Decorating a dorm room requires cooperation

Sure, a dorm's an impossibly cramped space to decorate by committee, but you have to give it the old college try.

Posted: August 17, 2007

As anyone who has ever possessed a single square foot of space knows, decorating matters. Even those who profess not to care really want their abodes to look attractive, be comfortable, and feel like home.

Under the best of circumstances, that can be difficult. So imagine the strain of working to organize and decorate a shoe box of a room with people who live far away - people you may not even know.

Ah, college! Not just the harbinger of academic challenges and new social pressures, it offers the bonus struggle of the dorm room. As someone gearing up for yet another year of the higher-education experience, I'm in a position to understand.

My future residence is a two-room triple, with three desks, three beds, and startlingly little closet space. Other than that, I'm fuzzy on the details, as are my two roommates, one from California, one from Texas.

Compounding the problem is the fact that my college is on the West Coast, which makes it virtually impossible for me to toss my belongings into the car and drive them to campus. Plus, my Texas roommate has picked up for the summer, leaving only the brief message: "I'm in Paris. I will buy posters."

So when my California roomie, Caitlin Crandell, called to say she was taking a break from Santa Barbara's beaches to visit me in Philadelphia (I know, I was surprised, too), I immediately thought, "Oh, good! Now we have time to plan our room!"

University of Pennsylvania sophomore Lua O'Brien understands wanting to sort out the decor issues in advance.

"My roommates are all coming up early, and we're going to go shopping together," says the Chestnut Hill resident, who will share an on-campus apartment with three girls. "Posters, furniture, and cooking stuff, like a George Foreman grill, we'll do together."

Mount Airy's Rachel Frank, 19, who goes to the University of Michigan, says she and her roommate are talking about decorating now.

"We planned a little bit before we left school. She already had a refrigerator and a microwave, so I am doing the TV and DVD player," Frank says. "We're discussing how we want to do our beds because it's building-block furniture, so you can do it lots of different ways."

Some are thinking bigger than just shopping at Ikea.

"We're all getting there pretty early, so we'll go trash-picking together in the ritzy parts of the city, like Hyde Park," says Dana Kaplan-Angle, a sophomore at Northwestern University, near Chicago. And though she hasn't talked much with her four suitemates, who live as far away as Washington state and as close as the Main Line, she's begun planning her own single bedroom by mocking up its life-size dimensions in blue tape on her living room floor.

"I've been hanging out in my phantom room so I can see how big it is," she says with a laugh. "It's small."

Some students haven't made much progress at all.

Chris Pittman, a freshman at the University of Delaware, won't find out who his roommate is until later this month, leaving him floundering on the decorating front.

And Katherine O'Brien, a freshman at USC, has found her Los Angeles roommate frustratingly unresponsive. "I've been trying to talk to her or message her online about decorating, but I don't think she's even interested in it," she says, sighing.

All around, there's worry about differences in taste.

"I'm really into different religions," Katherine O'Brien says. "Like, I have a Ganesh mask and a couple Buddhas and a cross that I've always wanted to hang up together, but I don't know how my roommate feels about all that stuff."

I'm concerned about the clash between my brightly colored, Christmas-lighted, more-than-slightly-messy style and Caitlin's subdued, stunningly neat one. And don't even get me started on my anxiety over how the Texas roommate will react to all my Eagles paraphernalia.

When tastes collide, "communication is the bottom line," says Chayse Dacoda, host of HGTV's decor-compromise show Get It Together (Saturdays at 11 p.m.).

As the founder of her own design business, Dacoda Design, the South Jersey native and University of Pennsylvania alum fully understands the desire to incorporate personal style into decorating. But, she points out, "Because you are sharing a room, you have to make sure that you are both getting something out of it. Be willing to listen to the other person and know that you're sharing one space together."

The key to that kind of communication, Frank says, is alerting future roomies to important new developments. "I would call and say 'Hey, I'm looking at this' or even 'I bought this' to at least give them a heads-up."

Lua O'Brien took that tack recently when she found a chair she thought would go well in her apartment's double bedroom. "I called my roommate to make sure that it was OK that I bought it." When she told her two other apartmentmates, they were also "really excited about it."

When possible, Dacoda says, it's a good thing to discuss decorating finds ahead of time.

"I mean, if you're talking about a pillow case, I don't think that's relevant to the other person," she says, "but if you're talking about your 37-inch TV, then, yeah, you should talk about it."

And if worry still gnaws, it may help to remember that there are multitudes of decorating paths to travel, any one of which can represent individual style. (Tess Rankin, a sophomore at Columbia University, admits treating her room like a giant scrapbook, collecting playbills, flyers, and tickets, and "sticking them on the walls to keep a record of my life.")

When all else fails, there's Pittman's approach.

"I'm pretty easygoing," he says. "If my roommate had something that was completely not me, I'd probably use it as a bargaining chip to get something that I wanted that wasn't him at all."

Honing bargaining skills? Well, college is all about the education.

Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fox at 215-854-5728 or

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