While tight quarters may be a bit tricky from a storage and design standpoint, they can force you to get creative. Just ask Anna Ottum, author of “My Small Space” (Clarkson Potter) who has been unintentionally prepping for this book for years, from her childhood bedroom to her New York digs.  

The timely topic of dorm rooms fills her chapter on campus living. “They’re a great challenge,” says Ottum, a photographer who often shoots for lifestyle and fashion brands like Urban Outfitters and American Eagle. “You’re given a white canvas. You get to create your home away from home with things that make you feel good.”

Her first college space shared with seven girls was a unique situation she describes as a “mini apartment minus a kitchen.”

Ottum and her roommates went to Urban Outfitters. “It has always been a really great source and the budget was right for all of us,” she says. “We started by agreeing to talk this out and pitch in together to decorate our space.”

No one was too picky and they all split the cost. “Luckily we had similar taste and nothing was too valuable,” says Ottum. “It’s all about compromise and conversation. A shared space can actually be a great thing.”

Though dorms have different rules, coordinating essentials that meet the guidelines like an electric kettle can help avoid duplication in a small space.

Multipurpose pieces turn limitations into creative living. As Ottum explains, a trash can turned upside-down becomes a side table and flexible furniture like tufted storage stools can be found at retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond.

“I always had people in my dorm room, so they needed a place to sit,” she says. Sturdy storage bins with lids will do the trick along with area rugs that make the floor a little cushier.

Ottum admires what the featured dorm students did with their desks, like adding an herb garden or stacking books. “There are a lot of decorating hacks,” she says.

Other innovative takes on a small space include jewelry tacked to the wall and photos framed with washi tape. One student chose to throw a boa on a jacket hanging on her closet. “It really shows her personality,” says Ottum.

Many students focus their attention on the bed because they know it will be a focal point. “You can get more creative with them than you think,” she says.

Start with some really great pillows and throws and mix and match different patterns. A canopy or a big pillow that looks like a tufted headboard can elevate the space along with string lights. Hanging pictures around the bed, even on the ceiling can make it feel like home. 

Photos from your past can be paired with mementoes from your present situation. “Some students display little notes from their classmates that are really sweet to me,” says Ottum.

Others feature art that celebrates their new surroundings, like a Seinfeld poster in a New York dorm or a colorful print from a local concert or a rally they attended.

Her book even includes a crash course on color theory that shows how the shades you pick impact you and your space.

Lighting can also make or break a small living area and the average dorm room has fluorescent fixtures that are often too harsh. Lamps and string lights can soften the environment.

A floor mirror propped against the wall can also work some magic. “It’s the little hacks people use like mirrors that make spaces look bigger,” she says.

There’s no need to break the bank with these pieces while you’re still figuring out your taste. Just find what works for you and feel free to change things out.

“A mattress pad was a lifesaver for me when I was in college,” says Ottum who also recommends a sleeping mask and silencing headphones for a more pleasant stay. “It’s all about creative solutions.”

Jeanine Matlow is a Metro Detroit interior decorator turned freelance writer specializing in stories about interior design. You can reach her at

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