Designs on Dorm Rooms

The Container Store's David Hobrock shows a stacking system to Georgetown University roommates Celeste Tinari and Nicole Tingir.
The Container Store's David Hobrock shows a stacking system to Georgetown University roommates Celeste Tinari and Nicole Tingir. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Barbaro and Dina Elboghdady
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The design consultant grilled Jennie Martin about her son's college dorm: "How big is the room?" Ten by 12, Martin said. "What will be in it?" Two beds, two dressers, two desks, came the reply. "What about the bathroom?" It's communal, Martin answered.

As the 15-minute telephone interview drew to a close, the consultant issued her recommendations: Martin should buy a refrigerator cart with a shelf to create more storage space, a mesh shower tote to carry toiletries, and a closet rod doubler to hang more clothes. "I thought that idea was pretty slick," said the 49-year-old, who lives in Genesee, Wis.

What did Martin pay for all this expert advice? Not a cent. The consultant on the other end of the line was one of 25 employees at the Container Store who resolve design emergencies for undergrads and their parents by phone and e-mail -- and who are turning back-to-college shopping into the next big marketing bonanza.

Forget Christmas. Retailers here and across the country are tripping over each other to charm the dormitory set. And it's not hard to see why. Back-to-college purchases are expected to surge 34 percent this year, to $34.4 billion, according to the National Retail Federation, a District-based trade group. That figure is more than twice as much as back-to-school spending of $13.4 billion for students in elementary, middle and high school combined, the group estimates.

As the back-to-school season becomes second in spending to only the winter holidays, retailers are fighting to reach every college student they can, rolling out elaborate Web sites with how-to design videos, decorating "model rooms" on college campuses, and creating dorm registries where students can design a room and encourage family and friends to pay for everything inside.

The elbows-out marketing campaigns reflect not only the enormous buying power of college students but the changing face of dormitory living. A new generation of undergrads, their tastes honed by a crush of interior design television shows, consider their rooms to be a central expression of themselves, and hand-me-down couches and lamps collecting dust in the basement no longer suffice.

At the same time, dorms are getting bigger and more sophisticated, as colleges try to mimic apartment living to lure the best students.

Coffin-sized bedrooms still exist, of course. But they are slowly giving way to roomier on-campus digs (such as the Potomac Heights apartments at George Mason University, with private bathrooms and spacious living rooms) and off-campus pads (take American University's luxury units in Bethesda, with concierge desk, full kitchens and soft carpets).

Frat house, beer-can-strewn rooms are out. Loft-like spaces with color-coordinated sheets, stools and martini glasses are in.

Danielle Blandin of Frederick, who will begin her freshman year at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., next week, says a dorm "brings out your personality" to new classmates who will be "in and out all the time checking the room out."

What she wants them to take away: "a preppy, surfer girl" decor.

Blandin, 18, and her roommate-to-be, Kirby Bradley of Delray Beach, Fla., have settled, by phone, on pink as a major theme. Bradley's refrigerator, hamper and bedding will contain the color, complemented by gold and black accessories.

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