Ways to personalize and maximize space in college dorms, apartments

Rich Haislip, a visual director for Macy’s in Atlanta, brought design expertise when his daughter, Laurel, started college and needed to decorate her dorm room and eventually an apartment.

He used AutoCAD, a digital design program, to mock up her University of Georgia dorm room and find the best furniture arrangement. He also painted original art for the bland walls.

His wife, Maureen Haislip, sewed curtains and helped their daughter pick out and frame more art. To make the floors more cozy, they bought a carpet remnant, or leftover pieces of carpet sold at a discount, and had it bound around the edges as a rug.

Even with their creativity and skills at hand, the Atlanta parents knew that she had to make the final call on her college decor.

“You want to be involved enough that you are sure that the room functions, and that they purchase items wisely that can be used over and over again,” Rich Haislip said. “You want to make sure the student makes good decisions but don’t be overbearing about the creative part of it, because it is ultimately their space.”

Helping them find their style

Laurel Haislip, who graduated from UGA in 2016, said she lived in a dorm for three of her four years of college, and she managed to do it in style. She recommends keeping your decor clean and simple.

“When you’re in a small space, pattern can actually give a sense of clutter. Go for textures instead,” she said.

She suggests picking a neutral palette with one or two accent colors, so it’s easy to switch up in years to come. She used shades of tan and brown with pale pink as an accent.

“Right from the start I kind of chose what I liked, not what was trending, and stuck with that all four years,” said Laurel Haislip.

But keep in mind, dorms and college apartments are typically small. Most college students aren’t yet used to sharing that much personal space with another person, at least not their first year. It helps to incorporate storage and utility into their decor.

Some colleges and universities, including Emory University, Valdosta State University and UGA, hold dorm decor contests, to reward students for their well-designed spaces.

“Trends change quickly, that’s why we decided to stick with neutrals that we knew we would still like living in a semester down the road,” said Jasmine Weber, winner of UGA’s 2015-16 school year Room of the Year competition.

Making it happen — without taking over

It’s hard as parents of a college student to have them take the reins, but letting them make decisions about their living space ensures that they’ll be happy with the result.

Steve McKenzie, co-owner of Steve McKenzie’s, a home interior and decor store in west Midtown, saw this when his three children went off to college.

“They’re going out on their own for the first time, so let them be adventuresome and explore and really kind of represent themselves. Encourage them to do it, but don’t take over it,” he said.

If you have artistic skills or are helping them pay for their decorations, offer support, but try not to be too pushy.

“I was blessed with parents who had a vision and talent and knew what they were doing, so I trusted them for the most part, but there were definitely times when I made calls on things and they respected that,” Laurel Haislip said.

Doing it right

Art, furniture, bedding and storage make a dorm comforting and inviting instead of drab and sterile.

Loft beds create space underneath for storage and more.

“Loft beds and go upward rather than all over the floor, and you’ll be glad you have the extra space for yoga in the center of your room,” Laurel Haislip said.

She also used her mother’s steamer trunk each year, sometimes as a coffee table, sometimes as a bedside table, but it always functioned as storage for off-season clothing. Her dad, Rich Haislip, noted that even if you have never seen AutoCAD in action, you can mock up a to-scale dorm room on paper and slide the furniture around until you find the perfect fit.

Art is also important, as it helps elevate a space from a place to sleep to a home. McKenzie suggests using sites such as Minted to find art on a budget. He also points out that lines by designers, such as Target’s Nate Berkus collection, offer practical, attractive objects.

“I think kids are more successful in college if they do personalize their spaces and it’s more reflective of a home environment instead of just a sterile dorm room,” McKenzie said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.