A study in home decorating

Collegians who do their homework can furnish an
off-campus pad that is fun and stylish on a student's budget

by Courtney Sebesta

shelving unit
For her junior year at the University of Texas, Rachel Burke has moved out of a dorm and into a new, six-bedroom house.
Although she's excited about living in a nice space with five of her girlfriends, decorating hasn't been easy. Their goal: to incorporate all of their furniture, come up with storage solutions and still make everything look stylish.
"It was hard to figure out how to make room for things in a bathroom when you share it with a roommate," says Burke, 20. She bought baskets and storage bins from Target and home improvement stores. Although students flock to the former, they might not realize what they can find in the latter, she says.
"Target is fun, but you'd be shocked what Lowe's has. They have so much storage stuff that was really useful," says Burke.
A cinder-block and plywood bookshelf, a brother's ratty couch, a beanbag chair, a stolen street sign -- those "decorative items" might work in a dorm or an old apartment, but what about houses like Burke's or those new upscale apartments dominating the West Campus area of UT?
Today's image-obsessed society is increasing the pressure on students to furnish their nice home or apartment stylishly while still budgeting their money for tuition and books. Savings from a summer job, loans from Mom and Dad or secondhand furniture might not fully furnish a dream apartment.
According to a survey conducted by the National Retail Federation, the average college student will spend more than $600 of his or her own money on back-to-school merchandise this year. Most college freshmen will spend twice that -- an average of $1,200 -- to furnish their first home away from home. Third-year students spend the second-highest amount, mostly on apartment furnishings.
National retailers such as Target, the Container Store, Ikea, West Elm, and Bed Bath & Beyond offer inexpensive, sophisticated decor for college students such as bookshelves, storage systems, seating alternatives and funky accessories.
Austin interior designer Laura Britt, owner of Laura Britt Design, suggests students incorporate existing furniture into their master plan. "I like to use pieces that the client already has and transform them to work in new spaces," she says. She believes some of the key pieces in a college apartment should be multifunctional for those on a tight budget.
Students love to show off their homes and use them for study groups and parties, but where to seat all the guests? Look for hip and affordable alternatives. Trunks such as Target's foot lockers ($19.99) are a great place to hide old textbooks, photos or keepsakes. They also serve as extra seating and coffee tables. The Container Store's EVA Storage Stool ($79) comes in a variety of colors. At Target, the old-fashioned ottoman has received a modern makeover just by adding bright colors and folding legs. The Retro Rocker ($139) from Pottery Barn's PB Teen division is a perfect accompaniment to any living room with its plush cushioning and removable slipcover. It's like a La-Z-Boy without the expensive price tag.
Britt says using slipcovers can jazz up furniture or unify a room. For instance, one of Burke's roommates personalized a couch by re-covering it with fabric. Britt also suggests putting fabric over filing cabinets and using them as end tables. Just lift the fabric and the files are within reach.
An average college student will own a few mismatched pieces . . . it's a rite of passage. But incorporating attractive accessories into an apartment can turn anyone's attention away from the flea market find to the ultrachic.
Jenny Ford, 24, a recently married UT graduate student, finds her biggest challenge is making things feel like they go together in her apartment.
"I rarely buy whole sets of anything from stores because it gets too expensive, so I try to make things mesh a little," Ford says.
The American Furniture Manufacturers Association suggests adding accessories to mix-and-match furniture for a more cohesive and personal look. Austin's Zanzibar, a home furnishings import store, offers affordable embroidered silk throw pillows. Napa Home has a large variety of unique scented candles and aromatherapy products such as Red Flower and Alora that are moderately priced. Other local stores such as Eclectic and Central Homegoods sell relatively inexpensive accessories.
Storage systems used as entertainment centers and shelves can offer extra space to display accessories and keepsakes that bring personality to a room. Ikea sells storage systems such as the stackable Robin Wall Shelf ($19.99 per unit). Designed as a six-cube shelf, it creates a perfect place to store electronic equipment or can be used to divide a room in half. The Cubix Stacker ($139), an L-shaped storage unit from Crate & Barrel, is another alternative.
Britt, a recent American Society of Interior Designers award winner, also suggests incorporating bookshelves to "utilize vertical space." For small apartments or rooms, bookshelves offer a lot of storage and take up little floor space, she says.
Affordable bookshelves don't have to be sterile, old-fashioned or cheap looking. Crate & Barrel's Leaning Bookcase ($159) is a ladder-style bookcase with a deep brown satin finish, and is designed to lean against a wall. It can display books as well as photo frames. If the apartment has an industrial look, the Container Store's stackable Galvanized Cube System ($39.99 per cube) can be used in the living area, bathroom or bedroom. Consider using West Elm's circular multilevel side table ($99) as a living room end table or as a bedside stand.
It may be more convenient to stock a college apartment with cheap furnishings or hand-me-downs. However, students who invest in key pieces while in school should have an easier transition into the "real world."

Original Austin American-Statesman article may be seen at
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