An interior designer's tips for dorm room decorating

In 1900, a pair of freshly minted prep school graduates Frank Roosevelt and Lathrop Brown moved into a suite of rooms in the famous Adams House at Harvard. The future President of the United States and his buddy lived liked veritable kings as compared to today’s average dorm dwellers. While Harvard still offers its lucky inhabitants fireplaced dorm suites, they aren’t likely to be as lavishly furnished as those preppies from yesteryear.

Today’s standard dorm rooms, at even the most expensive universities, are boilerplate structures with standard issue twin beds, well used bureaus and chewed up desks. Generally speaking, today’s college students show up with some new bedding and towels, maybe a few posters and their laptops. The only added furnishing might be a mini-fridge.

But what of the student who wishes to live in a space that is more personal than institutional? A space that feels like home yet expresses his or her own personality, interests and style? Most institutions have strict rules when it comes to decorating dorm rooms from bans on mini-lights and candles, repainting walls or draping fabrics. Yet with a little imagination a creative student or parent can create a space that is comfortable, homey and even hip.

The Bed: In most standard dorm rooms, the bed is the main focal point of the space. Instead of standard “bed-in-a-bag” coverings, mix and match separates for a more interesting look. If there is a willing roommate, purchase two different bedding ensembles that work together and then swap the pillow covers or sheets for a coordinated, but not matchy-matchy look. Use sturdy rubber bed risers, available in home stores, to raise the bed for added under-bed storage. Use a bedskirt to hide it all or purchase full bedspreads that reach to the ground. If under-bed storage isn’t required, create a swanky low-slung sofa look by adding extra-large cushions along the wall-side of the bed, propped up between the bed and wall. The cushions can be oversize pillows, floor cushions or even old sofa cushions from an unwanted sofa. Throw in some coordinated toss pillows for added color and comfort.

The Lighting: Stores like Ikea offers stylish and very well priced lighting options from colorful clip-on desk lights to clip-on wall sconces. Designer’s like to say you can never have too much light and it all should be on dimmers for maximum flexibility. Purchase a few extension cords with dimmer switch, available at any hardware store or through Amazon, and you will have instant and inexpensive lighting options for any mood.

The Walls: Some schools allow students to paint their rooms and others don’t. If you’re allowed to paint your space, then have at it. A gallon of paint in a fresh new color will make a world of difference to any dorm room. Or, simply paint the wall that the door is on so it’s visible from only within the room (but you didn’t hear that here).

Another option to repainting is removable wall decals. They come in many shapes, sizes and themes and can be re-positioned and removed without marking up the walls. Old framed artwork is easy to come by and if you don’t like the picture, remove it and spray paint the frame in a great new color and hang either empty or surrounding your own artwork or a poster. Instead of simply taping up sports or music posters, cut it up into puzzle pieces and mount on foam core or styrofoam board using double sided tape or removable wall hangers to show the poster in a new way.

The Floor: Dorm floors are usually covered in either linoleum tiles or, worse, worn-out wall-to-wall carpeting. No school will allow alterations to these, even if money was no object, but they can certainly be covered up with area rugs or even a cut-to-size broadloom carpet remnant, available at many carpet stores at a low price. There are even floor decals available, which like wall decals can be removed, to add flair to a dull industrial floor tile.

The Shopping: Beyond the bedding, which should always be new, there are always great bargains at flea markets, thrift stores, yard sales and even the sidewalk on trash day. When picking up second hand goods, always remember that they should be clean, in good repair and that you love them. A new look is always just a can of paint away.

Linda Merrill writes about Boston-area painting projects and remodeling for Networx.

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