Designing Your Dorm Room

Photo courtesy of Bed Bath & Beyond
Retailers such as Bed Bath & Beyond have turned dorm room size constraints into opportunities to market bedding, accessories, furniture and other items designed for small spaces.

In the not-so-distant past, before Pinterest and HGTV, the average college freshman arrived at his or her shared, 170-square-foot dorm room with a basic set of twin bedding, a couple of posters and a desk lamp. Some freshmen went all out, adding a beanbag chair for guests or a throw rug to keep their toes toasty.

This month, as students move into college residence halls across the nation, you’d be hard-pressed to find a minivan or SUV that isn’t stuffed with stylish comforters, fuzzy throws, plush rugs, custom-made headboards, curtains, ottomans, framed art and possibly wall-sized monogram plaques. Teens, it seems, are as caught up in sophisticated interior decor as many adults, at least when it comes to designing their first home away from home.

Customized Comfort

While students’ attitudes and expectations may have changed, one fact remains constant: Dorm rooms are small, furnishings are spare, and the walls and floors typically scream “institution.” Retailers such as Target, Bed Bath & Beyond and Pottery Barn have turned these constraints into opportunities to market bedding, accessories, furniture and decor items designed for small spaces and double-occupancy living, with personalization and comfort in mind.

Raleigh resident Olivia Liacos spent her first two years of college at one of the country’s most dorm decor-focused schools — the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss — without succumbing to designing her dorm room as extravagantly as many of her classmates had. In fact, she matched with her freshman-year roommate, Taylor Farley, in part because neither wanted to go as “all out” as some Ole Miss girls do.

Instead, they focused on comfort, choosing queen-size comforters to make their twin beds cozier and more luxurious, and they paid a friend of Farley’s family to build padded headboards for their rooms in Crosby Hall. The two also agreed to personalize their halves of the room by displaying signs, pictures, flags and plaques paying tribute to their home states — North Carolina for Liacos and Texas for Farley.

Today, “I’m still using my comforter set,” says Liacos, who is back in the Triangle working part-time and planning to transfer to either North Carolina State University or Meredith College.

Boys Will be Boys

Julie Nickens of Raleigh is an old hand at sending children off to college. Three years ago, her daughter, Markie, moved into a freshman dorm at Appalachian State University. This month, she and her husband, Eddie, will move their son, Jack, into UNC-Chapel Hill’s Granville Towers. Her advice for parents of boys: Make sure they have a pop-up laundry hamper that serves double duty as a laundry bag. Making it easy for boys to keep their dirty clothes off the floor and take them to the laundry room will go a long way toward ensuring they have a clean room and clean clothes.

Another must-have for boys: a scent diffuser. While girls like these because they create a pleasing ambience, boys can use them to mask the locker room odor that permeates the boys’ halls in every dorm.

Finally, “Don’t send anything that’s really nice or that you care about,” Nickens says. “You’ve got to be OK with it ending up in a dumpster” at the end of the school year.

Keep Priorities Straight

Don’t forget what’s important. As NCSU Director of Student Housing Susan Grant points out, “living on campus is one of the best opportunities for new students to engage with their school and develop lifelong friendships.”

NCSU administrators are so convinced of these benefits, Grant says, that beginning this fall, all first-year students under the age of 21 must live in university housing for one year. This includes students from the Triangle who might otherwise commute to class.

Twenty years from now, your child won’t remember the color of his comforter or what was hanging on the wall. What he’ll recall, instead, is the fun he had with his roommates and friends.

How to Make the Most of Small Spaces

Here are some tips from colleges, parents and retailers to help your college student transform her small, shared room into a comfortable space that reflects her personality — and won’t annoy roommates or break the bank.

1. Add homey touches. Heidi LeCount, director of residential life at Meredith College, notes that few decorations are as meaningful as framed photos of a student’s family, friends and pets. Make sure your child takes at least one family photo to stave off homesickness while personalizing his space. And not everything has to be new, except the sheets. Most families don’t have spare sets of extra-large twin sheets in their linen closet. Send your child with his favorite comforter, pillow or blanket.

2. Maximize and multi-purpose. Consider purchasing a bed riser that doubles as an electrical outlet, an ottoman that contains a storage compartment and a thick mattress pad to make a thin mattress more comfortable. When it comes to making a shared space more livable, choose items that do double duty and use every square inch of available space.

“Luckily, there are some great ways to create more room by using storage and organizational items under the bed, over the door and in the closet,” says Jessica Joyce, a spokeswoman for Bed, Bath & Beyond. “Over-the-door is an easy place to maximize space with a full-length mirror, an extra closet rod or hamper. A shoe organizer is a great multipurpose item that can hold T-shirts, toiletries, accessories and, of course, shoes. The under-bed space is often forgotten, but it’s a great area to add stacking drawers for extra clothes or store unused luggage.”

3. Divide and conquer. If your child hasn’t already been in touch with her roommate, encourage her to do so. There’s no need to duplicate items that can be shared, such as refrigerators, microwaves, TVs, area rugs, full-length mirrors or guest chairs. Rather than splitting the bill for each item, divvy up the list between the two families, with each student keeping what her family bought when May rolls around. Nothing derails comfort like a small space crammed with stuff that isn’t being used.

On the other hand, don’t bring everything at once, LeCount advises. “If you need two cars to bring (your stuff), you’ll need six to get out,” she warns. “Let the room evolve.”

4. Refer to room specs. Most colleges offer specifications about room dimensions and furnishings to incoming freshmen. Even if you don’t plan to customize anything in the room, it’s good to know the following:

  • Can bunk beds be configured as two singles? If so, consider buying bed risers, or lofts, to allow room for under-bed storage.
  • Do closets have doors? If not, some students might want to bring a tension rod and curtain or bed sheet to fashion into a closet “door.”
  • Are nails allowed? If not, better stock up on adhesive strips to attach wall décor.
  • Need an area rug? Know the room’s dimensions before deciding what size and shape to get.
  • Does the room come with a microwave, refrigerator or both — or are they even allowed?

Photo courtesy of the Liacos family

Raleigh resident Olivia Liacos (left) and her roommate, Taylor Farley (right), in their dorm in Crosby Hall at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in fall 2015.


Suzanne Wood has moved one child into and out of a dorm and an apartment, and is three years away from sending her twins off to college.


Categories: College Planning, Education, Lifestyle