So much stuff, so little style. The dream dorm room was just not happening.
Five years ago, Karen and Amanda Zuckerman hit the malls and big-box stores to decorate Amanda's freshman dorm at Washington University in St. Louis. The offerings were ... well, underwhelming.
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"She wanted something special," Karen Zuckerman says. "She wanted a home away from home that reflected her style." The mother and daughter cobbled together a cute-enough room, then did what any creative, enterprising family would do: They founded Dormify, an online dorm design business based in Rockville, Md.
College students will spend $48 billion this year (an average of $916 per person) on furniture, electronics, bedding and other supplies, according to the National Retail Federation. Then there are the families who take it to the next level: hiring a professional decorator to transform the typical college cell into a cozy retreat.
"Designers are doing individual rooms and calling us for products," Zuckerman says. "It's becoming a really big deal."
The average dorm room -- even at some of the most elite colleges and universities -- is not only tiny, but also ugly: white paint, standard-issue furniture, fluorescent lighting and nothing that requires nails in the walls. (Some don't even have air conditioning, which creates another issue.) It's a challenge for many millennials who have never shared a bedroom or bath and aren't accustomed to roommates or going without.
Helicopter parents are not inclined to drop their darlings at the dorm entrance with two suitcases and cheerfully wave goodbye. Instead, they're turning to their own interior designers or professional organizers, such as Rachel Strisik Rosenthal.
One of Rosenthal's first jobs was putting together a dorm room for a female college sophomore at George Washington University. The student had a tendency to be unorganized and had a bumpy first year, so her parents hired the Bethesda, Md.-based organizer to put together her dorm room in a way that helped her relax and study.
"They wanted her to feel comfortable," Rosenthal says. "I've never been contacted directly by a student. It's usually the parent."
After taking measurements, Rosenthal put the bed on risers to create storage room, revamped her closet, put in shelves and other wall storage, and reorganized her desk to keep track of assignments and other class materials. The total cost for labor and materials? About $800.
The student was so pleased that she worked with the organizer four more times on other dorm rooms and then her first apartment.
Dorms are now about 5 percent of Rosenthal's business, with clients paying the $675 minimum for a combination of design and organization systems. That's a relative bargain; she knows a professional organizer in New York who just moved a student into a dorm room -- and the planning and design fees alone were $5,000.
This is almost an entirely female phenomenon, fueled by social media and increasingly sophisticated marketing to college students. Boys don't really care what their rooms look like -- they just want the TV and other electronics. (Dormify added a section this year for guys, but "that's really targeted toward moms," Zuckerman says.) Girls, on the other hand, create mood boards with pictures of their perfect space and trade ideas on Facebook and Pinterest.
Zuckerman says more mothers and daughters are doing this together, often with professional help, to create the first dorm room -- one way of easing the separation anxiety. The same baby boomers who slapped a Bob Marley poster on the dorm wall and called it a day are now willing to pay big bucks for coordinating duvets, pillows curtains, rugs and other symbols of a well-appointed dorm for their children.
Dormify started out by designing fashionable twin XL sheets (the standard mattress size found only on campuses), then added other bedding and window collections, wall decals, storage and bath accessories. The company added a blog and "style advisers" across the country -- 600 students who post photos of cute dorm rooms and other ideas for small spaces. It also has a licensing agreement with 22 national sororities, offering customized items and apparel.
A typical purchase on the site is $300, but some customers shell out as much as $2,000 to decorate the entire room. The site also has a gift registry, and more students are asking for dorm decor as birthday and graduation presents. Zuckerman says she probably spent $1,000 on Amanda's freshman dorm, but she has heard of people who spent $4,000 to $5,000 on decor; one paid even more to install a customized closet system.
Many parents are willing to shell out for dorm room decor with the understanding that they are, effectively, putting together a first apartment. The expectation is that many of the pricier items will last for years and can be easily transferred to a small rental.
That's one of the operating principles behind Zoom Interiors, an online design firm founded by GWU graduates Lizzie Grover, Beatrice Fischel and Madeline Fraser.
The three met as interior design students and launched an enterprise specializing in dorm rooms and small-space decorating. They had helped their friends put together stylish dorm rooms, and going pro was the next logical step.
"I just got finished with a mom doing a son's and daughter's rooms," Fischel says.
The two kids are both at Yale: The son needed a design to accommodate more clothes storage; the daughter needed an overall decor plan. Based on measurements and a video of the room, Fischel created a floor plan, bought all of the products, and arranged to have the items shipped to New Haven, Conn., then assembled and put in place in one day. The total cost was about $3,500 for both rooms.
A Harvard student recently contacted Zoom to create an elegant look for his single dorm room. His budget? About $3,000. "He wants very high-end things he can move into an apartment," she says. The upscale clients "buy things they plan on keeping."
The next step up is a dorm room that's already high-end. More and more colleges are offering state-of-the-art buildings with all the bells and whistles -- larger bedrooms, private baths, elegant common lounges, flat-screen TVs, gyms, tanning salons, rock climbing walls ... well, you get the idea.
The designer of Purdue University's $52 million First Street Towers called it "essentially a hotel" for "helicopter parents who want to send their son or daughter to college campus but give them all the luxuries of home."
In fact, the modern dorm rooms are often more beautiful than first apartments. Many universities and colleges, looking for ways to recruit promising students to their campuses, have turned over student housing to private developers who build and operate high-rise student housing. The rooms cost a few thousand more than traditional dorms, but many students (and parents) are willing to splurge.
Of course, "there's only so much you can do for a dorm room," says Fischel -- even a very, very nice dorm. Although freshmen and sometimes sophomores are typically required to live on campus, it's still not good enough for some parents.
"They find a way to pull them out of a dorm and put them into an amazing apartment," she says.
Of course they do.