Stores offering designer dorm gear for the college-bound


This is what your college dorm room could look like. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 19, 2011

As soon as Amanda Zuckerman graduated from Potomac’s Winston Churchill High School in 2009, she began another rite of passage: shopping for her college dorm room.

Long gone, it seems, are the days of grabbing milk crates and grandma’s extra quilt and making do. Students prepared to spend $100,000 on an undergraduate degree increasingly are willing to invest in transforming the dorm into something closer to a first apartment.

It’s a shift retailers have seized on as an opportunity to launch a relationship that could well track over years and decades — from throw pillows to an apartment-size sofa to a full sectional for the den.

It’s also a design challenge: how to make creative and economical use of a 12-by-12 space that will be used for studying, eating, spacing out and sleeping.

For Zuckerman and her mother, it had to be showstopper. They decided on a neutral palette of gray, tan and black with pops of lime green and headed to New York to shop. They were quickly frustrated that they could not find everything they needed in one spot.

“We went from store to store, taking a pillow from Urban Outfitters and another from Bed, Bath and Beyond” and hoping they would look stylish on the same bed, Zuckerman said. “There was nothing in one place.”

They searched all summer and staged their purchases on the dining room table. Then they saw their ideas come together in Zuckerman’s room at Washington University in St. Louis.

“They called it ‘the hotel,’ and people from other buildings were coming over and saying, ‘I heard about this dorm room. I wanted to see it,’ ” said her mother, Karen Zuckerman, who runs a design and advertising agency based in Rockville. “That’s what we wanted.”

The experience inspired Zuckerman to launch an online boutique this summer called Dormify.

The site carries bedding in regular and extra-long twin sizes, posters and wall decals, all designed by the mother-daughter duo, plus accessories like throw pillows and frames from designers like Blissliving Home and Jonathan Adler.

Their target audience: College women (and their hovering parents) who have a sense of style and a larger-than-average decorating budget. This is the crowd that shops for jeans at Abercrombie & Fitch, asks for designer sunglasses for birthdays, reads Vogue and watches interior-design shows on cable.

“I am the target audience,” said Amanda Zuckerman, now 20 and entering her junior year. “I want my dorm room to look like an apartment. I don’t want to feel like I’m in a gross dorm room.”

The Zuckermans aren’t the only ones eyeing these college consumers. This year, Crate and Barrel opened its first Washington CB2 store, which sells affordable furniture aimed at apartment and loft dwellers. Last year, Pottery Barn pulled together pieces from its main line and a line of teen furnishings into an online PB Dorm site that features $35 bath caddies and $189 monogrammed beanbag chairs.

Going off to college has always been a major consumer event, and this year students are expected to spend $33.8 billion during the back-to-school season on electronics, clothing and supplies, according to the National Retail Federation. That’s an expected average of $96.94 on dorm furnishings, a significant increase from last year’s average of $80.06.

And these retailers aren’t just offering students merchandise to buy — they are providing shopping checklists and advising students on how to make their dorm room their own. These companies aren’t just selling extra-long sheets, they are selling a lifestyle and hoping to recruit lifelong customers.

CB2 provides free in-store room design help. PB Dorm has a photo gallery of “dorm room inspirations” and a “design your own bed” interactive feature that allows students to experiment with color and pattern combinations. And Dormify has a crew of 50 college-aged “style advisers” who blog about their decorating experiences, do-it-yourself projects and getting along with roommates.

“People who have style have style, no matter what their budget,” said Cynthia Bell, a rising senior at Seton Hall University in New Jersey who interned in Washington this summer. Each year, Bell has carefully decorated her room, often using fashion photos ripped from Elle and Vogue magazines, but has yet to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars doing so. But, she concedes, “if Anthropologie had a college line, I would cry to my parents until they bought me everything.”

Just like retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart have long marketed dorm sets that contain nearly everything a college student might need in one box or bag, Dormify has put together matching collections with funky names. There’s the “punk princess collection” featuring black, white and hot pink bedding, pillows and wall art for $427.68. The “red romance collection” costs $622.07.

Zuckerman thought these collections would be the site’s bestsellers, since they easily give a student a pulled-together look without the store-to-store search. Instead, she’s seeing more sales of single sheet sets or accessories.

In many cases, dorm rooms look like mini apartments, and students are investing in pieces they can use beyond their college years. New residence halls are often apartment-style and feature in-house gyms, music studios or gaming rooms.

“Why live in a cookie-cutter interior when for a few dollars more you can have something different?” said Herbert Brito, dean of the School of Building Arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design. “College students are always desiring to make an individual statement, and this is an easy way to do that.”

Some parents are willing to splurge on dorm stuff, especially when their children first go to school, because it’s a way for them to visually be a part of this new lifestyle. This is especially true for students moving far away, who will be able to return home only a few times a year.

“Especially for incoming students, you are coming into a strange place. To me, to have anything that reminds me of home is comforting,” said Max Meadows, 20, a rising junior at the College of William and Mary from Upstate New York. Last year, Meadows had a single room and decorated it with flags from countries he has visited and added a bookcase of his favorite books. “It’s comforting to have,” he said.

And for mothers and daughters who have bonded over the years during shopping trips, putting together a collection of things to take to college can be a fun project.

“Whatever it will take to make their children comfortable, they will do it,” Karen Zuckerman said. “When they walk into their room everyday — even if they have had a fight with a friend or they are feeling homesick — they have this room that they love and feel good in.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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