Students offer tips on creating a stylish dorm space

Jeanine Matlow
Special to The Detroit News

Living in a dorm may be a tight squeeze, but there are plenty of ways to stretch your budget and your space during your college stay. Homestyle reached out to a couple of talented interior design students for some tips on turning your temporary digs into something more livable.

While Haley Harris — a junior in the interior design program at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti — lives in an on-campus apartment, friends often ask her to decorate their dorm rooms. The budding entrepreneur also sells her handcrafted home decor, refurbished furniture and more as an artisan vendor at various locations.

At Eastern, students can request existing furniture like bunkbeds that leave enough space for a reading nook or lounge area. A raised bed with a desk below offers another way to maximize square footage. “It all depends how you want to set up the room,” says Harris.

For a friend with a roommate who had a completely different style, Harris had a design solution. “I wanted her to feel like she had her own space,” she says. This was done through the use of lighter colors that made her friend’s area feel homey and cozy, without contrasting with the other side of the room.

Because dorms often lack natural light, Harris recommends lighter colors for key elements like bedding and brighter hues for accent pillows and picture frames. “College can be stressful. Crazy colors and messy rooms can add to your stress,” she says. “When you add color in your accents, it doesn’t feel overpowering.”

Just one piece can make the space pop. “You can throw a fun blanket on the wall to add some pizzazz,” adds Harris.

DIY projects further personalize your space. “Get inspiration on Pinterest and try to do it yourself,” she says. “Some people think DIY sounds scary, but a lot of projects are easy to do and the pieces add character and uniqueness to your room.”

You can also embellish a new piece like a dresser by adding decorative knobs on the side for jewelry and scarves.

Even freebies can enhance your dorm room, like a wood pallet found on the side of the road that Harris helped a friend turn into a striking headboard. “We just distressed it and stained it because she wanted a natural look,” she says.

Harris says it’s important to surround yourself with photos of family, friends and pets and she also suggests keeping a calendar to stay organized and making the most of your limited amount of space with over-the-door organizers, stackable bins, shoe racks and shelves. “Make it feel like your own home,” she says.

Today, technology plays a major role in every dorm room. “You need charger outlets for your computer and everyone is obsessed with their phones,” says Harris who sees a lot of accents with built-in chargers like alarm clocks that can be set to music for a pleasant wake-up call.

Once college kicks in, you’re not going to want to revamp your room, says Harris. “If you do it right the first time and invest at the beginning and make it something you really love, you’ll keep it through the next four years.”

Style 101

When Joycelyn Lundberg — a resident assistant at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant studying interior design and art — arrived on campus, she wanted that Pinterest-perfect room that had the matching bedsheets, lamps and rugs like every other college kid.

“I learned very quickly that 99 percent of people do not know each other when they come to college and are completely different when it comes to style, price points and the amount of storage they need for their corner of the room,” she says.

Lundberg learned that trying to coordinate with a roommate wasn’t as easy as it seemed when their green bath towels didn’t exactly go together. “We accepted that we were different people with different styles and ran with it,” she says.

Though her roommates had their own coordinating color palettes, they chose to unite the space by making a feature wall displaying their names together. “The colors from our names matched our individual spaces and gave us the idea to mix our different styles by adding one person’s throw pillows to another person’s carpet and futon,” says Lundberg.

Lately, she’s noticed that more students are upcycling and trying to find affordable but durable decor, such as inexpensive tapestries from Amazon, disparate furniture that has been repainted to match, and indoor plants. Carpet remnants can also help to warm the floors without breaking the bank.

When you’re away at school, personal effects can be comforting. “I have found that mismatched pillows and the glow of blue Christmas lights make me feel very at home,” says Lundberg, who buys discounted seasonal goods after the holidays.

Target, JoAnn Fabrics and Hobby Lobby are her go-to places for stylish bargains made even better with coupons and sales. “Amazon is a great place to compare prices and to find the most inexpensive tapestries and the $50 Student Prime deal is a must,” says Lundberg.

Still, her favorite source for dorm decor is other students. All you have to do is ask around your neighborhood or on campus during the summer, she says, and you are sure to come across great finds to create your ideal space.

Just because something is inexpensive doesn’t mean it’s always a great bargain. Keep in mind that floor space is sacred in a college setting. Multifunctional pieces go the distance like a TV stand with storage or bins that fit under the bed.

Her occasional tweaks keep everything fresh. “I always end up finding one-of-a-kind pieces at the end of the year that people don’t want or couldn’t get in their car and swap them out for things that I don’t need anymore,” she says.

Lundberg also admires other students who get creative, like the ones who bought all the DIY projects gone wrong from thrift shops and embraced them by repurposing pieces and finding the humor in crazy artwork.

Her advice to others starting out is simple. “Don’t overthink it and don’t worry about having everything look picture perfect,” she says. “Let your space reflect you. The more you put in your personal touch with pictures and artwork, the better you’ll feel.”

Jeanine Matlow writes the Smart Solutions column in Homestyle. You can reach her at