life in a tiny apartment.

August 29, 2016

dorm room decor | life in a tiny apartment |reading my tea leaves
Tip #143: Consider A Dorm Room.

I don’t know whether it’s some kind of fancy internet algorithm that keeps the posts coming across my radar, or whether there’s been an actual surge in dorm room style talk this summer, but I’ve seen a preponderance of posts from shelter mag style sites giving ideas for hacks and tricks and essentials for dorm room decor. 

Needless to say, I have some thoughts. I know the demographics in this space probably don’t include a huge number of college-aged readers (though big shout out to my husband’s students…ILY2!). I still can’t help chiming in on the mania.

First, I’ll be upfront: I took my dorm room seriously. I took a trip to Pier One Imports with my mom before my first year. I took another to HomeGoods. I had throw pillows to match the large Indian tapestry I’d bought at a music festival the summer before. I bemoaned my roommate’s choice of purple leopard print comforter and got to work making a sanctuary out of my side of the room. I was more likely than not insufferable. By the time I was a junior and had succeeded in securing myself a single room, my fastidiousness could really blossom. On more than one occasion I was told that my room would have been on the campus tour if not for the fact that it didn’t accurately represent how most college-aged students lived. I was, of course, extremely proud of the snub. 

The dorm room decor articles I’ve read in the past few weeks all champion the notion that having a small space and a small budget doesn’t mean that the place you live can’t be stylish. I am very much on board with this idea. It’s just that the suggestions I’ve read for imbuing a space with a bit of personal style feel out of step with the proclamation. One article declared that matching roomie poufs were a necessity for climbing into lofted beds. Another recommended hiring a dorm room design service to help source bedside lamps. Yet another advocated, perhaps, that incoming students invest in their own furniture instead of using what had been supplied by the college. I’m afraid we’ve all gone mad.

With full acknowledgement that hindsight is 20/20, I’d say that a dorm room is not a place to unpack an attic’s worth of decorative support materials. For the humorless, it’s a place to study. For the romantic (yours truly), it’s a place to sit with the reality of your cinderblock walls and dream about possibilities. It’s a time to unburden yourself from the stuff and to embrace the challenge of living without too much for awhile. It’s space made for fairy lights and photos stuck to the walls with tape. Express yourself, for sure, but no need to drain your meager bank account on a lamp that someone’s told you is a dorm room necessity. Nota bene: I’m 32 and I still don’t have matching bedside lamps. But I still do have the wooden crates I stored my books in.

It’s my Catholic upbringing coming through, no doubt, but I think there are lessons to be learned in a bit of discomfort. The beauty of dorm room living is recognizing the catastrophe of your chipping fake-wood college-issued desk, then figuring out a way to live with it. We don’t need to flagellate ourselves for seeking creature comforts or deciding to upgrade a not-very-nice something to a much-nicer-something—for lots of us, that’s part of growing up—I’m just suggesting that a college dorm room offers a blank slate in a way that’s not as easy to come by as life moves on. There’s something to be said for embracing the life stage when the place you live is less than perfect. (And maybe even to decide you’d prefer to keep things that way.) Perfectly imperfect, I’d say.

(I won’t link to matching bedside lamps, but if it’s pretty tape you’re after: right this way.)

Tiny apartment survival tips #1-142, RIGHT HERE.

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  • Reply Christine August 29, 2016 at 10:39 am

    Completely agree. I have fond memories of my dorm room (lime green comforter, posters of The OC, a collage of photos of friends) and later my room in the sorority house but what I like even more is remembering that it wasn’t perfect. The furniture was a weird oak and it wasn’t that big but I have such good memories of chats with friends and getting ready to go out (with the tiny shared “closet” that was just a closet rod against the wall) in that room. It wasn’t perfect, but it was my own space to grow up–and that in itself was amazing!

  • Reply Mary Kate August 29, 2016 at 11:06 am

    I love this advice! Yes, dorm rooms are for fairy lights and photographs hung up with blue sticky tack and inspirational posters (hang in there, baby) and on-a-whim dice-shaped pillows you picked up with your roommate on your first-ever outing together to linens n things. I actually have my very first college dorm room poster (picked up at the college dorm room poster fair the first week of freshman year, of course) now framed and hanging in my half bathroom as a reminder of a simpler time for decorating 🙂 Now I’m getting all nostalgic. Oh college, I miss you…

  • Reply Stacy August 29, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    Agree! I’m not too far out of college, and so many of these articles (I’ve read plenty) aren’t even practical for college students – at least not in my experience. Buy your own furniture? I’d love to see a college in which they let you remove furniture from a dorm room. Paying for design services? My mom took me to IKEA and BB&B and called it a day. A dorm is so temporary, and there is so much beyond those four walls in your college experience.

  • Reply Hanna August 29, 2016 at 12:51 pm

    Wow seriously? I was in college around the same time as you (I’m 29) and it seems like so much has changed even in that relatively short time. We had fun decorating dorms rooms, for sure, but a professional design service? And do most colleges even allow you to remove the furniture from the room?

    I agree with you though in that the beauty of a dorm room lies in its little quirks, even if we don’t realize it at the time. I think what makes that dorm room life so well-suited to college students in particular is that, aside from the weekly gathering in so-and-so’s room to watch Grey’s Anatomy, we were living most of our college lives outside of the dorm room: studying, class, extracurriculars, partying, school trips abroad, meeting new people, dining, library….I went overboard with the decorations freshman year but as I came out of my shell more I began to place less importance (and spend less money) on room decor that barely got a second glance after a while. Great post!

    • Reply Erin Boyle August 29, 2016 at 12:55 pm

      Ha—I’m sure it’s 90% hype 10% real-life.

  • Reply Maeve August 29, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    Erin! I’m 20 years old and just moved from my hometown in Australia to study in Stockholm. My room is fairly grim and to be honest I had been feeling kind of upset about it! In the madness of the move and orientation week activities I haven’t been able to properly decorate and it is currently a mess of books and paper and other college-related paraphernalia. I so, so needed this post, thank you! I am going to embrace the ‘perfectly-imperfect’, but will perhaps take a (much-needed) trip to IKEA to get some pretty fairy lights 🙂 xx

  • Reply Annette August 29, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    Great advice, Erin! I love your romantic notions of the dorm room being a blank canvas to dream about all future possibilities. It is crazy to think how disconnected we, as a culture, have become from the importance of experiencing life and instead placed our importance on possessing it.

  • Reply EMac August 29, 2016 at 1:59 pm

    I’d love to see a photo of this single room you described (although “cinderblock walls” made me briefly imagine it as a jail cell – lol). I wonder what it would be like compared to the memories of the dorm rooms I once resided in. Oddly enough, for me – I remember how my dorm felt, cozy flannel comforter, stiff commercial carpet, the sound of kids performing drum circles outside my window into the late hours of the night (oh, the late-90’s in upstate Vermont!), the smell of stale cigarette smoke (again – late 90’s, kids were allowed to smoke in their rooms if they and their roommates so desired – I didn’t but people on my floor did), the echos of the dark stairwells, the cold feeling when the old building just couldn’t crank up the heat enough in Mid-February… I can’t imagine having to live in a dorm now, during these ages of social media staged perfection.

  • Reply Kari.M August 29, 2016 at 2:06 pm

    Your readers may not be college age, but at least one of your readers (me) has college age kids. So I’m well up on how unrealistic those dorm decorating articles are. What’s funny to me is how much the rooms reflect the character of the inhabitants. My daughter’s room is all about the fairy lights and the photo collage put up with funtack. My son is so much of a minimalist, however, that my daughter had to buy him a poster just so he’d have something on his walls.

  • Reply Molly August 29, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    Hi Erin! I’m a college junior and I feel like this advice could not be more true… I think college in general is a time to sit with your discomfort and recognize that sometime soon, it will, most likely, pass and you’ll have happier thoughts. At least that’s always been the case for me. Thanks, as always, for your writing! My English-major soul loves it!

  • Reply Kaitlyn August 29, 2016 at 3:21 pm

    This post made me chuckle — first, because it helped me to recall the resplendent neon green and orange decor that was my freshman year dorm room (at the University of Connecticut, no less) and second, because I spent all weekend ruminating about my current nightstand lamp situation (they match and were free from a friend but I absolutely abhor the shades) and envying your own! The lamps might be mismatched but I’ve been looking for a scaled down and shade-less solution with a not-too-bright bulb. Are most of your lamp bases flea market finds? Even so, what bulbs do you use to prevent from blinding yourself without a barrier?

    thank you!

    • Reply Erin Boyle August 29, 2016 at 3:25 pm

      Ha! So funny! Most of our lamps are the flea market or “heirloom” variety. Schoolhouse Electric has a really great selection of bulbs that are usable without a shade! (But I’ve also had luck at local lighting shops and even hardware stores!)

      • Reply Kaitlyn August 29, 2016 at 3:30 pm

        Ah, so helpful! And such excellent timing. Have a lovely day. 🙂

  • Reply Jocelyn August 29, 2016 at 10:18 pm

    Great advice! Would love to see pictures of your dorm room and how your style has evolved/stayed the same.

    • Reply Erin Boyle August 30, 2016 at 7:48 am

      Ha! Would love to share! Haven’t found any good shots in the tiny digital archive from those years!

  • Reply Cay August 30, 2016 at 5:14 pm

    Hah, a photo of my old freshman year dorm room popped across my Facebook memories this morning (ironically, I just realized that my alma mater is where your husband teaches. Good choices!). So many coordinated pink things from Target’s college section, so little space!

    I figured it out by the end, and my advice is to get a pretty, flowy set of curtains to hide the inevitably dingy shade over the dirty window, and some nice fairy lights/desktop lighting so as to avoid the overhead fluorescent situation. Everything else, just keep as neat as possible. I get the obsession, though. There’s something intoxicating about having your own little space for the first time.

  • Reply Chaiti August 31, 2016 at 10:38 am

    College reader that loves your blog here!! The post explosion is probably because it’s the Time of dorm room decor before college starts. I’m going into my second year now, and I completely agree that frugality is the way to go. At this point I don’t want to buy anything because even the thought of it all piling up in the tiny space makes me nauseous.

  • Reply Rita Tocta September 2, 2016 at 9:20 am

    This is the kind of post that males me come back daily to your blog. I love your ideas and writing and they truly help us remain sane 🙂

    • Reply Rita Tocta September 2, 2016 at 9:21 am

      *makes* obviously not “males” 🙂

  • Reply Nelson Bartley September 2, 2016 at 8:34 pm

    I actually just did a post on this on my blog because my daughter is a freshman at Ole Miss (where the viral dorm room was from). While All this decor may seem to excess, I was also amazed that these girls who had met for one weekend (or in many cases-never) managed to coordinate an entire room online, showing up for move in day with no (well, one) duplicates, an entire room designed and decorated and VERY little money spent. The fridge was used, they each bought new bedding (would have had to be done anyway as Twin XLong isn’t a staple at our house.) and a table for between the beds was purchased which will def be used again.
    Most everything came from Target or Home Goods and my daughter bought all of her half except the bedding with her own money.
    Personally I think if these girls who have never met manage to do all of this coordinating and negotiating, long distance at that, they are better equipped for the real world than most. The world could use some more peaceful negotiators. And more beautiful spaces.

  • Reply TESSA September 5, 2016 at 4:51 am

    I have been reading your blog since I was about 15, I am 19 now and love love love everything you write. A breath of fresh air while browsing the internet. So much is over-curated and so far removed from anything real. I will be off to a university/ college/ design school of some sort soon..

    Thank you for your honesty. Your photography is so calmly beautiful. I also can’t help but “like” every Instagram post of yours!!

  • Reply nicole m. October 7, 2017 at 8:28 am

    i’ve been scrolling on your website the past two or three days. im portuguese and im 22, in my college dorm room, planning about my future tiny apartment (where i will be moving to in june – we hope). so when you say “I know the demographics in this space probably don’t include a huge number of college-aged readers” let me just express that from the moment i got to your blog, i sent it to my boyfriend and told him “look, this is what we’re gonna do in our future apartment”. ive been reading around here and getting very inspired, making some lists and sketches. so thank you for being an inspiration for me, being 22 and in desperate need to get out of my shared dorm room (which you can see here to this tiny apartment living.

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