This summer, while visiting the Maryland suburb where I grew up, I stumbled upon a homegoods store. It was unlike any I'd seen before – a perfect, unsullied articulation of an aesthetic I can only describe by repeating the word ‘Pinterest’ over and over again. There were shag rugs and furry throw pillows in cotton candy colors, seemingly endless strings of lights with little round bulbs, and surfaces topped with glossy faux-marble coverings. There were banana leaf accents and framed prints of phrases like “Too Glam to Give a Damn” and “Feed Me Diamonds” scrawled in shiny gold and silver. I wondered to myself, what in the name of all that is good and Instagrammable is this place?
It was one of three summer pop-up showrooms by a start-up called Dormify, which erected similarly evocative spaces in New York City and Chicago. Created by Amanda Zuckerman, who serves as the company’s Creative Director, and her mother, Karen, in 2012, Dormify is a mostly-digital one-stop shop for highly stylized rugs, lighting, tapestries, wall art, and bedding. Zuckerman, who graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2013 with a degree in marketing, tells Refinery29 that Dormify was inspired by own experience as a style-conscious college student.
“When I was shopping for my freshman year dorm room, I was really uninspired by the bedding, wall storage, and decor options that were available to me,” she recalls. “There wasn't anyone out there that was offering the required twin extra long size bedding in the level of quality and style that I really desired. Everything out there was really pretty juvenile.”
Indeed, once upon a time, most teens shipped off to college with a shower caddy and a bed-in-a-bag, slapped a couple posters on the wall, and called it a day. Dorms are a very temporary space, where beer will be spilled, and bowls of ramen will be consumed, where frazzled all-nighters will be pulled and random hook-ups will be had. They’re small and typically filled with old, clunky furniture. Not exactly the ideal canvas for a major home décor moment. But in the age of social media, even college freshman require an aesthetic. The kind of plush, ultra-coordinated dorm setups that went viral just a few years ago for being so over-the-top are becoming increasingly commonplace, with some students even enlisting the help of interior designers to create 130-square-foot rooms more polished than many people’s homes.
“Your dorm room can be seen as a status symbol. Almost like the cuter dorm room you have, the more people will want to be friends with you. I think there is a drive to have not only the nicest or more expensive things but unique room decor as well,” says Shantel, a student at the University of North Dakota, who spoke to Refinery29 via social media.
“I was a first-generation college student and had a super unique college admissions experience, so I didn't have any time to prep or dream about my dorm room,” shares Rae Ann, who graduated from Abilene Christian University and also spoke to Refinery29 via social media. “The girls across the hall were the children of interior designers and our university literally still uses pictures of their dorms for marketing pieces seven years later.” Rae Ann says the experience of comparing her room to those of her neighbors was “so annoying.”
Hiring an interior designer for your dorm room is undeniably extra. Still, going off to college and setting up a space of your own for the first time is a milestone that does feel befitting of something a more momentous than an argumentative trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond with your parents. Hence why Dormify offers shoppers free, virtual appointments with stylists, who are also available IRL at their NYC “style studio” and at the aforementioned summer pop-ups, which ended in August.
“We hire college-age stylists to work our stores, or recent graduates that have really been there and styled small spaces in their time in college,” Zuckerman explains. “We ask for a few different style preferences [from customers] and if you're going to come with your roommate, your mom, or whoever it’s going to be. And then we can set up the whole showroom or the store with either the color combination or things that you were looking to see.”
Dormify’s prices, which include $99 duvet covers and $40 shag rugs, are generally comparable to the typical places many students shop for dorm accessories. In a time where “accessible luxury” seems to be the ultimate marketing buzzword, anything that gets people out of the bland aisles of a big box store by offering an experience that feels bespoke — even if it’s not really, and even if it’s just online — is desirable. Dormify also shares with its 147k Instagram followers pictures of sample rooms that can be easily copied or mined for inspiration. They’re the kind of interiors that naturally pop on the platform — uncluttered, graphic, uber-trendy, and often rendered in either a slick black-and-white or millennial pink color scheme. Sometimes, they post pictures of the rooms inhabited by real customers; these rooms seem to more or less follow the prescribed templates, save for a few unique flourishes like photographs and collegiate memorabilia.
That these personal effects look a bit out of place inside the otherwise Dormified rooms I think gets at what has me so obsessed: It's a very distinct look, and one that's very of its moment in time. Have other generations had a style of interior design, of all things, that are so obviously specific to them? I don’t think so.
While the essential look of the brand screams social media, Zuckerman says it actually has a more unexpected origin: high fashion runways. “We really look at what’s on the runway or in street style on Instagram and we work to find a way to really seamlessly transition that type of aesthetic to room decor,” she explains. According to Zuckerman, the design process also includes “market research in different stores ... that we can actually turn into innovative trends in the home decor industry, because the home decor industry is actually a bit traditional compared to fashion.”
That this mashup of fashion and interior design ends up looking like a Pinterest board is a testament to just how much everything today is refracted through the social media lens , and how hard it is to pinpoint the origins of anything.
But, Zuckerman says, how the Dormify brand ultimately evolves will have mostly to do with the demands and desires of the customers. Which means, should peachy-pale pink finally have its death rattle and ‘70s inspo go out of style, you could potentially see a very different Dormify.
“We also look to our customers for inspiration,” Zuckerman explains. “We have a very open dialogue with them to learn what they're loving, what they're not loving, and what they want to see more of within our assortment.”