A Room With a Clue


First, the bad news: A crappy dorm room can ruin your whole semester. A 1998 University of Florida study found that factors such as noise, lighting, and a view of green space had measurable impacts on students’ self-esteem and adjustment to college. Now, the good news: It’s possible to transform your 150-sq. ft dbl w/xtra-long twin into something livable, even inviting, as long as you learn from my experience—and ignore what the marketers have to say.

STEP 1: What Not to Buy

Ninety-nine percent of the stuff now being promoted at Urban Outfitters, Kmart, Bed Bath & Beyond, your campus bookstore, and wherever else you’re shopping with your parents is useless junk that’s going to break, get dusty, and clutter up your space. This includes, but is not limited to: butterfly chairs, any inflatable furniture, fussy little bedside lamps, miniature wastebaskets, “desk organizers” pre-stocked with multicolored paper clips, oversized coffee mugs, laundry hampers (just hang a bag from your closet doorknob), combination battery-powered fans/squirt bottles, paper lanterns, CD racks (store them, sans cases, in a book, or switch to MP3s already), and anything whose major function is to sit on a surface and take up space. You’ve got a clean slate, so don’t immediately crowd it with tchotchkes. Take this opportunity to follow design luminary William Morris’s dictum to have nothing in your space that is neither beautiful nor useful.

STEP 2: The Useful

If you spend your whole room allotment on your bed, bright lighting, and a good shelving system, you won’t be sorry. Sheets last forever, so for God’s sake don’t go for any polyester-blend leopard prints. Both BB&B and Kmart‘s Martha Stewart offer 100 percent cotton sheets (jersey and flannel are nice collegiate variations, about $20 for a twin). An eggcrate or feather mattress pad (starting at $40 at BB&B) and an extra feather pillow on your bed will increase the likelihood that someone will want to share it.

Studying, and worse, getting dressed in fluorescent light can be deadly. Halogen lamps are prohibited by most schools, so you’ll need a tall incandescent lamp instead. Also get a three-setting gooseneck lamp, or opt for an extra clip-on lamp for your bed. A string of Christmas lights ($3.99 off-season at Kmart) add a pretty, if clichéd, glow. A decent, modular storage system is another investment you won’t regret. Spring for an Ikea set like the wood-and-metal Enetri (starting at $49.99): you can get one set this year and another one next year.

PS: Depending on your space, a cozy rug will probably add more comfort to your room than a cheap armchair. Urban Outfitters has some good options, ranging from shredded suede to nubby cotton to cloudlike flokati (only $36 for a three by six). Also, for $12.99 from Kmart, no room should be without a full-length mirror.

STEP 3: The Beautiful

Now that you’ve blown your budget on the basics, it’s time to use a little ingenuity to make your room Martha-worthy. The Queer Eye guys don’t lie: Paint is the fastest, most cost-efficient way to transform a room, but most New York colleges charge high penalties for repainting rooms dead white. The intrepid may be able to figure a way around room inspections, or simply repaint every semester.

College is really the only time that road signs, movie posters, or flags may be considered legitimate room decor. From surveys of friends’ dorm rooms, I’ve found that a single, oversized nontraditional decorative object, be it a 1920s schoolroom map of the Ottoman Empire or a marimba, creates impact in a room; more says rummage sale/fire hazard. Decorating your room by the looting method also makes a fun roommate bonding experience.

Alternatively, you could actually spend a little money to add just one decidedly non-dormlike token of luxury to your room. Some likely New York destinations for bedecking away from the pack: Katinka, a tiny place on 9th Street near Second Avenue that’s only open in the afternoons and carries gorgeous Indian imports, including wall hangings, scarves, and masks, at congenial prices. Obscura Antiques & Oddities (10th between First and A) is always worth a browse, holding anything from antique photographs to fezzes. A stuffed two-headed calf just sold for $3,000, but there are several mounted squirrels for sale at only $75, a sprightly woodland accent for any room. The Chelsea Wholesale Flower Market (75 Ninth Avenue; 212-620-7500) is a great place to add a cheap, exotic, oxygen-producing touch, although make sure you choose something that can survive winter break. (Think succulents). Finally, ABC Carpet & Home (881 Broadway), the luxury furniture emporium, is a great place to visit for ideas and jealous dreams; though you won’t be able to afford most of this stuff for another decade, there are gold-embroidered sari cloth pillows, only $40 for a small, $65 large, that would make a $19.99 bed-in-a-bag look good, and antiqued rhinestone picture frames for only $10.

STEP 4: Entertaining

Now that your dorm is a palace, it’s time to hold a feast. Most NYC colleges don’t allow many appliances in your room, but they do offer access to at least mini-kitchens. Here are some ideas for truly civilized gatherings, requiring only a mini-fridge and microwave.

THE CHEESE PLATE: $30 at the beloved East Village Cheese shop (40 Third Avenue; 212-477-2601) will buy a selection of aged and soft cheeses, olives, grape leaves, and crackers for at least six people. Wine, in a box, jug, or bottle, is optional.

THE MOVIE NIGHT: Melt one tablespoon of butter in the microwave with a tablespoon of honey, cinnamon, salt, and chili powder to taste. Add to a bag of your favorite microwaved popcorn and shake to coat. This topping is also good on a mixture of Chex cereal and peanuts.

THE PAN-ASIAN: Keep bags of edamame (soy beans) and shumai (dumplings) in the freezer for semi-sophisticated snacking that will save a mint on takeout; both can be made in the microwave in about 90 seconds. The dipping sauce for shumai is made with equal parts soy sauce and rice vinegar; variations include a shot of chile sauce or a sprinkling of sesame seeds.

THE SEDUCTION: Wash and freeze ripe strawberries, grapes, and bananas (peeled and sliced in chunks). When it’s time to impress, melt half a cup of semisweet chocolate chips for 40 seconds in the microwave with a teaspoon of butter for gloss. Dip the fruit and place on a wax paper; the cold surface will harden the chocolate quickly, while the chocolate melts the fruit. Serve with whipped cream and Portishead.