Plastic drawers and beanbag chairs are no longer the norm for dorm room décor. Now it’s all about flufflier-than-clouds beds, custom cabinets, and busts — seriously. The sudden maturity in dorm room décor is in part thanks to a woman named Dawn Thomas.
“I started decorating in 2002 just for friends. My children’s rooms were in the newspaper,” Thomas, owner of After Five Designs Art and Interiors, tells Yahoo Style. “I would do a little bit here and there. It was a hobby.” Today, more than just her kids’ dorm rooms are making news. Her work has been featured in Teen Vogue, on the Today show, and in Southern Living. And for good reason. We’ve never seen such chic and unique décor in such a tiny space. You don’t even notice those basically Styrofoam tiled ceilings and cinderblock walls.
College students from all over the country call After Five Designs to do their rooms. And she adds and finds things we thought would be impossible to put in a dorm room — including extra-narrow headboards, chic desk chairs, and even coffee tables. Thomas’s rooms are colorful and full of personality, thanks to monogrammed pillows, velvet desk covers, antique mirrors, and one-of-a-kind art.
This is her second job. “That’s why it’s called After Five Designs,” Thomas explains. She still considers it a hobby. “I take vacation time to do dorm rooms or go to market. It’s truly a hobby.” That said, she’s not going it alone — she’s got a whole team of dorm decorators.
Thomas says she’s contacted by both parents and students, but usually what happens is that girls see her work and show it to their moms, who then call and hire her.
And she does way more than decorate. “We’re installers,” Thomas says. “The students ship me their clothes and everything. We show up with their towels, shower caddies, underwear. They don’t have to move anything in.” Imagine arriving as a freshman to one of these rooms — the anxiety would melt away as you fell onto your very own feathery bed.
“The rooms that turn out the prettiest are the ones who let me do my thing,” she says. “They’ll tell me what their favorite colors are, but they’re not showing me an exact picture of a room I did last year that they want a copy of.”
We know what you’re thinking. Sure, you can have this … if you or your parents have deep pockets. But Thomas promises that is not how her business works. “I charge a flat fee. Then they pay the price of the product and the fee for storage and getting it moved.” And she’s not shopping at only high-end retailers. She relies on places like Amazon, Overstock, Etsy, Home Goods, Target, and One Kings Lane.
“When people write these mean comments, like ‘You must have all this money’ and all that, they don’t know what they’re talking about!” Thomas insists. “That’s just not true. I’m paying the same thing for the fluffy rug that they’re paying. It’s not cheap, but if they go into any dorm room décor place and order stuff, our dust ruffles cost the same.” She also points out that decorating a dorm room can have a hefty price tag no matter who does it and makes a case for why she might be your best bet.
“I know what I’m doing — I’ve been doing this 11 years,” she says. “I know ways to do it cheap.” One of her tricks is recycling. “A lot of the stuff can be used over again the next year,” she says. She creates rooms for the same girls year after year, using some of the stuff they had the previous year so as not to incur extra costs. “Most of my girls stick with me. I’d better be invited to most of their weddings,” she says. “And even if I don’t do their rooms, or physically walk in their room, they call or text me and want my advice, and I give it to them free because they’ve become like my children.”
Many of the rooms shown on her feed have been reused or sold to other students — yep, the rooms can be bought secondhand. “The room that made it on the Today show twice, I wanted to laugh; it was a hand-me-down!” she reveals. “It’s on its fourth year. There’s one that’s cerulean, and it’s gorgeous — it’s on its third year!”
She remembers one father who was “raising hell” about her bill but then said, “Come year four, I realized we saved money because we’ve used the same stuff; it was all worth it.”
She notes that a painting at Mississippi State is on its fifth year of use.
Thomas also tries to use things the students can take with them when they move out of the dorms. “My drapes run a little bit more because [with] their 1.5 width, they’re larger than what’s needed, so they can also be used in an apartment. They can cover an 80-inch window.”
And if there are multiple kids in the family, Thomas advises passing on the room or parts of it to other college students, assuming they have similar tastes.
“You don’t have to have a lot of money for these,” she claims. Last year, she had a pop-up shop where she sold her custom furniture and art (she’s also an artist), “so that people who wanted my look but couldn’t afford to hire a designer could get my look.”
Sure, her rooms look “over the top,” but to her, they’re just “different.”
When asked what’s the most expensive piece she’s ever purchased for a dorm room, she is quick to correct that it’s not always the décor that costs the most. “I go to Bed Bath & Beyond and get all the basics I need for the room — extension cords, bedding. That’s what gets pricey! It’s not over the top,” she insists, even though that’s how many observers describe these dorms. “It’s just that everything adds up.”
Of course, it’s college, so there’s some drama. The biggest issues involve the moms. “When the roommate’s mom doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the mom that hired me, that’s the challenge,” Thomas says.
“I don’t have time to deal with drama, so I tell moms, if they want to use me, they’ve got to be responsible for the other mom and they’ve got to work it out. The other mom might have a little bit of an attitude, but when it’s all done, they melt,” Thomas says.
The problem is that roommates are often random, and if you don’t know your soon-to-be roomie’s budget or taste, you can’t assume that she’ll also want to hire a decorator or want the same style as you. When moms or students butt heads, “one mom ends up paying for it all (besides the bedding). One mother might pick up the chest, drapes, paintings,” Thomas explains. “But sometimes I’ll just do one side.”
She’s set up rooms with some unusual items — such as Chanel and Louis Vuitton books. “I bought one of those at market, they were so expensive. Some girls want that, so they find them and buy them.” Another time, she used a Trina Turk dress to make pillows that would match a painting. And about the busts: “The girls are more mature now,” Thomas explains. “They want it to look like they’re living in an NYC loft. They follow stars on social media, and that’s what they want.”
Of course, at the end of the day, hiring a company like After Five Designs is not realistic for everyone, which is why we asked for some tips and tricks you can do yourself.
“You can get the most from Amazon now, like the staples — you don’t have to physically go to Bed Bath & Beyond anymore,” she says of her preferred store.
“Everybody wants to know how we make the beds so tall and fluffy — I start with the school’s mattress. Then put Tempur-Pedic memory foam on top, then a 3-inch waffle featherbed, and then a mattress pad. It’s about comfort, but it also makes the bed so poofy and pretty,” she explains.
“Everyone wonders where everything is — the bed, the chairs, the desk — I don’t move a thing. Students will get fined if they get rid of anything. We cover all furniture in the room. Desk chairs are hidden under the bed, and I put a prettier one in.”
And she doesn’t shun the dorm room staples of yesteryear, like Command strips and plastic bins — she says they are still “necessary” as long as they are hidden. She suggests putting the bins under the bed.
The colleges are not always on board with Thomas’s dorm room redesigns, so she tries to stay “low key.” But her work is the complete opposite.
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