Dorm Room Style: A Designer’s Best Tips

By: Elizabeth Aaron**

Who better to ask for tips on how to transform a drab dorm room into a stylish, cozy and practical space than an interior designer who has worked for some of NY’s top firms throughout her career. As your child heads off to college, boarding school, or to that first apartment after a year in the dorms here are essential tips and affordable products to turn a drab space into a home away from home. 

As a residential interior designer, I’ve conquered the challenge of remodeling a 12,000 square foot home, designed a house around a client’s contemporary art collection and recently completed a blue and white house. Yet one of my greatest feats was decorating my daughter’s NYU dorm room on a budget. With many students heading to college next week, it’s time to check your list to ensure no detail is overlooked. 

It's remarkable how trendy dorm rooms have become. Students today spend alot of time and take great pride in personalizing their home away from home. Some affordable ways to decorate a room of any size include:



An area rug is a great way to warm up a utilitarian space. Outdoor rugs stand up to heavy traffic and are forgiving with spills. Surya offers hundreds of options at affordable prices. Be sure to measure your space before ordering to ensure a proper fit. A rug can float in the space or sit partially under furniture – it does not have to go wall to wall like carpet, though careful to ensure it runs completely under your desk chair or not at all for ease of movement.



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Ikea has always been a favorite source for affordable framed art. Avoid damaging walls by picking up Command picture hanging strips from Target. If your school is strict about hanging art, a simple solution is wall decals. Amazon features dozens, from inspirational quotes to polka dots to life-size trees. Find a theme that speaks to you, like the ocean or go with all black and white photography. Try to keep frames a consistent color so the art is what pops.



Desk Lamp. Task lighting is helpful when reading "the old-fashioned way" from a textbook. An LED desk lamp is key to saving your eyesight. One of my faves is from AdessoHome that has an integrated Qi certified wireless charger as well as a USB port.



Ikea's Rice paper lanterns are an affordable way to soften utilitarian overhead lighting. Bring 2 white plant hooks & a 15ft white extension cord. One hook will go in the center of the ceiling to hang the lantern. The other will go in the corner of the room to drape the extension cord down the wall to the closest outlet or surge protector.


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Gotta have a full-length mirror! Target recently introduced an over-the-door model with shallow interior storage for jewelry, etc. Anything that serves more than one function is practical in a small space.


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Don’t forget a small white board & dry erase markers for you/friends to leave messages at your door. This is a good option from Amazon.


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Students will spend countless hours at their desk. Switching between standing and sitting has become a more ergonomic way to work. Yes, students get a desk in their room but for under $200 they can have an Ameriwood lift-top desk that will make getting through college that much easier.


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When it's time to sit, why not do so in a Modway, state-of-the-art adjustable desk chair for just about $100?


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Ikea’s 3-tier drawer unit stores letter size paper and will help keep your desk tidy.


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A headboard might seem like a luxury reserved for home but at under $100 for a Modway twin headboard, it's a plunge some students are willing to take to make their rooms extra special.


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A functional nightstand is important. Bed Bath & Beyond's adjustable storage cart is a practical solution at an affordable price.


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This Modway swing costs designers half of what they sell for at retailers and are so comfy you'll never want to get up! If you don't have the room or the budget for something big, a simple butterfly chair never fails.


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College towels rarely get hung up properly to dry. Quick Dry hand and bath towels from Bed Bath & Beyond solve that problem.While everyone loves the luxury of an oversized bath sheet, standard size bath towels just dry faster. I highly recommend oversized Command hooks from Target to make it easier to hang up that bath & face towel.


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Bedding is very personal. I am a big fan of an all-white bed so sheets can be bleached to keep them clean but I realize that’s not practical for everyone. I advise against percale sheets since their trademark crispness can make them surprisingly noisy. All cotton sheets help minimize sweaty nights. I prefer the smooth feel of sateen. Be sure to buy Twin XL for all bedding unless your school indicates otherwise. If you want a simple solution, consider Malouf Sleep’s Bed in a Bag.


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Pillows should be selected based on how you sleep (side vs back). A standard size down-alternative has the most appeal. I especially like the quality and value of The Company Store. If you’re a side sleeper, consider a gusseted pillow. Do you like a soft pillow (down alternative) or something firm (foam)? Whatever you choose, buy pillow protectors to prolong the life of your pillow(s).


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The Company Store also offers a variety of colored, quilted comforters that require no cover. As with pillows, I prefer a down-alternative comforter. You'll want to choose the weight based on if you're a hot or cool sleeper and where your school is located. Better to err on the side of a light or medium weight comforter and add a cozy fleece blanket in the winter if necessary.


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Why do you need a waterproof mattress cover, you may ask? Have you considered how many students slept on that mattress before you? Have you ever spilled your coffee in bed? Choose wisely. The lesser quality ones have crinkly waterproof layers that are noisy.


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Target’s 3-section laundry sorter occupies minimal space and helps keep darks, whites & linens separate. Of course, we all know they’re going in the same overstuffed load but a mom can dream.


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Last but certainly not least in the bedding department: the memory foam mattress topper. This item will make the difference between a good night sleep vs tossing and turning. Costco offers a good selection at a great price.


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Bed risers. Greatest invention ever. Double your storage space by raising your bed. This model from Bed Bath & Beyond even has an outlet and USB port!


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Target has a big and affordable selection of underbed storage bins. Be sure to measure the clearance beneath the bed to get the right size. This is the place to store seasonal or overflow items you won’t need to access every day.


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Slim flocked hangers. Another genius invention. Hang more in less space without items slipping off. If you only get one style, the suit hanger works well for both tops and pants. Based on my extensive research, the rule of thumb is to get 4 dozen. Seems like a lot but you’d be surprised how much easier it is to find your clothing if it’s hung up rather than folded in a drawer.


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Want even more room in your closet, consider The Container Store's Lynk Double Hang Closet Rod.


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Why clutter the floor of your closet when you can hang your shoes? Bed Bath & Beyond's 10-shelf hanging shoe organizer is a great and affordable solution. This is another good option from Amazon.


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Keep your desk clutter-free and everything in view with The Container Store's multi-function utility board.


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If you’re lucky enough to have a shower in your suite, you will want:

  • shower curtain rings (my fave has the little balls on top for a smooth glide and separate prongs for your curtain & liner.)


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Stacking under sink storage like this unit from Amazon will keep your tiny sink cabinet counter clear while keeping all your toiletries within easy reach.


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Shower Caddy. A good shower caddy is essential for trips to & from the bathroom - whether it's in your suite or down the hall. My fave is the virtually indestructible Casabella 2-in-1 shower caddy. I got one for my daughter for summer camp when she was 10 and it’s still going strong.


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A microwave, mini fridge and Keurig are dorm room staples. Check with your roommate(s) to offset costs before purchasing your own.

  • Storage Cabinet. An Ameriwood storage cabinet for around $100 will house your microwave, mini fridge, dishes & mugs in order and occupies less than 2ft in width!

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Elizabeth Aaron is a NYC-born & trained, San Diego-based Interior Designer with a college-age daughter. She designs tons of teen rooms and has expanded to dorm rooms as her clients’ kids (and her own) head off to college. Elizabeth has scoured the sites of retailers, mom blogs, interviewed friends and their college age kids to compile essential resources from everything to décor, linens & furniture to clothing, toiletries & school supplies.

** Find Elizabeth at

Instagram: ElizabethAaronInteriors / 4FriendsDesignLLC