The Subtle Art of Decorating a Dorm Room

Friends are nice, but when the sole source of light is overhead, it’s a real soul crusher.

"It doesn’t have the oomph of your room last year." This on-point assessment of my dorm room at Sarah Lawrence was issued in 1989 by a beautiful girl from Philadelphia with folded arms and a critical gaze.

The year before, my room had had a full bar, refrigerator, TV, and an Hermès scarf with a map of Paris (stolen from my parents’ front hall commode) pinned up on the wall. There was a tufted velvet Napoleon III chair that Geoffrey Bennison would have been very happy to use, also stolen. I can’t remember what I rigged the curtains out of, but the valance was expressive; it was the ’80s. A very good Ziegler carpet lay casually over the school-issue dresser, Vermeer-style. There were happy times in that room.

When my daughter Kate went away to boarding school this year, it all came rushing back. One worries about morale when a child is on her own for the first time—without friends, pet goldfish, or a lamp. The lamp may be the most devastating; friends are nice, but when the sole source of light is overhead, it’s a real soul crusher. To remedy this I invented a sort of kit for combating the linoleum-and-fluorescent-light blues, and sent a presentation by e-mail and the furniture by UPS.

Do be very colorful in the choice of the rug, which you may assume will never be vacuumed.

There are many precedents for style in the dorm. Watch episode one of Brideshead Revisited (the 1981 version, of course) to see Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte at Oxford. In the 19th century, Russian princes at English universities sent their laundry to Paris.

My own mother—who was not into extravagance, or sewing—revealed that in the thrall of a crush on a young man called James Baker, she had made curtains for his room at Princeton. People in love will do anything. No word on whether this gesture was a closer in the 1940s, but we do know from my friend’s comment in 1989—by which point Baker was secretary of state—that curtains are a big part of the oomph.


I’m an old hand at kids’ rooms, clients’ and my own, and I never turn my nose up at designing staff bedrooms; I know my way around the West Elm catalog. Kate loved her room, as did her roommate. The objective was to dazzle without using things that were too nice, which creates social issues and generates the wrong kind of talk. The way to go is cheap, cheerful, and modern. Don’t worry about making things goofy, either; the kids will bring that themselves. But do be very colorful in the choice of the rug, which you may assume will never be vacuumed.

These dorm room projects rarely have happy endings, by the way, because the greater the number of beautiful things you drag up there, the more agony you go through when the reality dawns that there aren’t enough station wagons in the world to get it all back out of the New England woods. When that June day comes, and the futon-and-cinderblock-bookshelf crowd is laughing at you, oomph is out, and the minimalist look seems poised for a comeback.

This story appears in the August 2018 issue of Town & Country.

*This story originally appeared on
*Minor edits have been made by the editors

View More Articles About:
About The Author
David Netto
View Other Articles From David Netto
Latest Stories
Look closely to see what these furry friends are made of.
Harry Potter-themed airport displays, a newly awarded Michelin star restaurant, and the only rooftop bar in the world that serves its own tea-infused spirits.
Meet the chefs behind the excellent dishes at some of the city's top hotels.
The Duke recalled his own experience graduating from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
Plus everything we know about the movie so far, from the premiere date to which characters aren't coming back.
The tradition of the royal holiday greeting has changed over time.
It's Meghan Markle's first royal Christmas card!
Why skiing Australia should be on everyone's travel bucket list.
During the holidays this seaside town transforms into a dreamy cold-weather escape.
These powerful duos are making big changes in the fields of education, transportation, beauty, art, and design.
Load More Articles