TORONTO — Kathlene McGuinness has some know-how in furnishing the small spaces that post-secondary students often find themselves crammed into each September.
She already has one degree, and is heading into her third year of interior design studies at Ryerson University. Originally from Halifax, she’s lived in about 10 apartments now — on the West Coast and in Toronto.
“I’ve had a lot of experience with poor, rundown basement apartments — never a dorm room myself, but lots of small cramped spaces,” said McGuinness, who recently decorated a dorm room with Clancy Snook and Evelyn Stewart as part of a project to offer a few do’s and don’ts to fellow students.
“With rentals and dorm rooms, it’s always hard because you can’t really change a lot. You have to be innovative.”
Students, of course, are usually on a tight budget, and decorating tips must take that into account. In fact, McGuinness is a big fan of looking for discarded furniture and repurposing it.
“Taking old things you find by the side of the road and giving them a facelift can definitely make the difference in your otherwise extremely poor apartment,” she said.
“I found two antique ironing boards and I cut them up and I turned them into a desk,” she said, adding that she and her partners in the dorm project drove around and found old dresser drawers that were transformed into a vertical shelving unit above the desk.
When students leave home, they’re often gaining creative control over their space for the first time. But McGuinness cautioned that these neophyte decorators should suppress the urge to “go a little bit crazy.”
“Some people have collections … but 100 snowglobes make you look a little weird,” she said. “Two snowglobes make you look quirky and fun. So it’s all about just editing it down and keeping it simple.”
Leah Valiquette, a recent graduate of Algonquin College who works at Uproar Design in Ottawa, said you need a desk, bed and organizers.
“Be smart about it. So many people put so much crap in their rooms that you don’t need, like teddy bears. Who needs their teddy bears at college?”
McGuinness said the space will appear more adult if artwork is framed.
“Having posters tacked onto your wall is really honestly — like, it’s the difference between being in high school and university. If you have it in a frame, it’s going to keep it, protect it, and it’s going to make your room look so much more clean and sophisticated.”
Janise Saikaley, the owner and lead designer of Uproar, said students should only bring what they need, and think about storage.
“I’m a bit of a design snob, so I like things to be put away,” she said, recommending a night table with drawers rather than open shelves, for instance.
She advised taking along a trunk to keep items hidden from view, and purchasing storage boxes for under the bed from a place like Zellers or Walmart.
Because floor area is often at a premium, she said students should use their vertical space and wall space. A mirror will add to the illusion of more space.
McGuinness incorporated a designer garbage can into her dorm room project, noting that it can become a catch-all to tidy up loose items if you’re expecting company.
Speaking of which, with space in short supply, visitors often will have to make do with sitting on the bed.
Valiquette is emphatic that a white duvet is not at all practical.
“Always have a patterned duvet, because it’s always going to get dirty,” she said. “It’s college. Kids are drinking in their rooms, spilling drinks on the bed. That’s just normal; that’s just the way it is.”
Saikaley recommended buying a great set of sheets, and so did the cost-conscious McGuinness, because they’re key to getting a good night’s sleep.
“A lot of people buy cheap bedding and then they realize how uncomfortable it is, and then have to go out and buy more expensive stuff,” said McGuinness, adding that it will get used for a few years.
Good soft lighting and task lighting are also important, she said.
“If you can bring in some nice lamps from home, or you can buy a vintage lamp at Value Village or a secondhand store, the more lighting you have in key areas where you study, the better,” she said.
“Just make sure that it’s not too bright and that it’s about a 30-degree angle from your books, because you don’t want it shining directly on your book or directly onto your face.”
If the landlord allows students to paint their rooms, Saikaley would go for green — sage, not screaming lime — because it’s a restful colour that stimulates people to work and study.
McGuinness said neutrals like black, white and grey are best in terms of decorating the room.
Soft greys are popular, she noted, and can be accented with a few items, such as decorative pillows, in a really bold colour.
“The more muted you keep it, the bigger your space is going to look. So that’s pretty key.”
Change furniture around if the layout is bad, and replace hideous curtains with nice ones, she added. If there’s a roommate, try to create a partnership.
“It can be a pretty fun way to bond with your roommate, saying, ’Hey, let’s create something cool here.”’