College room décor: thinking outside the box but within the licence agreement

Matthew Fackrell

So, you have read through the information provided, understood what college forbids, and know when your room won’t be accessible (if you haven’t found any of these, check the accommodation agreements and with college staff – it’s important). Now comes the fun bit. Making the space your own! However, there are restrictions. No damage to walls or permanent alterations. Curtains and other fittings can’t be replaced. Occasionally, you may come across strangely specific requests that do encourage one to wonder what unlikely hijinks must have occurred in the past…

In short, any decorations need to create a space that you can keep clean, that doesn’t change or damage anything belonging to college, and that is safe for you and everyone else around you. On top of this, it’s a space where you need enough sleep and study – somewhere that feels good to be. Being a student, any decorations also need to be cheap; likewise, sustainable accessories are ideal.

Hopefully this blog gives a few decoration ideas!

Essentials

Mugs, Headphones, Plasters and a Toothbrush are all essentials – College mug optional.

Ask four different students and you may very well get four different answers for what a Uni Essential is. And while general ‘Uni Essential Packs’ can be helpful, not every item will be something strictly necessary for your personal college experience. I’m also not including study items here (laptops, notepads, subject-specific tech etc.) as these can vary wildly between courses.

Although not technically decorations, here are some items that might be worth planning for:

  • A set of plasters – familiarise yourself with First Aid and common concerns with on-the-shelf headache relief, but plasters will cover paper cuts, blisters, and other day-to-day ailments.
  • A personal mug and one set of cutlery – Kettles are provided in kitchens and are banned from rooms; but in college (where most things are shared) having a mug to yourself if someone offers you tea/coffee is something warmly familiar. Heading into autumn/winter, reusable mugs with a lid are ideal for coffee on-the-go while respecting study space restrictions.
  • Headphones – Things can very quickly get too loud or too quiet.
  • A charger – Essential to keep in contact and for two-factor authentication. An extension lead can also be handy, but in general only models with a 5-amp fuse are allowed in college.
  • Washbag w/ Flannel, Towel, Soaps, Toothbrush, and Toothpaste – ABSOLUTELY essential.
  • A face mask – Thankfully less essential currently, but it might be a smart move to keep a couple around when living in during the dreaded ‘freshers’ flu’ and so on.

Lights

The most important light in any college room is a good desk lamp. In Durham, the winter evenings are exceptionally early (sunset November-January tends to be around 4pm), so an adjustable lamp fitted with a bright work bulb can make a big difference. Try the lights provided for your room first; but if these don’t provide enough light, it may be worth considering a replacement. Again, living in college, there are fire safety restrictions on electrical items, so it’s good practice to double-check details if you’re unsure. A good energy rating (see below) is also worthwhile.

Having a second low light source can also transform a room to feel more homely; string lights, for instance, are great at setting the mood for watching a film or staying up late chatting with new people. Personally, I’ve found warm white lights reduce the impact of blue screen light; a previous housemate also used low light to help manage migraines. Whether colour-changing or classic warm white LEDs are more your vibe, there’s something about a string of dots that makes things welcoming. NO CANDLES. Or anything flammable. Check the rules, please : )

On a side note, colleges do not allow mains-powered plug-in string lights. It’s also important to note that lights do use increasingly costly energy, take resources to produce, and might rely on non-renewable energy to an extent. Battery-powered lights with rechargeable batteries may be the most suitable option here.

One plant or five!

The Plant Shop in Durham Marketplace – there are also occasionally swaps outside the SU.

There are a few good reasons to include plants on the room décor list; primarily, they look great, but they are associated with improved air quality (the 1989 Wolverton NASA study oft-cited found that roots do the majority of the scrubbing), help balance moisture, improve wellbeing by having something to look after, and might help the room simply by being there and being green. If you find yourself with a bit of spare time, have a look at the effects of proximity to nature in everything from urban design to wellbeing during space exploration – it’s a great internet rabbit hole to fall into. Peace lilies, dypsis lutescens, ferns, and pothos/air/snake plants are perennially popular among students.

Plant trades, plant-sitting and getting tips also tend to be a great way to meet other students with common interests. For anyone going into self-catered accommodation, depending on what you try and grow plants might be a great source to spice up cooking – slightly with herbs, significantly with certain chillies. There are a few local plant centres in and around Durham, with Durham Marketplace and Cafes being consistently popular, but please consider the pros and cons (watering, soil spills, storage during holidays) of getting a plant for your dorm room before committing to one or several.

Desk-tidies

Very straightforward: having a pen-pot and several spare folders can help with making sure things have a place. Having an in-tray may also help you keep on top of any worksheets or paperwork in the first few weeks. It doesn’t need to be fancy; I’ve used plant pots, small cardboard boxes and recycled cans throughout undergraduate studies, which did the job nicely and fitted with most neutral tones. Spray-painting completely changes the game, but that’s an activity to do away from college.

 

Blanket or throw

Need something warm in winter? Something to bundle a stressed friend in during exam season? Summer picnic blanket? Building a pillow fort to watch a movie? Moving into a house and needing to cover up a sofa that’s seen better days? Watching the sunrise from Observatory Hill? Getting cold while working? Want to feel like a fantasy RPG character, battling snowdrifts and icy winds on the way to a 9am lecture? Yep, the throw is an indispensable item for any student.

Fleecy-fluffy blankets tend to be particularly cosy during the winter, while more traditional plaid wool throws tend to be great at not picking up leaves and sticks if laid on the ground. Plus, they both look great folded at the end of a bed or thrown over desk chairs, while also being a passable second seat in single college accommodation. On that note, a couple of cushions are perfectly suited as well. Comfortable, cute, or weird joke sequin-reveal custom image pillows all help to make a room yours.

Poster wall and variations

Whether featuring a world map, films, motorsports, cocktail-mocktail recipes, games, 1930s railway routes, Claude Monet, Frida Kahlo, Middle-Earth, or the Colleges and Bars of Durham, posters are a staple for dorm decoration; they are excellent for setting the vibe or just adding colour to what might otherwise be a plain blank wall. Please note that not all colleges allow blu-tack or similar non-permanent adhesives and may outright ban wall-based décor. However, they will normally provide a corkboard alternative.

Another variation is the polaroid photo wall; although not new, it’s still a great way to commemorate everything that happens over a term. Colour printing is relatively inexpensive compared to retro polaroid packs, but this might also be something to keep in mind and maybe pre-prepare at home or in advance. Although posters can quickly add up quickly, leaflet and booklet front pages, summer music and art festivals, free exhibitions with free brochures, postcards in open day bags, theatre programmes, and every paper picked up at the freshers’ fair is potentially something that can be blue tacked up. Second-hand and thrift items can also help save costs and help reduce waste. For instance, moving on to postgraduate studies I’m personally picking up information sheets and flyers relating to my course, which might make it onto an academic mosaic wall at some point…

Wall hangings and flags can also be a great way to celebrate anything you take pride in, whether it be nationality, sexuality, or a favourite sports team. Second-hand maps as well give a great lived-in feel and are particularly useful if you find one of Durham, while term Calendars and to-do lists again help keep you on track and can give that academic feel. Thinking about the practicality of large wall-hangings, 1) a truly giant tapestry might dominate a single or double room, and 2) they can be difficult to keep up. Taken from a friend’s experience, the last thing needed after watching a horror film is a blankety monstrosity falling on you in the middle of the night, possibly taking chunks of paint with it.

Hangers, dust covers, and laundry

Circuit Laundry at St Aidan’s College, one of the Hill colleges – here detergent is inbuilt automatically.

As someone who likes to do crafty things alongside studying, having dust covers on formal wear has been a lifesaver. Hangers can also come in handy when organising clothes; sports shorts ready to go, coats and hoodies hanging outside the wardrobe, maybe something smart if there’s a chance of an interview etc. Additionally, colleges have a laundry system, and having a sturdy canvas sack or two will make the process of carrying clothes to and from the laundry room far easier. Two bags-for-life for separating laundry also work well.

So, here’s a few suggestions and thoughts from previous room decoration sessions – I hope they are helpful in some way. In the meantime, good luck, and I hope the move-in process has gone smoothly. Please feel free to ask your college’s freps and staff should you have any questions or need help!

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Matthew Fackrell


Hi! I’m Matthew, a recent postgraduate studying Sustainability, Energy and Development (MSc) in the Department of Anthropology. Having focused on photography, videos, and blog content with The Durham Student, I am currently exploring sustainability research and public engagement more broadly. When not working or studying, I can be found browsing used bookshops, outdoors, or spending time with cats - especially at home around Bristol.


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