Natalie Held wasn’t able to see her junior-year room at Boston University before moving in, so she found the floor plan through the university’s housing website and started plotting out her space weeks before moving.
The 19-year-old student of political science, journalism and women’s studies from Fairfield, Conn., saved inspirational images to a folder on Instagram, then designed her decor around key pieces: a crescent moon-shaped mirror, personal Polaroids and a lightbox. Her room has a stack of feminist books — “Becoming” by Michelle Obama and “The Notorious RBG,” among them — throw pillows with empowering quotes, a letterboard sign promoting her podcast series and online shop “Blessed Be the Brains,” all bathed in hues of millennial pink and accented with string lights.
“I would definitely say I went above and beyond,” says Held, who posts photos of her room and her pink-infused style to the 1,875 followers on her Instagram account @natateaaa. “I have a few friends who have done great jobs, but not quite to the extent I’ve gone with full-on home decor.”
These are the dorm rooms of the Instagram age.
And while big-box retailers like Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond remain the stalwart go-tos to kit out co-eds’ lairs, a handful of design startups like Dormify, Room 422 and Dorm Decor cater specifically to the university shopper who wants his or her (usually her) humble residence hall to look photogenic for social clout — and social media.
It’s a booming market. The average college shopper spent $976.78 on back-to-school gear, according to the National Retail Federation, with $120.19 of that going toward dorm and apartment furnishings. The latter figure has been steadily increasing in recent years, jumping 10 percent this fall from the year prior.
(Held is budget-conscious: Most items, including hexagon shelves, small succulents and a letterboard, cost less than $10; over the course of three years, Held estimates she’s spent $300.)
Amanda Zuckerman, 28, founded Manhattan-based Dormify in 2012 after encountering too many juvenile designs when trying to outfit her own room at Washington University in St. Louis. She says that the ever-increasing desire for a perfectly outfitted dorm can be credited to one platform.
“Instagram has fueled it,” she says. “You’re not only decorating your room for you and your roommate, but something you put on display to your entire network. That’s why people put so much into it. There’s this expectation now that you’re going to create a cute dorm room, and you’re going to post it on Instagram.”
With 215,000 followers, Dormify’s account is by far the largest for college-specific inspiration. Urban Outfitters Home (@urbanoutfittershome; 575,000 followers) is a go-to, while Held takes cues from influencers with enviable apartments, like Chicago-based Celeste Escarcega and @astoldbymichelle of Houston.
Dormify, which offers free design services but makes money selling products from bedding to desk accessories, opened a storefront in Chicago this summer through August 2020. The studio in the company’s Manhattan headquarters, located at 298 Fifth Ave., has been open by appointment to shoppers since 2017. Customers can browse the entire product line there or online; orders are shipped to them.
While Dormify launched before Instagram was ubiquitous, it’s become an important way to find new customers — including Sophie Weiss of New City, NY, a freshman at Penn State University.
“I have a lot of older friends who went to college before me, and I always saw their rooms on Instagram and their Snapchat stories,” says the 17-year-old communications major.
Weiss went all out for her first-year room, spending almost $2,000 to outfit her space. With the help of Dormify’s offerings — which include a bed visualizer, a live chat through the website and one-on-one appointments with in-store stylists — she chose a navy blue and gray color scheme that reflects Penn State’s.
Everything from her bedding and the removable brick wallpaper to an over-the-door vanity organizer and bench that doubles as storage is from Dormify. Weiss’ mom spent three days in August helping her set up her room, two of which were spent applying the faux brick wallpaper.
Penn State pride is evident in throw pillows, a “Home Sweet Home” Nittany Lions sign, a poster of Penn State sayings and a lightbox emblazoned with a “Nittany Lions Forever” motto.
Weiss’ favorite piece, though, is an upholstered headboard that charges devices and attaches to the wall. “It has outlets [and a USB port], and it makes a big difference for the way my bed looks,” says Weiss. “It’s definitely the most essential.”
At $169, it’s one of Dormify’s most popular — and more expensive —products. “Headboards are huge for us,” says Zuckerman. “We’re sold out of most of our styles.” The trend of adding headboards to standard-issue extra-long twin beds has taken off thanks to Instagram, she adds.
“People are seeing photos all over Instagram of the wallpaper, the string lights, the headboard,” Zuckerman says, “and once an 18-year-old girl sees a girl that just graduated the year before them decorating their room that way, they have to have that.”
Dorm-room decor is no longer simply about turning a sterile box into functional crash pad to use between classes.
Willow Fitzpatrick-Murray started thinking about the design of her dorm room when she was a sophomore in high school. Comfort and function were key, but she wanted her room to speak to her style and showcase who she is. “I didn’t want to just get a catalog, pick a theme and buy all the items that were made to be together,” she says.
Now a first-year at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), Fitzpatrick-Murray has finally been able to bring her decor dreams to life. The Long Beach, NY, native shares an apartment-style suite in FIT’s Alumni Hall that has two bedrooms, a bathroom and a dining and kitchen area with a stove.
Fitzpatrick-Murray knows her three other suitemates from high school and coordinated with her roommate. Her corner is a warm, earthy retreat. She spent around $200, buying most items at Urban Outfitters, Marshalls, HomeGoods and Amazon. A dusty pink comforter is topped with a chunky knit throw and plump pillows. Fake vines and wisteria hang from the ceiling alongside fairy lights. A collage of photos, fashion illustrations and magazine clippings from W and Elle turns the wall into a mood board.
“My parents used to call my room at home my ‘studio’ because of how much time I put into it and loved being in it,” says the 18-year-old advertising, marketing and communications major. “And that’s exactly how I wanted my dorm room to feel.”
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