Chat with The Container Store's college organizing expert, Kelly Vrtis | Home Front

Jul 26, 2012

Join us in a chat with The Container Store's college organizing expert, Kelly Vrtis! Got questions about preparing for the big move? Not sure how to stay organized? Struggling to compile a thorough checklist? Submit your questions and chat with us Thursday at 11 a.m.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. Got a question about decorating? She's happy to whip out her paint chips and suggest the perfect hue, call a retailer to help track down a hard-to-find accent piece or offer some do-it-yourself. Built on years of reporting experience, Home Front is an online conversation about the best way to feather the nest. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and, yes, the occasional complaint.

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Morning chatters! We've got a great topic today and the perfect guest. Kelly Vrtis the college organizing expert from the Container Store is here. Check out my story in today's Local Living on decorating college dorm rooms and let's get going!

Hi everyone! Thanks for joining us today to talk dorm room organization. I'm ready for you!

Thank you for today's piece on pillows. The problem in selecting a pillow is that I can't tell if it is the right one for me until I have used it. Any suggestions on how to test properly in a store?

Good question. I would definitely test pillows the best way you can in a store. Some stores do provide mattresses nearby - a department store for instance - where you could lie down with a pillow for a test drive. Make sure you keep the plastic on the pillow when you are trying it. Also, before you go, check out the pillows you have at home and see which is your favorite, down or foam or whatever. Here is the Handyguide on pillows for everyone else to see:

Longtime reader from New England about to move to DC. I need to get some slipcovers made, including one for a 60" sleeper couch. Can you suggest how I can find someone to make my slipcovers? Can G-Street fabrics recommend someone, or do you suggest another outlet? Many thanks.

Leaving New England? So sorry! Meanwhile, here in DC, we have places such as G Street Fabrics and Calico Corners where you can have slipcovers made. Also Yi's Interiors in Rockville is a well established workroom that also does slipcovers. Do you all have other places to suggest to our new DC resident?

Hi Kelly! So happy to have you with us. I have a question about getting organized for college. I'm sending my twin boys off to two different schools in the fall. One is going to a city school and one is going to a tiny school in Maine. They need a lot of the same stuff and a lot of different stuff. Is there anything you recommend NOT packing for sure? And any go-to items that parents my miss in the Target runs?

Twin boys - how fun! We have what we call the "Dorm Room Basic Six" that addresses all the areas that every dorm room or college apartment -- no matter the size -- needs to be organized.

So, they will need a lot of the same organization tools...for example in their CLOSET: hangers, storage boxes, and elfa Drawers. A Rod Doubler is a MUST for tiny closets, especially for guys who don't have any long-hanging clothes.

More info on all the Six Areas here:

As for what NOT to take, for the son in Maine, it doesn't make sense to send all of his clothes...send the warm weather items when he's home for Spring Break. And, most importantly, make sure both are connecting with their roomates in advance to avoid duplication of items such as mini fridges and TVs.

We're redoing our bathroom and chose polished chrome for fixtures. Can we choose a brushed finish for a mirror frame? Would that look odd between polished chrome sconces? Thanks!

I think it would be fine.

I got such a kick out of the vim and vigor of the comments to the Seven Deadly Sins of Dated Decorating article. This is a sensitive subject. My votes for top 3 current trends that are future Deadly Sins: 1) Accent walls 2) Backyard water features 3) Those bathroom bowl sinks that sit on top of the counter. And an honorable mention for sisal rugs.

Love your ideas! That article really did get people talking. Here it is if you missed it:

Accent walls are always a controversial subject. I personally am not a fan. Backyard water features - I don't have one but am not opposed to them. Bathroom vessel sinks - they clearly are very very popular and chic right now. In five years, they might look as dated as balloon shades. Send in your other nominations - perhaps we will do a follow-up! Thank you for your comments!

Hi Kelly. What mistakes did you make when you furnished your own first dorm room? Anything we should avoid?

Mistakes? Yes...when I was a freshman, I was consumed with what posters and art I wanted to hang from the walls. Once I got there, I realized I needed to lose some of the decorative items to make way for functionality and storage. Specifically, I added a grid system over my micro/fridge combo to hold snacks and utensils, papertowels and the like. While it's important to add personality through decorations in the dorm, you have to be willing to be creative with every inch of storage available. 

Do you personally find that is needed? It seems like a recommendation from someone who wants to sell many pillows. Also, why do the covers need to be washed so often if pillowcases are laundered every week or two? I like a clean house, but...

It is all a matter of personal preference. I know people who wash towels after one use! I wash them once a week. I only wash my pillow protectors every few months, but people have different standards - and perhaps they do a lot of eating and drinking in bed!

Hi Jura! I liked your guide to pillows in today's LL section. Last year I tried out a couple of pillows - from Macy's and BBB - that were supposed to be designed for how I sleep, but I didn't like them, so they went back to the store. Then I ordered some Euro size square pillow inserts from West Elm to match my bedding/shams. I meant for them to be decorative, but I ended up really liking them for actual sleeping. So I've thought about getting the standard size pillows as well to replace my very old standard pillows. My only hesitation has been that they don't have that "seal of approval" anywhere that says they are good for certain ways of sleeping - they seem pretty basic. But I guess since I didn't like the fancy approved pillows, I should just go with what I like, right?

You are so right. You have put your own seal of approval on them.. whatever works...

My 20-year-old daughter has a TON of shoes. She insists, of course, on bringing all of them to school where I've discovered class is often quite the fashion show. Sigh. The issue here is where to store them. Hang them? Those crappy shoe racks that fall apart? Shelving? Help!

Ah, a common concern amongst incoming female freshmen. I know the PERFECT solution -- an overdoor shoe organizer for her most frequently worn pairs -- this one holds up to 30 pairs:

This one is easily folded flat at the end of the year.

Then for any extras/special occasion shoes she doesn't access as often, I'd say store them under the bed.

Sorry but, it's not that difficult to organize a college dorm room. Big screen, Playstation 3, kegerator and wrapper dispenser. Only real question is plasma or LCD. Although the new OLED technology deserves a look if your parents can afford it. Moms just need to relax and stop obessing over trivial matters.

But that's what moms do.

Daughter, an artist, uses 4-18" open cubes for clothing (can't stand to have things out of sight). She even has the doors of her closet off. What to do when she goes to school & has 4 drawers & a small closet? Any ideas?

Great question! I assume she doesn't hang many of her clothes? Hanging Sweater Bags are a great solution -- they have 6 compartments and take up only 12" of the closet rod space. Everything will be visible. She can even choose some in different patterns to suit her artistic style.

Just recently moved into a fully carpeted apartment and wanted to keep my rugs as decoration on top of the boring beige, but they're sliding all over the place! I've done some online searching for products to solve this, but most are for rugs on floors. Do you have any suggestions? Or is this a decorating faux pas that I should just avoid?

We've talked about this before on the chat. And I think that it's okay to put out your beautiful rugs on top of the standard issue wall-to-wall. There is two-sided rug tape that might work for you. Or you could also put a rug pad under your own rugs to see if that will anchor them.

Good morning! I was hoping to get some opinions from you and the peanut gallery on some master bedroom "issues" we're having. We have a bedroom set we love, but when we bought it we wanted to pay cash for what we could afford so we have all the main pieces but no headboard. The set is now discontinued, so we can't find the matching headboard anywhere. What's the best way to incorporate something else? Also, we need help picking a wall color. The floors are cherry wood, the furniture is a warm honey with some yellow to it. The room gets some east and north natural light. I think I'd like a cool, pale blue or green. Any thoughts or other suggestions?

No worries. All the furniture in your bedroom actually should not match. Have you thought of an upholstered headboard? You could incorporate a nice print using pale blue and green and then pick up those colors in your bed linens and paint colors. Any other ideas?

I thought it was really interesting that the article suggested not buying to stock up for the whole year. I definitely think my kids get afraid that they won't be able to pay for new stuff if they run out so they pressure us to buy everything in August. And I guess I understand that. There are so many expenses with college that they don't want to have to worry about restocking things that parents probably should be paying for (toiletries, etc.). So do you recommend we set a budget so allot to them halfway through each semester as well?

That would be reassuring! You could allot four payments a year to include basics such as shampoo, water, Kleenex and laundry detergent.

Sophomore through junior years I had an oatmeal-colored couch that originally was in my family's basement. It was from SCAN and it had this ingenious design -- it was put together with this sort of tab and slot system and so you could take it apart easily for moving and summer storage (it had 4 parts: seat, back, two sides, plus the seat cushions). It survived 3 years with me and my roommates, then 4 with my sister who succeeded me at the same university, and then another few years with my cousins (I think it died in his frat house). It was an awesome couch and I have never seen another like it!

What a great story of the perfect sofa! So many products from Scan were really well made and live on. Thanks for sharing!

I sent two sons through college who rarely needed a thing. I hardly saw girls' dorm rooms so I didn't realize how different the ball game is, but now that my daughter is headed to college, WHOA. These are like mini decorating projects every year, huh? I had no clue! How much is it worth investing in decor though if they are in a new space every 8 months? I don't want to say "no" all the time but I also don't want to throw money away. And most of this stuff from Urban Outfitters feels like total crap.

You're right -- between changing semesters and changing tastes, there's a lot that can happen in four years. Start with the basics, and buy quality items. Scrimping upfront on less expensive items often means they end up breaking and you have to buy new later. For storage needs, consider multifunctional items that can be used in many different ways, depending on her needs. Drawers used in a closet freshman year can make a great bedside table sophomore year.

I'm going to attempt the Annie Sloan paint that you guys recommended! I'm a little confused though. In your article, you say that you just throw the paint over anything and you don't primers. But then you detail that you need waxes, white paint, colored paint, and so on. What exactly will I need when I go shopping this weekend?

Have you checked out the Annie Sloan website ? Also the article I wrote about Christen Bensten and her Annie Sloan habit did have some tips. If you go to Stifel & Capra in Falls Church, a local Annie Sloan stockist, they can help you figure out what you need. Their website has helpful information as well. Chalk paint is really popular right now because it's easy and gives a dramatic facelift to old furniture. 

I don't even know where to begin with this stuff. I have one daughter who is entering her senior year and the past three move-ins have cost us so much money... outfitting each teeny-tiny space with shelves from Ikea and storage from Target. Each year it's a new, tiny space and she needs new, tiny stuff because the cheap stuff from last year is broken but she doesn't have the space to invest in nicer items because they probably won't fit! I have three more kids that I have yet to send to college. How can we avoid this mess with all of them?

You do have to start off with quality items if you want them to last four years. Here I am, 15 years (gulp!) out of college, and I am STILL using several items -- including an elfa drawer unit -- that I bought my sophomore year. Good luck!

Fold your pillow in half - if it doesn't bounce back immediately, time to replace it! You spend half you life sleeping should you not have a great pillow? Wash pillow protectors (and have more than just one set on at a time) at least once a week. You wouldn't sleep on dirty sheets and cases would you? And it is best to have a pillow you like depending on how you sleep - back, tummy or side. SPEND THE MONEY ON QUALITY PILLOWS! You do get what you pay for. My two cents.

Well, here is a strong opinion about pillows.

I thought the comments on today's dorm decorating story were hilariously out of touch. I have two daughters in college and a son who just finished, and yes, it's different for girls than with boys, but not drastically so. All kids want a cool, fun space that other kids will hang out in and that feels like home. That may seem crazy when it comes down to expenses, but it's the way that they feel nonetheless. I think it's important to give kids a sense of home during the stressful time and you don't have to spend thousands to do it. But in my family's case, the little touches -- shelves for hanging photos and candles, a small media cabinet for a TV and video games -- made all the difference.

Thanks for sharing this.

Are the things you have for college dorm room organizing different from the products you sell for regular homes and apartments?

Absolutely not! The principles of organizing and maximizing space are the same, whether you're organizing 225 sq. ft. or 2500 sq. ft. 

You might also be able to discreetly remove the dorm's closet doors and find a place to store them. Then shove the dresser (or whatever) into the closet. Shirts should be able to hang above the dresser easily enough. And it would give her an extra, what?, 6 square feet of floor space. While we're at it, I haven't seen anybody mention extention cords or surge protectors. A lot of those old dorms don't have many outlets.

Good point. Thanks a lot! I always bought a few extra extension cords with me during dorm check in.

It is OK to say no to decorating diva requests. We all survived.  Living in a small room with a near stranger is a good experience in humility and humanity.

You are so right.

Mum and I are scarf and wrap mad - so these were deployed for decorating during College. Scarves are so often works of art and very versatile - it's easy to change the look if you have as many as the two of us do! We had such fun decorating together. Ahhh memories!

Love this!

I think an upholstered headboard is great. You may want to go more neutral, in a linen, velvet or leather. Texture is a great way to add interest. rick

Very true. Thanks for your comments. Love the velvet idea.

The store has more storage space, so you need a smaller house. Pack ratting makes no sense.


To the person looking for headboard ideas, google "headboard decal" and see some of the really cool ideas. Here's one website that has a lot of different ones.

What fun. Thanks a lot for this. They are really cool.

Most college students go home from time to time during the year, at least for Christmas and maybe Spring Break. Instead of bringing your own bale of toilet paper, you raid your parents' supply. Rolls of paper towels can be used as packing in care packages. That's what I did back in the Dark Ages. :-)

Love the raid idea!

It's not the pillow sellers--it's the allergists. So much stuff comes off us as we sleep and the dust mites love to eat it and reproduce. So unless you use the allergen blocking plastic covers on your pillows (which I find suffocating), then pillow replacement every year is the best way to reduce asthma and allergies.

Good point. Thanks.

Hi Jura! I graduated from college last year and by far the best thing I got for my dorm was 1 foot bed risers. They added so much practical, easily accessible storage space (it was where I kept my snacks and dvds!) I think they're a must-have for cramped dorms.

Yes! A quick and easy way to create extra space. Adding height to your bed usually means you can stack more than one underbed box below. Great point!

Many schools don’t allow you to use nails or screws to hang things on dorm walls. But this rule doesn’t have to prevent you from decorating your dorm or making the most of your space. Command Hooks by 3M are dorm-approved and come cleanly off at the end of the year. And don't forget about overdoor hooks -- every door should have one!

Move-in days are approaching can find some tips on making the process as organized as possible here:


Hi! I need help organizing all my earrings, necklaces, etc. I tried the Container Store's earrings stand, but they really only work with earrings with straight post backs, not looped or curved backs. Any other ideas?

This is my personal favorite for jewelry...and it doesn't matter what type of earrings you're storing -- our Little Black Dress Organizer hangs in a closet or on a hook in your bathroom.

my daughter flies to college so I send her with a handful of Tide individual laundry detergent packets (from the walmart travel toiletries section) to use until she has time to buy a jug of detergent. I also send a huge ziplock of over the counter meds and bandaids with a list of what to use for what ailment.

This really good info to share. Thank you!

I have my mom's vintage fur jacket. It is currently hanging on a hefty hanger but I'd like to put it inside some kind of hanging bag to protect it from dust. What type of material should I look for? I've seen plastic protector, fabric, etc. I want to keep it hanging so the fur won't be crushed.

Fur should be stored in breathable cotton canvas -- try this:

Would getting all wood matching hangers be worth it for a dorm?

Wood hangers have a wider profile, not so great for a dorm room, necessarily. Huggable Hangers are incredibly slim and space-saving. Or you could go with tubular hangers in a rainbow of colors for a pop of personality. Ours are made with more plastic than others so they won't sag or buckle. :)

what do you have for keeping things under the bed?

There's a variety of storage boxes for under the bed. Clear ones are ideal because you can see what's inside. I'd recommend using that space for linens, out of season clothes -- I actually used some of my underbed space for storing extra paper and printing supplies.

For college dorm or apartment furnishings - don't forget Goodwill and Salvation Army thrift stores. You can donate the stuff back to them when you're done with it.

Really good advice. Some college towns even have special secondhand stores where students swap out stuff each year.

I have velvet. beautiful but velvet gets those kind of matted down looking stains that don't come out and are very obvious.

Oh dear.

Doesn't anyone buy those old stackable "milk crates" anymore? I also graduated from college 15 years ago and I still have a new life in the garage and basement collecting kids' toys and sports equipment. But cheap can last! I also went to college with hand-me-down sheets and comforter from my oldest sister, and another sister gave me bath towels as a gift for my August birthday. I didn't think that was that odd? Maybe things have dramatically changed since I went to school eons ago. It doesn't have to be pricey, when parents are stretching already to pay tuition. Even if they're not, kids don't need everything they want.

"Kids don't need everything they want." That is certainly a message to take home from today's chat. Thank you. 

When my daughter went to college we sent along a plastic shoe box with tools etc. A small hammer, pliers, tape measure, nails, screws, "funtack for posters needle and thead, etc. She was the one on her floor with the tool box.  -- Rick

All good things to have.

Hey Kelly! How does the container store research what college kids will need? Is it done by interviews, surveys?

We've been helping college kids and their parents organize their dorm rooms for 34 years so we've earned our degree in maximizing small spaces. We have several model dorm rooms set up across the country and we host annual College Night Events. Arlington VA and Washington DC are happening this weekend - you can find details and sign up here:

Thanks for all the questions. One more thing: sign up for a $1000 Dorm Room Makeover here:

Thanks to Kelly and the Container Store for such useful information. The college dorm shopping season is just gearing up. So keep those great tips coming in our future chats. Thanks everyone and have a great weekend.

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

Home Q&A archive
Kelly Vrtis
Kelly Vrtis is The Container Store's college organizing expert. She joined the company in Atlanta while a attending Oglethorpe University. She served as College Bound Coordinator for The Container Store in which she helped set up model dorm rooms throughout metro Atlanta. In 2000, she moved to The Container Store's home office in Dallas.
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