As college kids prepare to head to campus this fall, one thing is for sure — their dorm shopping experience is nothing like the days of yore. Today’s crop of students are completely making over their dorm rooms, adding their own style and personalities to the spaces via temporary and (mostly) affordable décor.
“Moving away to college is such a huge transition and in times of academic uncertainty due to Covid, designing a space with all of the comforts of home is more likely to provide students with a sense of peace as they navigate life as a new college student,” says interior designer and mom of seven (yes, seven!) Jenny Reimold, who created a boho chic dorm room for her daughter Grace at the University of Alabama last year that was so pretty it actually went viral.
“The evolution of dorm design has helped students make the smooth transition from home to dorm living, without sacrificing their own unique style,” says Lisa Fleming Picciano, owner of the New Jersey-based interior design firm Lisa Fleming Design. “There are so many dorm-ready decor options these days — from peel-and-stick wallpapers and neon signs to comfy bedding sets and wall-mounted headboards — students have endless ways to make their spaces both functional and totally fun.”
Adds Jon Call, owner of the interior design firm Mr Call Designs, which has designed innumerable dorm rooms across the country in recent years, “More and more, students are craving designed spaces that reflect their personalities. This is many of their first homes outside of their parents, and they want to embrace it, decorate it, and make it their own.”
Being a mom herself, interior designer Amie Freling, owner of the New York-based Meme Hill Studio, can relate when it comes to not breaking the bank on dorm decor. “First and foremost, it’s about being comfortable and making best use of your small space, while bringing the comforts of home to campus,” she told us. “But when decorating my daughter’s dorm room I also looked at it as a rental, so everything had to be temporary. We added a spring rod and lightweight curtain to her closet to hide all the clutter. We used another inexpensive sheer curtain tucked under the lofted mattress to give a custom bed skirt look for under $20.”
For Mary Hawthorne, owner of the Georgia-based design firm Mary Hawthorne Interiors, it’s about maximizing the small space, while also making the room special for her collegiate clients. While air purifiers, extra seating and bins galore are among her musts, Hawthorne, who has designed dozens of dorm rooms throughout the south, also focuses on helping her clients create meaningful photo collages to help them on homesick days and wall décor galore “for covering up the dull beige walls found in so many dorms.”
To help your student get the dorm of their dreams, we polled a slew of design experts asking them for their “essentials”… and also for some fun products that are simply too cute to pass up.
Isidora Hilo Tufted Rug (starting at $34, originally $39; urbanoutfitters.com)
Reimold placed this boho rug in her daughter’s University of Alabama dorm room, saying, “A carefully chosen rug can make a space feel cohesive and warm. It also covers flooring and carpet that has been used year after year by other students. Typically, a 5×7 rug fits in most rooms and can also double as an exercise mat for students who prefer working out at home.”
More to know: This Urban Outfitters rug comes in sage, blush and ivory hues, in sizes ranging from 2×3 to 6×9.
FornStudio Downloadable Geometric Prints, Set of 2 ($16; etsy.com)
Lusting over the artwork in that viral dorm room? Us, too. Luckily Reimold shared her source and — no surprise here — it was Etsy! “Download a watercolor print from Etsy for under $20 and send it to Smallwood Home to be framed for a unique and personal touch to any dorm space,” she suggests.
4-Foot Faux Fiddle Leaf Tree in Starter Pot by Valerie ($38.81, originally $46.57; qvc.com)
According to Reimold, a surefire way to “add life to any space” is via a fiddle leaf fig tree. She purchased this one for her daughter’s dorm room, and the result, as we know, was pure magic. We love the sub-$50 price tag, and the fact that it comes housed in a cute white basket base.
Classic Border Monogrammed Shower Curtain ($63.28; zazzle.com)
“I LOVE a customized shower curtain. They instantly personalize a space and make it look more special,” says Call. “It’s a great gift for any student moving into their first dorm.” Not feeling this preppy option? Fear not, Zazzle has dozens of custom curtains to choose from, or you can just opt to upload your own photo to this curtain.
Even Naturals Luxury Mosquito Net Bed Canopy ($19.97; amazon.com)
A quick and cheap way to add some drama to their bed? With a mosquito net! “Small items to add personality and privacy to a room are always things I love to include in a student’s bedroom,” says Call. “Recently, for a project in Georgia, I added this mosquito net canopy to a bed which added romance and design to the small space. I love unexpected touches like this that elevate a room.”
Pande 26-Piece Picture Frames Set ($53.99; amazon.com)
“I love this white set of frames to go on the long wall over a Twin XL bed,” she suggests. “I would say the overall goal when decorating a dorm is to make sure your student has a special place to come back to each day that gives them the comfort of their bedroom at home. By having your family, friends and memories close by with this gallery wall, you’ll do just that!”
Mod Clips String Lights ($20; urbanoutfitters.com)
“Light up your space with these fun lights that also have clips to hang photos on,” says Dyke. “They’re great on a narrow wall as well.” Freling favors this similar Amazon option that rings a bit cheaper at 11 bucks.
Ruggable Floral Medallion Multicolor Rug (starting at $89; ruggable.com)
Even if your dorm room comes outfitted with wall-to-wall carpeting, investing in a bright area rug to anchor the room is still a good idea. “I think this functional, machine-washable, stain-resistant and water-resistant rug can add a ton of personality to a dull dorm room,” suggests Fleming Picciano. More to know: The rug comes in three colorways and 10 shapes and sizes.
Check out our review of Ruggable rugs here.
Sunm Boutique World Map Tapestry (starting at $9.51; amazon.com)
Anyone who’s ever stepped foot in a dorm room knows that the walls are typically drab… at best! To overcome the blah-vibes, Fleming Picciano suggests we, “Add unique wall art for above the bed, such as this world map tapestry for a boys dorm room.” The best part about the durable, microfiber artwork? Prices start at under ten bucks!
Taufey Macrame Wall Hanging ($13.99; amazon.com)
For an equally affordable, albeit more feminine wall hanging, Fleming Picciano recommends this boho macrame artwork. ICYMI: Macrame is very on-trend right now, proving the old adage that everything old will eventually be new again to be true.
Safavieh Tulum Collection (starting at $21.51; amazon.com)
“For dorm room rugs, look for one that is thin, no shedding and stain resistant,” says Freling, who recommends this Safavieh option that has more than 1,500 positive reviews on Amazon. “Darker colors camouflage the dirt and anchor the room. Make sure it is comfortable and cozy for friends coming in to visit and sit on.”
Dormify White Shiplap Printed Removable Wallpaper ($39; dormify.com)
“I love how this wallpaper is simple, yet transforms a boring wall,” says Dormify CEO and co-founder Amanda Zuckerman, who launched the brand with her mom after a frustrating shopping experience for her own dorm room. “I would cover the wall behind my bed with this to create a boho, California vibe.”
Dormify Evil Eye Neon Sign ($59; dormify.com)
Chief among Dormify’s most popular items are neon signs, according to Zuckerman, and we love this one, which has a fun ombré effect and — if you’re superstitious — will be a spiritual protector for your student at their new home away from home.
Heyday 6-Outlet Surge Protector With 6-Foot Extension Cord ($29.99; target.com)
On top of our dorm shopping list? A trusty extension cord. This one is surge-protected and provides extra length, which is so useful for hard to reach outlets blocked by furniture, plus it’s got two USB ports for charging smartphones and other electronics.
Sun Metal LED Sign ($49; urbanoutfitters.com)
A twofer is always a good idea and this is a favorite of Young Huh, owner of the New York-based firm Young Huh Interior Design. “Art on the walls helps a room look finished and everyone needs ample lighting. How about two in one? Wall decor and lighting in a single piece! Having enough lamp light lets you ditch the harsh overhead lighting —- perfect when it’s time to relax.”
More to know: It comes in a moon-shape too!
Zipcode Design Breault 63” Column Floor Lamp (starting at $61.99; wayfair.com)
“This is a popular lamp that I have used over and over again,” says Hawthorne. “It is a perfect height for a lofted bed and it has fun little shelves for your phone charger and a picture. It can be your bedside lamp or put in a corner with a floor chair.”
Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker ($69.99; regularly $79.99; amazon.com)
Fuel their study sessions with a quick coffee solution that takes up barely any space, too. “I would have loved to have this cute one-cup Keurig for pulling all nighters,” says Fleming Picciano. At just five-inches wide, the coffee maker can be stashed just about anywhere when not in use.
Storage and organizers
Dormify Collapsible Storage Ottoman Bench ($99; dormify.com)
Love you some multitasking? Us too, which is why we’re obsessed with this product from Dormify. “This piece is a triple threat! An ottoman/table top, shoe storage, and an extra seat,” says Zuckerman. “Open up the lid to find an interior shoe storage insert that can fit over 15 pairs of shoes. Plus, it folds flat for easy storage.”
Iwill Create Pro Large Canvas Storage Organizer Bag ($15.99, originally $18.99; amazon.com)
“Storage is the number one issue that I try to resolve for students today in academic housing,” says Call. “There simply isn’t ever enough. Items like this canvas box with zip closure are PERFECT to stow under a bed, or on a high upper shelf in the closet to organize seasonal items and clutter away from view. In addition…they remind me of a perfect box from Chanel. That doesn’t hurt, does it?”
Homydom Adhesive Shelf, Set of 2 ($17.50, originally $21.99; amazon.com)
“You can add personality and texture with these self-adhesive, floating wall shelves for accessories like pictures, books or plants,” says Fleming. Made of acrylic, the shelves can each hold eight pounds and can be installed in minutes with zero tools involved.
Room Essentials LED Organizer Task Lamp ($15; target.com)
“I love that this affordable lamp is so multi-purpose,” says Freling. “It’s affordable and comes in several colors.” We love it, too, but mainly because it can corral all the things — from sticky notes to pens! — and that it has a built-in USB port and phone stand.
ClosetMaid Stackable Wood Laminate Cube ($41.98; lowes.com)
Let us count the ways we love this storage piece. Comprising a whopping nine cubbies, the storage cube comes in at only 12-inches deep and costs just $42. “These always help with organization and clutter, while adding functionality to spaces that seem overcrowded and impossible to declutter,” says Lowe’s trend strategy manager Caroline Harmon.
Titan Mall Store Storage Bins, Set of 4 ($32.99; amazon.com)
“I love these stackable bins from Amazon,” says Hawthorne. “The colors are what do it for me. They are perfect for the color palettes the girls tend to love these days and they can go under a bed, in a closet or even look cute next to the fridge.”
StyleWell 12-Piece Hydrocotton Towel Set ($50.97, originally $59.97; homedepot.com)
Sending kids off to college with ALL the towels is a must, and Freling is obsessed with this set from Home Depot. “This is my all time favorite towel set,” she told us. “So much that I purchased sets for our home, too! At just 50.97 for 12 pieces, that’s only $4.25 each. It’s a no brainer!”
More to know: The towels come in nine colors and sets of six ($19.88) and 18 ($67.98), too.
Bliss x Dormify Shower Kit ($29.99; target.com)
A must-have for dorms with communal bathrooms, this fab brand collab includes Dormify’s bestselling mesh, seven-pocket shower tote, complete with Bliss essentials, including the Lemon & Sage Soapy Suds Body Wash, Lemon & Sage Body Butter, Clear Genius Clarifying Cleanser, Clear Genius Clarifying Toner-Serum, and Drench & Quench Cream-to-Water Hydrator.
The best part? When not in use the kit can be hung on a hook or tucked into a storage bin.
Andover Mills Cy Upholstered Panel Headboard ($82.99; wayfair.com)
What’s one surefire way to gussy up a dull dorm? With a headboard! Fleming Picciano loves this one from Wayfair, which boasts more than 5,300 positive reviews and comes in at just 82 bucks in a twin XL size.
“I love this wall mounted headboard from Wayfair so much,” says Fleming Picciano. “It’s easy to install and gives a chic modern look for little cost.”
Simplify 8-Piece Adjustable Bed Risers Set ($30; lowes.com)
When space is at a minimum, well you need to create it out of nowhere. Enter: Bed risers! “These are perfect to maximize under bed storage space and put larger items such as duffle bags, luggage, trunks, shoes, etc,” says Harmon.
LeighDeux Curtain Call Bed Skirt ($44.50; regularly $89; leighdeux.com)
What does Leigh Goodwyn, founder of dorm decor e-tailer LeighDeux, count among her dorm room essentials? “A long bed skirt to hide all of your stuff under the bed,” she says. “We love our Curtain Call bed skirt that runs on a tension rod and can be easily opened and closed to access stuff stored under your bed.”
Opalhouse Tanna Tie-Dye Comforter Set ($55; target.com)
Bedding is chief among a college student’s concerns, and we get why… it sets the tone for the whole room! Freling agrees, telling us, “Bedding is No. 1. A good thick memory foam mattress topper, mattress cover, cozy quality sheets, comforter and study pillow can improve your dorm night’s sleep. I love anything and everything tie dye, batik or shibori for Twin XL college bedding.”
SafeRest Twin Extra Long Premium Hypoallergenic Waterproof Mattress Protector ($24.95; amazon.com)
A waterproof mattress protector was cited by nearly all of our interior designers as a must-have, and this one from Amazon is a customer favorite, with more than 182,000 positive reviews. Done and done.