in your room. And remember: It’s rarely about money.

Sadie says:

When I moved into my dorm room, I went to town. I had brought my own flea-market armchair, a hooked rug, a piece of vintage fabric for the window, a hanging paper lantern to put over the bulb. The walls I covered in matted fashion prints I’d found at a tag sale and some Stieglitz posters from the Met. I’d brought a patchwork quilt and several plants for my desk. It had been a crowded car ride, but I was insistent: I needed to feel comfortable in my new space and surrounded by things I loved and loved to look at.
Of course, I didn’t have a roommate, which made things easier; but even with one, I think these ways of personalizing would have worked. The longer I lived there, the more the room changed. After a few weeks, I found a strange old china shepherdess lamp to replace the standard-issue one; a rock from a camping trip became a paperweight and a doll’s head from the street turned into a sinister bookend. Almost all of it came from thrift stores and yard sales – not least because this was pre-eBay (and bedbugs.) I’ve always liked to be around older things with some history and idiosyncrasy and especially
when the surroundings were modern and streamlined. My general approach has always been to try to make every object, however utilitarian, somehow interesting. That means a lot of things to a lot of people, but if I had one rule of thumb, it’d be that. Well, that and make your home – be it half a dorm room or not – a place you want to come home to.

With that in mind, here are three steps to getting a great space:

1. Settle on a concept.
Having a concept from the very beginning can really help — you’re less likely to lose focus when shopping, or buy stuff you don’t really like. If you know you want your room to be dark, rock’n roll and lounge-y, don’t fall for a cute, bright, fresh, preppy pillow, or grab it because it’s cheap. Stick to the plan, and the space will look cohesive. (Of course, if your theme is “Heathers,” mixing preppy pillows with black sheets works! Don’t forget the glass coffee table, eskimo.)

2. It’s all about the accessories.
In a dorm room – or even a starter apartment — the furniture is seldom high-quality, and you might get wood grain when you’d prefer laminate, or vice-versa. But pillows, posters, candles, plants, frames and knick-knacks really fill in the gaps and create an atmosphere. An artfully tucked sheet and some pillows can completely transform a couch. Organizing books by color or interspersing mementos among books can make a blah bookcase an interesting showpiece. Pillows can turn a regular bed seem into a daybed.

3. Break the rules and think outside the box.
Items don’t have to be used as they were intended. A bookcase can become a room divider. Can’t paint? Hang fabric. A trunk or footlocker not only stores sheets and comforters but doubles as a coffee table or bench seat. I used to live in a tiny apartment with zero closet space, so I hung all my purses on the wall — the shimmery, colorful ones more front and center, as part of the decor. I’ve seen maps used as window shades and curtains used as bed canopies.

Coming Up With A Concept
Maybe you can immediately say, “I want my room to be preppy.” Or “I want my room to be purple.” That’s easy. But consider other possibilities: Being inspired by a movie, a place, or even your major! For instance:

Liberal Arts
If you like poetry, reading and listening to music, create an “artsy” space. Choose comfy bedding perfect for curling up with a good book. Look for magnets and posters with inspirational quotes by inspirational people. Play with patterns, maybe try covering an old desk in chalkboard paint.

• Record player from Fred Flare.
• Laundry bag from Etsy.
• Tree pillowcase from Etsy.
• Warhol poster from
• Guitar from Guitar Center.
• Desk chair from The Container Store.
Chalkboard vase from The Moma Store.
• Tapestry (for bedding or wall) from Urban Outfitters.

Biology or pre-med? Let nature and sciencey-stuff inspire you. My sister, who is now a vet, started collecting bones in college, saving stuff from labs and field trips, and made amazing displays. It would also be fun to do a “tech” room with lots of robots, or an astronomy room inspired by stars and planets.

• Herb pot from Fred Flare.
• Octopus pillowcase from Etsy
• Owl bedding from Etsy.
• Anatomical heart nightlight from Etsy.
• Robo vacuum from Fred Flare.

International Relations
A “global” room is full of possibilities, especially if you have, or are hoping to study abroad. Collecting stuff from, or related to a dream destination can be an ongoing process. Maps are generally cheap (or free), and can be used as wall paper, window shades, or to cover an ugly table top. Flags can turn into curtains or bedspreads, and all kinds of souvenirs can really give a room personality.

• Rice bag turned-laundry bag from Etsy.
• Buddha from Archie McPhee.
• Globe from Toys R Us.
• Block print bedspread from Etsy.
• “Translations” wastebasket from The Container Store.
• French notebooks from Urban Outfitters.
• Paper lantern from Pearl River.
• Paper dragon from Pearl River.
• Zebra poster from

Film Studies
Let the tools of your trade be your guide! Movie memorabilia, or items that seem like they’d be in the home of an award-winning director, can make a strong visual impact. Blowing up and printing out film stills can replace a hum-drum poster — try either lots of little images or one giant photo for a dramatic statement.

• Bette Davis poster from
• Bedding from Delia’s.
• Marquee letter light from Urban Outfitters.
• Princess phone from Best Buy.
• Lomo camera from Fred Flare.
• Fish “hotel” from The MOMA Store.
• Checkerboard chair from Wake Up Frankie.
• Hollywood chalkboard from Fred Flare.

Obviously, these are just jumping off points. If you’re a dance major who loves the idea of the “biology” room, go for it! Or perhaps your concept is “Paperbag Princess” or “That chick from Labyrinth.” Just pick something you connect to and commit. And remember: If you don’t like it, you can start over next year.

[Lead image by Andrejs Pidjass/Shutterstock.]

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