Tuesday, August 12 at 11 a.m. ET

Back to School: Dorm Room Decor on a Budget

(Photo illustration by Mark Finkenstaedt for The Washington Post)
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Jennifer Bertrand
Winner, HGTV Design Star
Tuesday, August 12, 2008; 11:00 AM

College is a huge expense itself without the added cost of furnishing a dorm room -- and a weak economy doesn't make bargain shopping any easier.

To help ease the strain on your wallets, Jennifer Bertrand, winner of season three of HGTV's Design Star, was online Tuesday, August 12 at 11 a.m. ET to offer tips for decorating your dorm room on a budget.

A transcript follows.

Back-to-school week is here with a series of live discussions to get you ready for the new school year. Check out our schedule for more details.

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Jennifer Bertrand: Hi Everyone! My name is Jennifer Bertrand and for those of you who don't know me, I'm the recent winner of HGTV's Design Star. I totally understand what it feels like to be going back to school and on a budget. And just in case you want quick background info on me, I come from a family of artists as well as my dad being in the military (that meant tight budgets). I will do my best to answer any questions you may have so we can help you all have chic dorm rooms. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me.

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Washington, D.C.: I am looking for plain white open cubes that can be stacked to create bookcases, storage, etc. The ones I am seeing are 15"x15" which is a good size for me, but they seem to be either cheap, flimsy pressboard or very expensive wood (approx $90 per cube which is prohibitive, as I am looking for 6 of them). Can you recommend a source for something sturdy and affordable?

Jennifer Bertrand: Hi! I'm looking for cubes that I would suggest. One of my first places I always go to is www.overstock.com. You never know, it's hit or miss. And I totally understand what you mean about pressboard...it's not going to last forever! What you really need is a friend with carpentry skills and some spray paint. I'll keep looking, so keep checking back!

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Jennifer Bertrand: Here's my first tip for creating a chic dorm space!! Don't buy a comforter, instead buy a duvet. This allows you to constantly be able to change duvet covers and at the same time redesign your space. And if you want to cut costs on duvet covers, you can sew your own! If that scares you, I can't sew a thing and even I can do it. I know that IKEA has cost efficient duvets and covers that have a European flair. If not, don't forget Auntie Jane, who sews in your family, and request a custom duvet cover for the holidays instead of another sweater! :)

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Woodbridge, Va.: At my college, decorating your dorm room consists mostly of posters. What can be done that isn't permanent?

Jennifer Bertrand: Hellloo! You can easily buy canvases (so much cooler than posters) and either paint your own original design or stretch fabric over them. And don't forget to think scale and color. This fabric or art piece is your pop of color so make it worth it . And if you say, "Jen, I can't even draw a straight line!" Either have an artistic friend outline a design for you or you can just write large words or quotes on it that can be stenciled or free-handed. Or if you need to trace, go back to the days of elementary art and get a photo copy of what you want transfered, rub pencil all over the back of it and then trace it onto the canvas. There's nothing wrong with tracing if you need to! :)

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Anonymous: Any tips for creating makeshift curtains?

Jennifer Bertrand: Hi! This is a tough one because if you go to Wal-Mart, Tuesday Morning, or Marshalls, some times you can buy curtains cheaper than you can make them. So my suggestion is go bargain shopping! I'm no snob so I will go anywhere. It's just picking the right style and color that doesn't look cheap. Go for a clean, straight curtain w/ a punch of color since you probably can't paint your walls. If you want to make your own curtains. Buy your fabric and if you're a non-sewer they have this stuff that you can iron onto the seams so they stay folded over (you can get it at any craft store). And if you use a coupon at the fabric store, that will make the fabric super cost efficient as well. (Our paper has a Jo-Ann's Fabrics coupon almost every Sunday. :) Good luck!

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Ohio: For the student needing cube storage. If you feel creative, go to a lumber supplier who will cut 5/8 inch plywood for you. Two sheets should yield what you need for your cubes. Five pieces for each cube 15 inches square. Hand sand the edges when you get them home, get a very tiny drill bit and drill guide holes for screws, use a cordless screwdriver/drill to put in the screws and finish the cubes to your liking. These would last your entire college years and into career years without a problem.

Jennifer Bertrand: Thanks Ohio! Good call and way better. It just depends on how hands on you want to be. But your concept will last so much longer than the pressboard ones. Thank you for your input! :)

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Noisy Neighborsville: Is there a cute, possibly cheap, way to muffle the noises from the neighbors? Even though it's a pretty thick wall in-between, the ones who will be next to me are late-night party animals. Thanks.

Jennifer Bertrand: Helllooooo! Bummer that you have loud neighbors. I was reading online about noise solutions and unfortunately, you get somewhat limited solutions. Easy solutions are having a carpet down and/or cork tiles on the walls (helps w/ noise vibrations). Then it starts to get random with things such as white noise machines that run around $50 for a basic model and helps block out the noise. I'm not sure how well they work or just how loud your neighbors are. I wish I could be of more help and I could just go chat w/ your neighbors. It's not fun that they put you in that position in the first place!

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Maryland: Hi. This year I will be staying in an honors dorm but from what I know, we can't put stuff on the walls, since it was recently renovated (doing so may earn me a $75 fine!). I was going to just put pictures and posters on my closet but do you have any other suggestions? Thanks!

Jennifer Bertrand: Hellooo! Congratulations on being in an honors dorm! Too bad you can't remove the closet door and just hang a curtain...no fine wanted though :) I am all about the warm fuzzies of photos, because that's what you need to see when you're eyeballs deep in homework. But how about trying to put them up in an artistic way? Through your local walgreens online, you can blow up some of the images, you can tint them all the same color, you can do a million different things. You could also, almost frame your photos on construction paper as well. If you set the photo on the construction paper and leave a slight edged frame around it, that will help each individual photo pop. Black is the simplest and cleanest but then you could go crazy with it as well. Just decide if you want your photo montage to look clean and controlled or like controlled chaos and have a plan! :)

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Rockville, Md.: Loved the show! You were totally my favorite! At school, we're not allowed to put holes in the wall. Do you have any solutions for hanging framed pictures with no nails?

Jennifer Bertrand: Hellooooooo! Thank you so much for watching the show and your kind words :) Hmm hanging framed photos w/ no nails. Here's a link to the stuff they sell at Target, Wal-Mart, etc. and it should work.

I think they have different ones that hold different weights as well depending on the weight of your frames. Worst case scenario, craft stores have super lightweight frames that you can get in a clear plastic or probably a black. Have fun and thanks again for watching the show! :)

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Philadelphia: Hi! Even though I am not moving into a dorm anymore (college days are gone now), I am moving into a city apartment that has modest/interesting sizing. Are there any publications that you suggest I look at, that will help with decorating ideas for smaller spaces (not only decor, but furnishings to consider). I feel a little stumped as to what I can get that would make sense for the space and not make it feel cramped. Thanks!

Jennifer Bertrand: Hi Philadephia! Actually, what I would do is research life in big cities like London, NYC, etc. because you can always find cutting edge design and solutions for seriously small spaces. I don't know if you have a "Half Priced Bookstore" but they usually have cheap books on London apartments and even books on large solutions for small spaces. Also, here is an article I came across that has some great tips and I'm a huge fan of Nate Berkus and Candice Olsen! (Link Below) and if you type in "design solutions for small spaces" in the google bar....you should stay plenty busy!!! Have fun!

washingtonpost.com: Nine Small-Space Decorating Sins (iVillage)

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NW, D.C.: Do males use shower caddies? I am trying to spare my nephew from his mother. I remember having a subtle toiletry bag and that was it.

Jennifer Bertrand: Hellooo!! I would definitely say yes, but it just needs to be a good one! Even if you just got a black one, that would work. Now his first impression may be that it's not cool, but I tell you, as soon as he sees how much easier it is and that you don't have your stuff all over the place, I bet he'll jump on the bandwagon. But to make it even more appealing, I would fill it w/ goodies! So a good pair of shower flip flops, nice shampoo and conditioner, all of the nice masculine stuff that you couldn't afford or didn't know about when you were his age! :) You're a nice uncle!

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Alexandria, Va.: For the person looking for cubes -- try the Container Store. When I went to college, my dorm was arranged in a way that allowed other rooms a perfect view of yours, whether your blinds were up or down. I used Command adhesive hooks, a top sheet, and rubber bands to create my own curtains. However I was told that this created a fire hazard and the only way you were allowed to hang curtains was if they had a tag that said they had been treated with that anti-fire stuff. I solved this problem by taking my curtains down whenever I knew that we would have an inspection, but you might want to consider this.

washingtonpost.com: Storage Cubes at the Container Store

Jennifer Bertrand: Thank you for your insight!!! I love collaborative efforts and I appreciate anyone sharing ideas that they had tried! There is never only one solution! :)

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Noise Generators: I strongly recommend these. I had horrible problems sleeping in college, because of noise. I wish I had found these earlier. One thing of note -- if you can, get one with multiple sounds. You never know if one will be better than another until you're trying to get to sleep!

Jennifer Bertrand: Glad to hear that the white noise machines work. That might make a great present to anyone you know going off to college! They may have them at Bed, Bath and Beyond and there are always 20 percent off coupons in the paper.

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Dorm Art: My roommate and I hated the poster look -- so sloppy! We got a six-pack of blank canvases from the craft store and made a Warhol-inspired collage. We printed out six copies of a picture of Marie Antoinette in black and white (no grayscale) and then pasted it on the canvas. We painted her hair, necklace, and eyes in alternating neon colors, then covered the whole thing in a clear varnish. Cost us about $20 and it looked great!

Jennifer Bertrand: I LOVE IT! :) That sounds so chic and I love the image you chose of Marie Antoinette. Obviously, everyone can steal your idea and adapt the image to fit their own personal style, but printing out images is a great way to become an artist :) Warhol would have love it, too.

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Alexandria, Va.: As a longtime resident adviser, I want to remind everyone to check with your individual school rules about what you can and can't have in your room. I know in Virginia the state fire marshal has a list of prohibited items including halogen lamps, curtains, any fabric on the walls, extension cords, and the amount of wall space that can be covered by posters. School rules can usually be found in the student handbook that students get at orientation, and can be found online under the resident life or campus life sections of the school website. I'd hate for people to go out and buy a bunch of stuff that they aren't aloud to use.

Jennifer Bertrand: Excellent point! I know each and every school and dorm is different so this should be listed as the number one priority. I know extension cords were a huge issue when I was in school and it's no joking matter. Thank you again for that insight.

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On curtains and neighbors: Anyone putting up new curtains in their dorm better check the fire regulations first. Here, it's a fine if they see that sort of thing. Not that I blame the officials for it, there was a fire in one of the kitchens this past year due to a toaster, so yes, fire does happen and not contributing to the speed of spread is good.

For the loud neighbors -- ear-plugs. I'm on a lake with geese and ducks and also have the room abutting the kitchen. Ear plugs were life-savers during exams.

Jennifer Bertrand: Another great point on curtains...check the rules first. It may save you time and money. And I totally agree on the ear plugs...that's what got me through each night of Design Star, actually. That and a sleep mask! So if you're making a goodie basket for someone going off to school don't forget the earplugs and eye mask (there are some funny ones out there). Ear plugs are cheaper than a white noise machine! :)

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Takoma Park, Md.: re: wooden storage boxes

Ikea sells small IVAR crates made of actual wood with hand spaces that are about 15" by 15" and cost $20. They can be stacked sideways or hung on a all. Heavier than plastic, but much lighter than particle board.

washingtonpost.com: Ikea: Wooden Storage Boxes

Jennifer Bertrand: Thank you for sharing. I'm a huge Ikea fan! Because they make good design affordable. Thanks again for sharing :)

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Arlington, Va.: Do you have any ideas for finding cheap furniture for an off-campus apartment? I'll have more space, but I'm not sure I have the money to fill it.

Jennifer Bertrand: Helloooo! I'm a huge thrift store fan:) To me, it's a place filled with goodies that can easily be given a new life. I would use a thrift store for coffee tables, side tables, and even lamps. You could also buy the art there and paint over it or paint the frame and use something else in it! And don't forget garage sales! Then after that, I hit Target, Marshalls, TJ Maxx, and Overstock.com. Just work into your budget any paint that you would need to paint any pieces you buy at the thrift store. You'll need to slightly sand the piece first, prime it and then you can paint it in a glossy finish. And voila! When I was teaching, I had no choice but to think creatively on a budget. It is possible and does take more time but if you enjoy doing it, it becomes a fun hobby. Have fun! :)

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Jennifer Bertrand: I just want to say a huge "thank you!" to everyone who wrote in with either a question or a possible solution. I had a fun time chatting and wish everyone the best on getting ready to go back to school. Just remember if you want to design your dorm space, just think about how you're going to bounce color in the space and try to keep it from getting too busy for the small space. Less is more! Or if you want to do more, just clean it up by having consistency of color. Where does your eye go? You can do it! :) Have fun!

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washingtonpost.com: Thanks for chatting with us. If you're looking for more back-to-school tips, be sure to join us tomorrow at 10 a.m. for a fashion discussion with Lucky Magazine's Laurel Pinson.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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