Dorm-room decorators give it the old college try Design: Turning a utilitarian space into a home is a test of creativity, economy and cooperation.

August 09, 1998|By Rasmi Simhan | Rasmi Simhan,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Courtney Fox loved the Gothic windows and fireplaces of the 19th-century dorms at Bryn Mawr College. What she didn't count on when packing for her freshman year was the bed, or, as she put it, "the little bitty cot with a metal frame." The rest of the furniture reminded her of a monastery at best, an institution at worst.

Three months and several skillful decorating tricks later, friends would flock to her room to sit on the bed. She would return to her room to find dorm mates reading on her window seat or listening to her stereo.

"Some people think, 'Well, it's a dorm room, it's supposed to look like a dorm room,' " said Fox, who now works in public relations. "But if you're going to spend so much time in there, you might as well invest some time and creativity. Make it a place that friends can come to and you don't mind staying up all night in."

Decorating can help offset the institutional look of many dorm rooms. With an extra mattress, mattress pad and dust ruffle, Fox's "cot" became a plush, cushy bed. Light colors and lamps brightened the room, and a comfy foldout chair replaced the straight-back wooden one.

Decorating doesn't have to tax a student's skills or budget.

Try a plant. Sometimes it is easy being green.

"Neglect plants" can thrive in low light with little watering, said Mary Ruble, a manager Watson's Garden Center in Lutherville. Students from Towson University often choose the familiar dracaena and philodendron, but Chinese evergreens will also grow in dorms, Ruble said.

Fox grew a peace lily, an elegant plant with tapered leaves and white blossoms. "Especially during finals and midterms, it was great to have a plant there that looked healthy and reminded me of the outdoors," she said. The lily survived four years of college life and now sits on her office desk.

"Neglect plants" generally cost between $3 and $10. These plants also clean the air, Ruble said.

Truly thrifty? Room decoration costs as little as a trip down the street for some students at the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore.

From fire hydrants to headstones, Melissa Temple has seen it all. At Facilities Management Systems of Housing, she helped clear the remains of students' "dump diving" decorations, including a stuffed mountain-goat head and three or four old toilets. This year, the trash filled four 30-yard trash bins "like small trucks."

Her favorite: the "recycle-bag apartment." Residents lined the floor, walls and ceilings with translucent blue grocery bags, lending a fish-scale effect.

Others hauled in tree branches and patches of grass to create an indoor park. And mannequins became lamps and tables.

Dorm room decorating, like fashion, often follows trends of its own, she said. One year, students strung dried tea bags on the walls, "like dried peppers."

Learn the rules before you experiment, she warned. She recalled one expensive offense: "Spray paint from top to bottom - the walls, the cabinets, all different colors. They bought that apartment. Collectively, it cost about $500."

And the parents? "They seem to take it in stride," Temple said. "They're focusing on hauling [decorations] back down three or four flights of stairs."

Decoration and physical labor needn't go hand in hand. As soon as Maria Gruzynski arrived at Syracuse University and set down her things, she pulled out her photos. The white walls became "black with pictures" of everything from her dog to her car.

Pictures offer a chance to get to know others by explaining their importance, Gruzynski said. They were also as inexpensive as the "50 extra boxes of thumbtacks" it took to hang them (and the toothpaste used to fill in the holes in the wall later).

Picture frames make a good investment as well, according to Jim Frutchey, area coordinator for residents' education at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "Everything [in rooms] seems stuck on with tape," he said. "Frames give things a classier look."

Not a shutterbug? A University of Maryland, College Park student tacked friends' favorite Bible quotes to the wall, according to sophomore Kathy Mascardo.

Posters are more conventional - but ask your roommate first. Jason Zahorchak's roommate plastered the walls with "huge and terrible anime posters." The centerpiece: a floor-to-ceiling poster of Meiku and Matsui, D-cup police people with giant guns.

Zahorchak, a sophomore at the University of California at Berkeley, didn't really mind the posters. Still, cooperative decorating can become a bonding activity. "It's a good project to work on together, rather than dividing up the room," said Shelly Fickau, assistant director of resident life at Johns Hopkins University. She sees more Internet-related decor at JHU than in previous years, from jokes to pornography to computer art. "But art is such a subjective term," she said.

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