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Just Dessert

Dorm-room decoration all the rage -- and a racket
Scripps Howard News Service


August 25, 2005

WASHINGTON - As if college kids and the people who pay for them haven't been bled dry enough already, a costly new trend has clamped its viselike teeth on their credit cards - decorating dorm rooms.

Softening the institutional bleakness of the kids' campus digs has become a big - no, make that huge - business. The National Retail Federation says $34.4 billion will be spent this season on decorating dorm rooms, a 33.8 percent increase over last year. Sophomores will spend an average of $500.

A Google search for "decorating dorm rooms" turns up 80,000 hits. And The Wall Street Journal's Marketplace section recently carried, along with pieces on whither biotechnology and the problems of keeping headhunter data confidential, a feature aptly titled, "Retailers Seize Dorm-Decorating Moment." Oh boy, have they. Back-to-school is second only to the winter holidays as the biggest event on the retail calendar.

The retailers unctuously tell parents how important it is that children on their own for the first time feel comfortable and reassured by their surroundings. And apparently nothing says reassurance like color-coordinated rugs, tapestries, curtains and comforters.

You'd have to be heartless not to fall for this, either that or real old. I went to college back in the Pleistocene era. Portable stereos were just coming in and there were a handful of those in the dorm. But otherwise the only electronic devices in the room were the lightbulbs. The school provided the furniture and bedding and we provided a few posters. One semester a neighbor lady gave me her husband's well-broken-in overstuffed green armchair for my room on the condition I didn't bring it back.

And otherwise I missed the dorm-decorating trend. Our No. 2 son just graduated, but his idea of decorating was to haul everything into his room and dump it into a big pile. Come the end of the school year, he would haul it outside and dump it in a big pile in the back of the car. If his mother had let him get away with it, the big pile would have stayed in our front hall until school resumed in the fall.

He generally roomed with fellow football players, so after they got their refrigerators, microwaves, TVs, videogames, DVDs, boom boxes and themselves wedged into the room, there wasn't space to do any decorating.

Our daughter is still in college, but has her own apartment that she furnished austerely and relatively cheaply, having failed to inherit her mother's taste for High Victorian Clutter. And a good thing, too.

Much of the pricey new dorm decor is stuff - a refrigerator on a cart with storage space, a closet rod doubler, a storage ottoman, wall units, stackable cubes. All this enables you to store even more stuff.

And to assure the students that they need all of this, the stores deploy "design consultants." Don't be fooled. These are basically interior decorators for the cinderblock set. That's why they try to convince fresh-faced freshmen that they need new lamps and chairs that won't be mistaken for their parents' castoffs, which strikes me as sort of the ideal way to furnish a dorm room.

It adds up. The Washington Post turned up two freshman roommates who will spend about $4,000 decorating their room. And no wonder, when people like the Post writer report breathlessly that "color-coordinated sheets, stools and martini glasses are in." Color-coordinated martini glasses? You never know when the parents might unexpectedly drop by to visit their earnings.

Just why dorm decorating is suddenly a retail rage seems something of a mystery. One observer blamed it on the new prevalence of TV home-decorating shows.

But it is a disturbing trend in this sense. Many students can't seem to graduate in the standard four years. And with rooms like these, why would they want to?


Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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