Campus Overload: Decorating your dorm room

Aug 19, 2011

Long gone, it seems, are the days of stocking your dorm room with hand-me-downs from home and a desk built from milk crates. Students prepared to spend $100,000 on an undergraduate degree increasingly are willing to invest in transforming the dorm into something closer to a first apartment. This school year, the National Retail Federation estimates college students will spend nearly $97 on dorm furnishings, a significant bump from last year?s average of about $80.

Decorating your dorm is also a design challenge. And what are the best ways to creatively transform your tiny room into a fashionable home?

Jenna Johnson, a higher education reporter for the Post, just wrote an article about the evolution of high-end dorm decor. She will be online Friday at 11a.m. to answer questions, along with Karen Zuckerman, the founder of Dormify and the mother of a junior in college.

Happy Friday, everyone!

I wrote an article for tomorrow's real estate section (read it online here) about how a some college students are able to transform their dingy dorm rooms into lush living quarters with the help of upscale retailers.

And for the next hour, I am here to answer all of your questions about dorm decor, move-in day and all-things-college. I'm joined by Karen Zuckerman, the founder of Dormify, an online dorm decor retailer that was the centerpiece of my story. (Karen is also a MoCo mother with three kids, one whom is a junior in college, so she knows first-hand what you are going through!)

So, send us your questions! And also send us your tips: What should students NOT pack for college? How did you decorate your dorm room? What tips do you have for the incoming Class of 2015?

Hi! I'm Karen Zuckerman. Today I'll be answering questions about designing your dorm room. As a mom of a rising junior at Washington University in St. Louis. I've been through this drill. Not only in my daughters WU dorm room but in her common area as well. Plus, we've done her NYU summer dorm a few times. Point is... I can give you some good advice.

Dormify came to life based on the concept of giving students and their parents an easy way to add style to their space. We created a variety of products that are specifically tailiored to dorm rooms, with our target audience in mind.

I look forward to helping you style your space : )

So, Karen, how did you decorate your dorm room at Penn State back in the day?

Karen's dorm roomWhen I was at Penn State, my roomate and I had the BEST dorm room. We bought a loft bed from a soph who was moving off campus, and got him and his roomate to install it for us. We got matching rainbow comforters and used primary colors throughout the room. Under the loft bed we had a beanbag chair, a fridge, and a serious stereo system (haha) on milk crates. It was a happening room : )


East Halls, Stone hall rm 222!


Make sure that your bed is a comfortable place to sleep. For nights where you don't get a full 8 hours, you can at least make sure that you sleep soundly. I brought my old sheets to have a reminder of home, but I slurged on a mattress pad and down comforter (helped me survive New England winters). I actually had friends ask to take naps in my bed, it was that comfortable :)

Ahhh, that sounds wonderful! Another reason to have a comfy bed: I know that when I was in college (well, and now, too) I spent way, way more time sitting on my bed with my laptop or books than I ever spent sitting at a desk...

(And, uh, for some reason this comment made me think of a Sex & the City quote from Miranda: "I'm trying to change my bed karma. I figure if I can make my bed a place I really want to be, others will feel the same.")

Why do students want their dorm rooms to be so well decorate and homey? When you sent your daughter off to school, why was it important to you that she feel comfortable in her new home?

Its really important to make your child feel at home in their dorm room. Its the first time they really have their own space. They want to be excited about bringing friends back to their rooms to hang. There is a certain feeling about coming home to cozy place after a long day. I know my daughter loves being in her room, even to study. That makes me feel good!

Karen, your daughter Amanda chose a college far from home. Any tips for families moving their students to campuses more than a car ride away?

If your child is heading off to college far from home there are quite a few things you need to do to prepare. First, print out the checklist! Then try to get online and find any floorplan or photo of what their room might look like. Stalk everywhere including flicker to find it.  Then head to bed bath & beyond and do your neccessity shop. They will have the products waiting at the school's local BB&B. I suggest using as a way to choose the style you're going for. And, a way to share with your roomate. Be eclectic and use layering and texture. Make sure you have plenty of things for your walls. Bring a tool kit, and be prepared to shop more when you arrive.

Are guys also into decorating their dorm rooms? Or is this just a girl thing?

Some guys do, and some of my daughters friends want to be "dormified"! We are focusing on girls to start because it is a bigger need. They are more concerned with style. Boys can learn from our blog, and their moms still want to make them comfortable. But boys don't care as much.

So, what's your personal FAVORITE piece in your Dormify line?

My favorite dormify bedding is the reversible duvets. We have 2 color ways. In gray the butterfly & pinwheel and in brown the moroccan & so oval it. These look great with almost any pop of color. By making it reversible its great for roomates and for switching things up 2nd semester. My fav new product is our hastag pillow #justsayin.

Do you believe it is very important to coordinate with your roommates with regard to colors of everything we've bought? I didn't coordinate with my two roommates and it turns out that our colors look like they won't really match. Do you think this will make our room look like a mess or maybe we can make it look like three separate spaces that combine into a splash of different colors? What do you suggest we do? Thanks!

Well, this is a little tricky. Depends on your space. It can become a little messy looking. It would be great if you could find some way to thread it together. This is one of the reasons that we made our dormify bedding neutral, so that you can each have your own splash. I would be happy to look at a photo when you are moving in and help you pull it together if needed. One other thought is to use the dormify letters in the same colors that work with each bed.

Worst case try to use colors that compliment each other.

question about PSU takes me back. I lived in Tener Hall back in the day. :)

Love east halls!! Wait until you see the pic. So retro!

Is there a way to do this all for an affordable price? I know it's a space I'll be living in for a long time, but with the costs of books, etc., do you have any tips for still having a comfortable, cute room without breaking the bank?

College is so, so expensive. And, personally, I think it's better to spend your limited funds out having fun with your friends than on a several-hundred-dollar Anthropologie bedspread... But that doesn't mean your dorm room can't have character.

I recommend concentrating your purchases on the big things that will add pops of color to your room: Your bedspread. An area rug. A huge poster.

(When my little sister graduated from high school, I bought her a funky hot pink, yellow and white comforter. She used it all five years at college.)

And then save money on the little things. Instead of buying new towels that will hide in your closet, snag a couple from home. Instead of buying brand-new dishware, pick some up at a thrift store. (Craigslist is also a great source!)

Also, share as much as you can with your roommate. There's no need for more than one of most things in your room.

And get creative! My sophomore year in college, I cut a bunch of colorful scrapbook paper into squares and "tiled" a wall in my room.

Anyone else have ideas for cutting costs??

I'll be a sophomore at UMD this year and my roommate and I would love to have some fun, comfortable seating in the center of the room. Do you have any recommendations for inexpensive yet stylish options?

I would say bean bags or some kind of pouf. Funny thing is we are creating a line just like that for our dormify furniture launch next year. I wish I had it for you. Target has some tufted ottomans that are cool. And check urban outfitters poufs, or corduroy floor pillow in five colors. I'd love to see 4 square ottomans together!

Check with family members to see if they have any furniture/pictures sitting in their basement that they aren't using. I got these awesome old museum posters from my aunt that were too beat up for her living room but were pretty darn classy for a dorm room.

Oh, great idea!

What would be the best way to have maximum storage space, and not look cluttered. I want to keep a fresh clean look ...

The key is to not bring too much stuff to campus. The more you have, the more you have to store.

I really encourage students to hold off on buying tons of storage containers until they have moved into their rooms. Chances are, your sweaters might be better organized neatly piled on a shelf in your closet than they would be thrown into a plastic bin under your bed. Move-in. Assess. And then buy.

Luckily, storage containers are no longer dull and boring. Check out places like Home Goods or The Container Store for brightly colored hangers, patterned boxes and organization-stuff-galore. Or cover some of your moving boxes with funky wrapping paper from Paper Source.

Karen, do you have any more ideas?

Well, I know my girls are bringing a lot of stuff. And there is no way to stop them. So how do keep the room un-cluttered. First, underbedstorage boxes, min 2 high. Also, in closet use our 6 shelf organizer to stack all of you jeans, its awesome! There is a rubbermaid shelving unit at target that is GREAT!! Use for scarves, scocks hair products etc. Trust me this is the best use of space. Bring your winter stuff up at Thanksgiving thats a big help : )

I heard on the radio this morning that many students are not bringing a tv to school. Although you can watch a number of television shows on line, I don't think all of them are available. I can't imagine not having been able to watch Lost, for example. I'm sure they don't watch as much television, but what about sports, etc?

You know, I've heard this from a couple of people now and it really surprised me. Personally, I think it's better to watch "How I Met Your Mother" on TV with your roommate or floormates, than it is to watch it alone on your laptop with earbuds in. Plus, where would you play video games?

I get the feeling that this is a whisper campaign started by dads who are sick and tired of carrying televisions blocks from the car and up dorm stairs in the August heat...

(That said, when I was a kid we didn't even have a television because my hippy parents wanted us to play outside. When we finally got one in middle school, we didn't have cable. Going off to college opened my eyes to all of the glorious hours of cable television that I had missed growing up.)

What's a big trend for dorm rooms? Should you really actually follow trneds when picking out dorm room designs? Or should you choose something more classic?

Wall  Decals are one of the hottest trends in dorm room design—they’re chic, easy to apply and really breathe life and color into a space. Now you can have a big, fancy chandelier —without the hefty price tag, or clothesline of picture frames without any tools. Another trend is layering. Using different pillows, blankets and patterns from our duvets are popular.

How can one fully take advantage of all the space in a dorm room? I shouldn't say ALL the space, rather, the limited amount of it. Tips? Tricks?

Again: Only bring the basics. Share stuff with your roommate. And don't pack an entire college career's worth of toothpaste.

In a tiny dorm room, you want to maximize the space that you do have -- so instead of getting a huge bookcase that eats up floorspace, opt for bins that can slide under your bed in otherwise unusable space.

Also: I highly recommend lofting your beds, which opens up tons of space below.

George Washington University Dean of Students Peter Konwerski (@gwpeterk) asked on Twitter: "Any advice on balancing beautiful dorm decor and not doing damage to walls and hall structures in University owned property?"

I would say the decals are a great way to add style without damage. Another thing is using the 3m command strips. The velcro ones and the hooks really hold anything. We also have our posters which we recommed very lightweight target 18x24 poster frames for. Extremely easy to hang and remove.

Yesterday I posted an "ultimate college packing list" on my blog. It's a long list, but what did I forget to include?

What is the best thing a mom can give her child when leaving for college to remind her of home?

Awww, it depends family to family. Whatever you do, keep it small and sentimental -- a framed family photo that's not posed, a piece of jewelry that your mother gave you, a copy of a favorite childhood book with a message written inside, or a short letter your child can read after you leave.

But -- remember -- you are already giving your child a HUGE gift by sending him or her to college.

Do you think a refrigerator is necessary for a dorm room? And if you do need one, how do you put it in your room without taking up a ton of space or prevent it from looking out of place in your decor? It's just so big!

I'd get a fridge. I actually reccommend the med size. The tiny ones are too small for anything. If you use a med sized fridge you can use the front as a magnet board and even dry erase sometimes. Use the top as a side table or even bedside table. Its nice to be able to have some food and drink in your room.

but in east dorms, there was no reception, so a tv was a silly thing. we all watched tv downstairs in the one room that had a tiny tv. so we didn't watch much. i watched letterman from time to time, but that was all...

I think it depends on the school. At Washu the kids were able to get cable in their rooms. Last year Amanda and her 4 roomates had a big TV that they shared in their common room. They used computers in their own rooms which worked well. Its nice to have a TV if you can. Makes it "homey".

While a lot of students might make a few big purchases for their dorm room, they likely won't buy EVERYTHING brand-new and upscale. Any tips for making your dorm room look awesome without blowing your budget?

There are so many ways to DIY. On our blog you can get a lot of tips. Anything from using magazines as art, to finding things at flee markets. Choose Something you love as a base and work around it. Its nice to splurge on bedding and find an ecletic mix to make the rest of the room work!

What do you suggest if move-in weekend ends and you are unhappy with you room?

This is easy. Go to and have stuff shipped directly to your room. So easy to add a pillow or a wall vinyl to spice things up. If you don't like your bedding you can put it right inside a new duvet cover from dormify. You don't have to disgard it, just re-use! We also have new products coming in Sept.

Karen, what do you do for your daughter? RE: What is the best thing a mom can give her child when leaving for college to remind her of home?

I would def give my daughter the Call your mother pillow. Not that they won't call, but a little reminder is nice everyday. Amanda has the pillow prominently displayed on her bed. Also, make sure they have Twin XL Bedding!!

My daughter is a freshman at Quinnipiac University. She will be living in a suite with 8 other girls.. I know a lot, right ! They are planning on what they will all bring for their living room, like couch pillows, rugs, tv, etc. What would you suggest would be the best way to have an awesome, uncluttered space for the 8 of them ?

EIGHT!?! Let me just tell you right now: There's absolutely positively no way all of them will agree on one color scheme or style. It's just impossible with that many personalities. And that's okay.

I would suggest going with some basic neutrals (black, white, gray, chocolate, etc) for shared things -- so, maybe a dark colored area rug (like this one) and some neutral couch pillows (like this one or this one).

Then each girl can go crazy decorating her own bed -- maybe someone will go with a preppy look of kelly green and pink, while someone else goes with bold mustard yellow and gray.

Please email me a pic when the room is done!

Karen, your younger daughter is a senior in high school, right? Has she started thinking about college (or how she will decorate her dorm room)?

Yes, my daughter Alexa is a senior! And, of course she has started applying to schools. By the way, the common app is up, I suggest getting started. Alexa has thought about her dorm room design. She actually created her own mood board using the site. She's going to Register on Dormify for all of her graduation gifts. Thats an easy way to get what you want for your dorm without having to break the bank!

A note to "Disappointed Dorm Dweller": Your room doesn't have to look like a MTV featured pad for you to have an amazing residence hall experience. At the end of the day, a dorm room is just a dorm room. Above all, you should be happy and comfortable there. That's what matters most!

A very fun hour -- Karen, thank you so much for sharing your decorating wisdom with all of us. I will admit: I'm a little jealous that I don't get to decorate a dorm room this month :)

Once your rooms are finished, please submit a photo to our dorm decor gallery! (Or, e-mail it to, and I will upload it for you.)

Happy decorating!

Thanks for your questions. I'd be happy to help with other questions during move in. You can follow me @thedormifymom on twitter or post to "Ask liz" tab on our blog page. Also, follow us on twitter @dormify for ongoing tips during move in.

And to all you freshman mom's, sorry : ( but you'll get over it by next year.

Happy Move-in!


Thanks for all of your great questions. If you need add'l help during move in follow me on twitter @thedormifymom and I'll be sure to tweet back. You can also post questions on our "Ask Liz" tab on our blog. For on-going move-in tips follow @dormify.

To all the freshman mom's out there. I'm sorry : ( But, don't worry, you'll get over it by next year. Happy move in!


In This Chat
Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson writes about college students and campus trends for the Post. She also runs the blog "Campus Overload," which chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of Hill interns.
Karen Zuckerman
Karen Zuckerman is the CEO, Chief Creative Officer, and Owner of Dormify. She conceived the Dormify concept with her daughter, Amanda, after experiencing firsthand the limited options available to style Amanda’s dull first dorm room. Karen applied her passion for stating up new ventures along with her design and marketing skills to build the Dormify Brand.

As Executive Creative Director and President, Karen Zuckerman also leads both the creative and the corporate vision of HZDG, the agency she launched from her basement in the late 1980s. More than 20 years later, she stays true to her mantra to “just make it cool” and has grown HZDG into a fully integrated, highly energized creative agency of more than 85 employees, with offices in DC and New York.

Karen is a Philadelphia native and a graduate of Penn State with a B.A. in Graphic Design.
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