6 Things Dorm Life Taught Me About My Design Sense

published Jul 8, 2019
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Credit: Alyssa Strohmann/Unsplash
For the record, this was not my dorm room.

The summer before my senior year of high school, I had a revelation: When I lived in a dorm, all of my clothes would be in one place for pretty much the first time in my life. This might sound strange, but I had been switching houses between my mom and my dad every Friday evening since I was three. I was lucky that they provided clothes for me at both homes to minimize packing, but sometimes when you’re a teenager, not knowing the precise location of your favorite jeans feels really freaking important.

That was the first moment I got excited about my dorm room — the idea that it would be a space I would live in, permanently (or for an academic year, which feels pretty permanent to a 17-year-old). I also realized that it was the first space I was going to sort-of-totally control in terms of design. When I was accepted at Northwestern, I spent months researching dorm options. And when I finally got my assignment, I searched online for photos and dimensions to imagine my new life.

The summer before I left for college, I taped off a section of my mom’s basement to match the dimensions, and started imagining what I would do with the space. That first dorm room was so very important to me, and I planned every (limited) square foot down to the last detail. Looking back, I realize how that tiny room helped to shape many of my most basic beliefs about small-space design, especially on a budget.

Today, we are launching a new section on Apartment Therapy, called “Dorm Therapy” — it’s a special two-month pop-up dedicated to dorm life and design. This has been a dream of mine since I started as the editor-in-chief here, partially because of my own formative dorm experience, and partially because I think a lot of the dorm designs that get propped up on social media can feel unattainable. We’ll be publishing three or so articles a week, many of which are written by students, recent grads, and their parents. The whole thing is in partnership with Target (where I bought my own hot pink extra long twin sheets, and plenty of other dorm basics on move-in weekend with my family). I want to thank Jessi Prois, our special project editor, who I actually met at Northwestern, for all of her work on bringing this program to life. And also a big thank you to our photo editor Amber Sexton, along with the rest of our art team.

Before I leave you to explore, if you’re planning a dorm for yourself, a child, a friend, or someone else this summer, here are some of my best tips that I still remember all these years later:

Start with a rug

I remember picking mine out (a 5×7 pink rug with flowers) with my mom. She told me that one summer in college, she was living in a fairly bleak apartment, but the one thing she did was buy a rug. It adds an instant cozy factor. Plus, the softness under your feet beats the standard dorm carpeting any day.

Add lighting

You’ll be thinking big thoughts in this room — give your eyes a break. A floor lamp and a desk lamp can go a long way (they also make great mood lighting when the overhead feels too harsh). And consider the natural lighting too—making the most of even limited windows can go a long way (a 2014 study linked light exposure during the day to better sleep, for instance). I moved my desk under my window to maximize the light I’d get while studying.

Replicate a little piece of home

I brought my comforter from home for my bed — college is an adjustment, especially if you’re far away, and sometimes familiar things can make you feel more at ease.

Know that it is possible to have cool art on a budget

Having something pretty to look at on your walls is lovely, but it can also add up. I ordered this book of Manolo Blahnik shoe drawings; each filled an entire page. Then I carefully pulled them out of the book and tacked them up on the wall (you could also frame them and use command strips if you’re feeling fancy). Look for art books or old calendars, or print photos from a family vacation.

Don’t accept your first layout

The first problem I solved at college was my furniture layout—rather than having it all pushed up against the long walls, I moved the desk up against the brick wall with the window and the wardrobe to the foot of my bed. It made the whole thing feel more spacious (and helped me make friends when my door was open and people asked how I’d thought of it). Sometimes the easiest way to visualize the space is to just move things around.


I packed a little table where I thought I would eat occasional meals and a butterfly chair (don’t judge it was the early 2000s). The table stayed folded up all year—any in-room meals were eaten at my desk. And I had to return the chair because it simply didn’t fit. Instead, I made a last minute trip for some extra throw pillows, including a giant one for the floor.

A lot of things happened in my freshman dorm room — I pined for home, crammed for finals, made a couple of lifelong friends, watched Gilmore Girls every Tuesday night, explored new ideas, and made a lot of questionable fashion decisions. Dorm life is inherently a great privilege — not only are you attending college, but you have a space to live away from home, too. On top of that I was so lucky to be able to build a space that felt safe, comfortable, and beautiful.

My wish for you is to find a piece of that in our dorm room ideas and inspiration over the next eight weeks. If you have an idea for content you’d like to see or a memory of your own dorm room, please share it in the comments. And if you have a picture of your own dorm room, please share it with us @apartmenttherapy, with #dormtherapy.

Laura Schocker