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Decking out your first apartment or dorm room—albeit in college or after graduation—is one part thrilling and all parts stressballish. While making something totally your own is one of the biggest joys in life, trying to fill a space stylishly and functionally on a ramen-noodles-and-tap-water budget can quickly take all the fun out of it. Hell, I’m living proof; my first apartment sure was purdy but since I spent every penny on making it look cool, all I could afford to do is eat in it and stare at the walls. Saltines topped with free packets of mustard scored from Burger King to be exact.

Ramen NoodlesTurn Your Temporary Digs into A HomeThe same goes for a teency-weency dorm room; filling a space functionally and decoratively costs a pretty penny and tons of not-so-pretty sweat equity. If it’s your first time at the rodeo of MyFirstPlaces, you’ll quickly notice how quick a run for Windex, a lampshade and new pillowcases results in a receipt with a $230 total. With students shelling out $165 for a single textbook and recent graduates dropping $400 for a decent interview outfit, the money pit gets deeper and deeper; saving is a must. Sure, we all know about the magical wonders of flea markets in reference to keeping things original and on budget; however, there are some less-known tricks out there which may make putting that first place together a bit easier. For example: How do you dress up concrete walls? How do you use 100 square feet of living space as a bedroom, living room and media area? What alternatives are there for people who love wallpaper and paint but can’t change their walls? Lucky for you, I’m out of college eight years now and have some my-first-apartment-life-experience to share with you. Unfortunately, the ramen noodle eating still goes on for a few years—but hey—there’s no reason your place shouldn’t look great while you scarf those noodles down!

Brian Patrick Flynn - Decals Dorms

Vinyl decals, have they been done to death? Yes, oh heavens yes. (So have posters tacked to walls with balls of putty. Save yourself with my post on buying art online.) Vinyl decals are an absolutely brilliant solution to dressing up a temporary space, especially those where painting is prohibited and color choices are dictated by an establishment. The key is staying away from the ones everybody’s seen two-hundred times: chandeliers, the Keep Calm And Carry On thing, and last but not least, overscale damask. SNORE. Decals like this robot from blik are fun and graphic; certain styles made for kid’s rooms are still cool enough for young adults. No DIY skills? No problem. All you need to put these babies up is a burnisher and a steady hand.

Just because you’re no longer watching iCarly or waiting at the bus stop with a bagged lunch doesn’t mean you’re too grown up for a bunk bed. As this 12×12 studio apartment shows, a modern TROMSO bunk bed from IKEA can create a room within a room. And yes, I do understand these make “special relationships” a bit trickier but hey, you’ve gotta sacrifice a lot when you’re just starting out, right? If it’s that big of a deal, buy yourself a puffy sleeping bag and take your adult relations down onto the floor. Safety first! Here, the area below was used as a lounge area to watch TV which allowed the adjacent corner to be used as an eating area.

Warehouse Apartment - Wallpaper on Panels

For those of you who go industrial with a loft or warehouse-ish apartment, dealing with the cold concrete walls can be a challenge. To camouflage the stark white cinder block in this loft, I covered 8X4 sheets of Masonite with graphic wallpaper from Graham & Brown, then screwed them into the cinder block with a drill using a masonry bit.

Pottery Barn Sofas

You know how there’s different size beds, some a better fit for bedrooms than others? For example, a twin is pretty much the only option for a 6X6 room, so you’d definitely not bring home the California King thinking it would fit kinda like square-peg-in-round-whole type logic? Well, many furniture manufacturers make apartment-sized sofas. These are specifically scaled for smaller spaces and are usually pretty darn easy to fit through doorways and move up and down stairs. Later on, when you graduate to a big boy or big girl house, apartment-sized sofas are excellent for other rooms in the house with small lounge spaces. A classic style like the Buchanan Apartment Sofa from Pottery Barn is an uber-wise investment. Its classic lines make it transitional and easy to blend with both traditional and/or contemporary pieces. The piece is 79 inches wide and comes in different colors and fabrics such as the ones I’m personally drawn to the most (shown):  Grade A, Twill Metal and Grade A, Twill Espresso.


Saving the best for last, here’s a small ”my first place” makeover packed with easy to do ideas. If you’re in one of those rare apartments or dorms that allows painting and decide to go all school spirit and stuff with your color scheme, HOLD UP. Instead of using those school colors on your walls, use a contrasting color which works well with those school colors, then stick to the actual school tones for accessories. In this room just off the University of Georgia campus, we at Decor Demon bucked the trend of red or black (UGA colors) walls and instead went turquoise, then introduced red and black everywhere else. Some other ideas seen in this 105-square foot space include: using FLOR tiles to delineate the lounge space from the dining/study space, incorporating a modular sectional inside the bottom of the loft to maximize seating, suspending a plug-in pendant from the ceiling to add ambient light to the dining space, and using a small countertop fastened to the wall as a study space which doubles as ample room for dining.

These are all things I’ve done and had good luck with; however, there’s bound to be tons more out there. Anyone got any other great ideas or insider information on successfully making your first apartment or dorm room your own?

Tell me in the comments below.


Design Inspiration

19 Responses

  1. Lisa says:

    Ha! Living on ramen noodles brings back memories….some not so good ones ; ) I think colloge room decor and ideas have come a long way since I first step foot on campus…. You can score some great finds from stores like Target, TJ Maxx, and IKEA for great prices!

    Lisa <a href="http://www.adesignerandacontractor.blogspot.com” target=”_blank”>www.adesignerandacontractor.blogspot.com

  2. CplusE says:

    I love the dorm room in red, turquoise, and black — that's my new favorite color combination right now! (Even though we are in the Athens area and my husband is a fan of college football and the Dawgs, that is not the reason I like those colors — red has always been my favorite). My best tip for decorating a temporary space like a dorm room is to make sure you and any roommates can agree on a cohesive decorating scheme. My freshman year roommate and I shopped for inexpensive bedspreads together to make sure we found some in a color and pattern we both could enjoy. Then, since the school gave us a choice of three paint colors for the room (they supplied the paint and brushes, we supplied the labor!) we chose the pale yellow that best complimented our bedspreads. We both chose large pieces of artwork to hang over our beds — mine was a tapestry-type wall hanging in deep colors of deer running through a forest, while my roommate picked an oversized poster depicting a pen-and-ink caricature of a happy pig. Even though the two pieces couldn't have been more different, the fact that the rest of the room was in harmony and that both pieces were of a similar scale made them work surprisingly well together in the space. Nothing was costly — all that was needed was a little advance planning and we ended up with one of the nicest dorm rooms in the building, in my opinion!

    • Brian Patrick Flynn says:

      Right? Branded color schemes can be so impersonal; by throwing an unexpected hue into a well-known mix, it makes it more individual. Try throwing coral in with true blue and white; it looks less college sports jersey and more clean and cool.

    • @decordemon says:

      Right? Turquoise, red and black color schemes work well for all ages, genders and most styles. One thing to always keep in mind if going with red walls is that they will definitely change the values of all other colors in relation to lighting. Trust me, I just photographed a red room; it was a nightmare to light correctly! Many times, I'll go white with walls, then throw the three colors in solely through furniture, art, accessories and flooring.

      • CplusE says:

        In order to keep the peace marriage-wise, I don't subject my husband to red walls in our public spaces! xD However, I did indulge myself in my home office, which is small and located in the basement. Since the room will never be light and bright and I am usually just hunched over a computer in there most of the time anyway, I decided to go with the cavelike feel. And since I love Dalmatians, I combined red walls with white and black accents, plus a little turquoise blue thrown in for an unexpected touch (and yes, some of the black and white comes in spotted form!). It is not a room that would work for very many other people, and the Dalmatians in the decor are definitely on the verge of taking over (I call it the Dalmatian invasion room!), but it makes me happy and my husband doesn't ever have to look if he so chooses!

  3. lani says:

    I am new to this renting, and decorating thing. i really have no idea how to arrange the sofas around the little fire place on the corner of the room. thats the first time iv'e ever seen a fireplace in the corner and on the side of it is a sliding door leading to the backyard. please help i dont know what to do!

  4. Denise says:

    I used neutral colors on walls to offset all the hand-me-downs of furniture that were given to me. Still working on just the right color scheme because there is so many to choose from, decisions, decisions. And of course the arrangement is kind of weird too. Haven't moved my furniture in 3 years since I moved in. Only one all to work with with a picture window and fireplace and entry wall. Money dictates how my furniture style is which is nothing at the moment. When I win my million then hopefully I can have some say in my style and taste.

  5. Barb K. says:

    My first place was over 38 years ago. We were newlyweds. We used cinderblocks and plywood ,painted and stacked 3 high as a divider between our living room and kitchen area in our first apartment. An old small industrial wire spool was used as our living room coffee table and we topped it with hemp rope. (We didn't have access to a pottey barn back then.) I love watching the design shows on HGTV to see how creative people can be. We had to be creative back then.

  6. Kathryn Huelster says:

    You won't believe it! Over lunch my husband and I were reflecting over our first apartment decor, and what we made. Two Mid-Century design lamps we made were lamp fittings in gracefully-shaped clear whiskey bottles we had emptied, plus straight lampshades made of striped place mats sewn together on wire frames from junked shades. We also made two gorgeous brass table lamps whose bases we cut and designed from overturned brass church candelholders 5 feet high originally. We still have them! They were $2 apiece back in the 60s. kathryn88

  7. Addison says:

    I am a rising sophomore at Tulane University and am an interior design major. I have worked really hard to find unique and stylish bedding and decor. I found this new e-commerce website called Dormify. They have really great things and cute colors… if you are in the market for designing your dorm room or even an apartment you should really check out Dormify.
    <a href="http://www.dormify.com” target=”_blank”>www.dormify.com

    They also have a great blog with wonderful DIY projects and also great tips for decorating your room

  8. W. C. says:

    Our first apartment was in 1964, after my husband had spent 1 1/2 years in Okinawa. It was an 8' x 35' mobile home, which we purchased because my husband was in the Air Force, and we didn't know how long we'd stay anywhere. It was built in the 1950s, which meant it was really sturdy and had real wood paneling (maple), real wood cupboards, doors, etc. We pulled up the carpeting and went for a living room rug which was small enough to go into a large washer. We liked the clean feel, and since we were at March AFB in California desert, I needed to sweep and dust every morning and wet mop 2 x a week. I replaced the ugly factory curtains with lined draperies I made for the living room in a cool forest green shade. Then used valances only on the other windows. Hard to believe, but people would compliment me on what a pretty place I'd created. Not exactly a palace, but many wonderful memories.

  9. JeDonne says:

    I like to refer to the decorating style of my very first place as "early grandma". lol Can you guess who's hand me downs I used? (-;

  10. My first place at college was a drab unfinished basement. I talked to friends about the cost of building a wall around the utility equipment, and $100 was just too much. I was asked what DID I had to work with, and I said trash and old clothes. We created a very cool art installation in lieu of sheet rock walls. Imagine the floors of the dirtiest teenager's room, then flip it 90 degrees onto the wall. We even painted old pizza crusts and glued them to the pizza boxes tucked in the mass of tumbled clothes.

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