Designing a Dorm Room

Mary Cook contributed to this story. Cook is the founder and president of Mary Cook Associates. Her new book, “The Art of Space: Seven Fundamentals That Guarantee
Great Interior Design” demystifies interior design and makes it accessible to everyone.
It’s available on

Whether your kids get to pick their college roommate or not, setting up a dorm room can be stressful. The good news is that you can greatly reduce that stress with planning. You can even have fun! You’ll wind up with a dorm room that looks great, and better yet, one that functions perfectly.

Divide and Conquer.

After you meet your new roommate, decide who’s going to do what. My daughter Katie decided to room with Olivia, a friend of hers, but we hadn’t met their other suitemates yet. Since I own an interior design firm and Olivia’s dad John has excellent tech skills, we quickly decided who would be responsible for what. John bought a small printer and programmed their computers to print wirelessly in their room. He also brought a TV and set it up for Netflix.

Sizing Things Up.

I took on the design part, starting with a floor plan printed off from the dorm’s website. I also visited the dorm and toured a room in advance. I brought a tape measure with me and took a few key measurements, which would come in very handy later. I also took pictures of every wall in the room for reference during the process.

The room came with twin beds which you could “loft” if you chose, two dressers, a built-in desk/work counter, one central ceiling-mounted light fixture, and two desk chairs. The room could be laid out in a few different ways, all shown on the dorm website. Lofting one of the beds gave us more floor space to work with. We could fit in a futon, which serves as a sofa during the day, and folds out to a bed when friends visit or spend the night. We ordered the futon from, and they delivered the futon directly to the dorm. With that out of the way, it was time to start shopping for the fun stuff.

Making the Dorm Room Their Room.

It’s really important to let the room belong to the roommates. I design for a very wide and diverse clientele so I’m used to adapting style to my demographic. This was no different. We started out looking for the bed covers or quilts, which would set the tone for the style. There are many online catalogues that have “Dorm” sections. I had one quilt and a matching sham sent to my house so I could see the colors in person. With colors in hand, I went to Bed Bath & Beyond to select the sheets.

It started with a mattress protector that guards against bed bugs, topped with a Tempurpedic foam mattress topper. Their best toppers cost around $300, but a great bed can go a long way in easing those first “away from home” anxieties.

Next came the mattress pad, sheets, blanket, quilt, and sham. I did a sturdy poly fill pillow for inside the sham (good for reading in bed) and a down pillow for the bed pillow. For added convenience, if you’re flying, or if the car you’re taking to school is too crowded, Bed Bath & Beyond will “pack and hold” your order at the location nearest your dorm.

To address the rest of the room, I spent a good amount of time online previewing things first, and then visited stores in person to make final selections. Two pewter desk lamps from Pottery Barn helped solve the lighting issue. When I mentioned the unattractive desk chairs to a friend, she recommended buying two desk chairs that I liked, and treating the existing desk chairs as guest seating. It was a great idea, and gave the girls plenty of seating options when friends came over. We also added a blue rug that had a textural pattern which added great impact, but also made it much more appealing to sit or lie on the floor.

To solve the unattractive mirror problem I found small, round, beaded mirrors at Pier One for 75¢ each. I had measured the dorm room mirror when I was there so I counted out the 65 small round mirrors it would take to frame it. Dry erase and cork boards from Target for over the desks were the finishing touch.

Putting it all Together.

We got to school at our designated time and took our place in the line of cars waiting to pull up to the loading dock. When we got into the room, I expected the room to be laid out like the brochure. Instead, everything was in the middle of the room for us to arrange the way we wanted. The futon we’d ordered was there, but still packed in a cardboard box with lots of parts rattling around inside.

The room was a flip of the brochure so it took us a while to get oriented. We started moving things around and found that the beds didn’t quite fit the way they did in the brochure. So we decided that bunk bed style was the best layout because it gave us the most room. Next, we laid out the rug, moved the dressers in place under the mirror, set up the desks, and made the beds. In the end, after assembly, the futon was great. It looked good and functioned perfectly for them. While the dads assembled the futon, I used double stick foam tape to create the frame around the mirror. It was adorable…and it completed the room!

A month later, at a Parents Weekend dinner, one of the mothers kept talking about “the penthouse this,” and “the penthouse that.” Finally, I asked, “where is this penthouse you keep talking about?”

“Oh, that’s what all the kids call Katie and Olivia’s room!” she replied.

Not only was the room a success, here’s an added bonus. Next year, Olivia’s younger sister and another one of our neighbors will be rooming together in the same dorm. So the entire set up is being recycled!

See photos of the dorm room Mary Cook designed below:

Be sure to check out Toll Brothers’ Organization board on Pinterest for more fun ideas to make your dorm the penthouse.

Toll Brothers’ partner Mary Cook Associates contributed to this story.

This Post Has 2 Comments

    1. Toll Brothers

      Hello Bernice, thank you for your comment and interest in Toll Brothers! We have several communities in Florida that offer home designs with two master bedrooms. In order for us to better help you with your new home search, it is best to know which region in Florida you are most interested in, and then have you speak with our Florida Online Concierge team. You can see a list of our communities by visiting our website:, and you can contact our Florida Online Concierge team at 844-871-7466, or

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