Confessions Of An Interior Designer For American Dorm Rooms

Photographed by Erica Gannett.
Every autumn, it seems, there's a new viral photo out of the US of a university dorm room that's decked out to look even more elegant than any room in most of our homes. You've likely seen headlines like "People Can't Handle This Over-The-Top Gorgeous Dorm Room" swirling about, but you may not know that Dawn Thomas of After Five Designs in Jackson, Mississippi is the mastermind behind many of them.
Thomas first became interested in dorm room design and decor after helping her own daughter put together her dorm room 2004. "People started asking me to do theirs and the business grew from one room to two rooms and then to 25 rooms a year. Now, I've been doing it for about 15 years," Thomas told Refinery29 during a phone call last week. With so much experience working with college students to create their first home away from home, this designer has many insights into the process of making a dorm not just functional but also wildly fashionable.

The dorm room design process

When back-to-school season is on the horizon, Dawn Thomas says that most of the time it's the students who contact her for help decorating their rooms. Thomas, however, knows that in most cases, it's the parents who have to have the final word on the decision to hire her. "I say, 'Okay if you really want me to help you, I need to talk to your mother. I know you're the one hiring me, but I need to talk to your mum and get us all on the same page,'" she explains.
Once that happens, she works individually with the students to figure out what they want in their dorm rooms. "The rooms that you see that I do have been picked out and designed by the girls… I'm just the person pulling it together for them. I want it to be theirs." Thomas recently moved to a home where she has a big area that serves as a showroom. There, the students can walk through and pick out accessories they'd like to have in their spaces.
Thomas also has a hand in helping students and their parents get necessary items. "We do a lot of phone conferences at night," she says. "We're all on Amazon going over what they've ordered and what I've ordered and making sure we've got everything we need. It's a process."

The dorm room install process

Thomas' job doesn't stop after the design plans are made and the dorm items are purchased. She also tries her best to accompany every one of her clients to their move-in days. "I'm crawling under the beds putting the extension cords together and getting the beds at the height they're supposed to be… When they walk in, their clothes are ready to be hung in the closet, the containers are ready to go under the bed."
When the room is put together, Thomas also works closely with the students and their parents to make sure everyone's comfortable with the new living situation. Sometimes, it's the mothers more than the kids that need moral support. "I sit down with them and I go over all their organisation. I had a mum ask me one time, 'What order do I need to put the clothes in the drawers? What goes in the small one?' I said, 'Panties, bras, and socks!' I mean, I go over all the things. It's kind of like planning their nurseries, but it's their dorm rooms. It's the same exact things. They're nesting."

What university students like and how they live

After working with so many different students over the years, Thomas has become aware of differences in what different kinds of students like when it comes to decor. "There are tons of girls from L.A. who are going to SMU (University of Southern Mississippi) so my SMU girls are always a little bit ahead of [other] Southern girls," the designer explains. "They're wanting hot pink and black, and they're wanting more of that Chanel look. Southern girls, on the other hand, stay safer with their pinks and blues... Last year, my favourite room was an SMU room. It was pale pink and hunter green and black and white."
Despite the differences in styles among students, there are some things that she sees in every room. "This year, the big thing I wondered was why we have to do these ugly ottomans every year. Why can't we pick some pretty ottomans?" she said. That's when her student clients set her straight. "They go, 'Mrs. Thomas, that's where you hide your alcohol.' The school cannot go into your private property, but they can look around in your room."
Ottomans aren't the only items that students these days use for an unexpected purpose. Thomas designed a special cabinet for hair and makeup items that helps her convert student's desks into vanities. When she posts pictures of the desk-turned-vanity, people often comment to ask, "Where do they study?" The designer's answer is simple: the way students use their dorm rooms has changed a lot since those commenters were in school. "They haven't used desks in years," she explains. "They don't even have TVs anymore. They watch TV on their laptops."

The most overdone dorm design trends

Since After Five Design has a big following on Instagram, clients who come to Thomas for help designing their dorm rooms have often seen her past work. Despite that, Thomas tries to dissuade students from simply copying previous rooms. "I try to do things that are different than the year before," the designer says. "Like, this year, I'm trying not to put ghost chairs in a room because I'm tired of them. Every room has a ghost chair, and what's so great about ghost chairs? Let's do something different."
In addition to turning away from ghost chairs, this year, she's also trying to include fewer abstract art pieces in her clients' rooms because according to her, "Everybody started doing abstracts."
Though Thomas does try to urge the students she works with to think outside the box, there is one item that, much to her displeasure, she sees used again and again. "I'm not a hutch fan. I've never been a hutch fan," the designer tells us. "I've got a lot of girls using them this year. I think they're junk collectors and I just don't care for them. I think they bring the room down and make the room smaller, from a design standpoint. They overrule me on that, and I let them because it's their room. I just don't take pictures of them. That's where I stand to take my pictures."

How she makes dorm room items last

Thomas' design process might seem like a lot for a dorm room that's going to be inhabited for one year, but she says a lot of her clients go on to use the items for years to come. "Some of my girls have gotten married, and I go to their home and, believe it or not, there's usually dorm room stuff in there like the art, the pillows, things like that. It makes my heart so happy that they're still using their stuff," she shares.
To make sure the items will last, Thomas chooses quality linens and bedding that's made of easily-washable fabric. She also encourages her clients to buy all queen-sized bedding so they can get future use out of it.

What the schools think of the rooms

There are usually strict rules about what you can and cannot do to your room. Thomas has to work around those rules. "We don't remove any of the furniture — we get accused of that — but we hide it under the bed. It all fits perfectly, and we cover everything so it looks pretty," she says.
There have been times that Thomas did such a good job with her rooms that the school didn't believe she was following those rules. "I've been called by a school, by the director of housing, and he said, 'If you come back to our school, you can't take any of the furniture out of the rooms.' I said, 'Are you accusing me of that?'… So he pulled up a picture, and I went through every single thing that was still in that room and all he could say was, 'Oh, I'm so embarrassed' and 'you're amazing.'"
Thomas says she knew right away that she had been called because a mother complained, and she understands why. "A lot of universities won't let students come until right before move-in because they want to discourage a lot this, and I understand that. I really do. They want everybody to be equal and there's nothing wrong with that."

What sets After Five Designs apart

While plenty of students are happy to shop curated items through websites like Dormify, After Five Designs is offering something different. As you can probably tell, Thomas does more than create cute rooms. "That's the point of the install — families don't have to rent a van or carry it. Especially when they're from Virginia, Washington, and New York, and far away places, hiring us is a no-brainer," she says. "Last year, we worked with a lady who was 82 and had raised her granddaughter. She called me after move-in and said, 'You all are angels… I saw the boxes, I saw all the stuff that you had to bring, how would I have been able to do that?'... You think about all the families that are in that situation, it's just helpful to have a service to do it for you."
Of course, even those who never knew just how much work goes into creating these dorm rooms are enthralled by photos of them. Thomas herself admits that her dorm photos get more Instagram likes than the photos she posts of her regular rooms. "I posted something last night, and I had somebody comment and say they can't wait. Every year, they look forward to when the dorm room pictures come."

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