Art galleries and museums are a sort of hallowed ground for me. There is something so wonderful about the hushed environment and echoey floors. But there are other spaces for art — spaces that are a little less pristine and, in my case, have a little more clothes on the floor.
I’m talking about the bedroom. Specifically, the tiny college dorm room.
Most people have art or decor in their personal space. And now that that space acts as a classroom, gym and sleeping quarters, it’s as good a time as ever to examine how we — the untrained curators — cultivate it.
Curating a college room is different from both the curation of a museum exhibit as well as the planning of regular interior design. Most dorm rooms that I’ve seen don’t follow the single-painting-on-a-wall style that museums do. Perhaps the museum mold feels too cold for a bedroom, or maybe students don’t think just one of their pieces deserves the sole spotlight. College rooms also have a different feel than family homes. There is an undeniable look that separates dorm decor from other spaces.
A mainstay of the college dorm look is the classic gallery wall. A gallery wall, in technical terms, is defined as a grouping of multiple objects that may follow a theme or may not. Often it incorporates pieces of varying mediums, sizes, and textures.
It’s no wonder that gallery walls are popular among young people decorating their 10-by-12 foot room. The decoration method allows for a lot of flexibility: the items can be of various sizes and mediums to work in concert with the other pieces on the wall. A gallery wall can also evolve as more “stuff” undoubtedly accumulates — which takes a lot of pressure off the curator to get it perfect.
So, how exactly does one create a meaningful, tasteful wall that will impress visitors and look good in the background of Zoom lectures?
The best amateur walls come from those who don’t overthink. This process of decorating a space is meant to be personal, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to taste or style. Often, the objects paired together may not have the intent of a cohesive vision — they are just attractive, weird, funny or personally inspiring items. Pull together things that spark joy in some capacity. Think street signs, postcards of paintings, grandma’s old pictures and antique fans found in the trash. Put that politically correct flag on the wall.
As soon as I move somewhere I have to decorate my space. One piece that travels with me to college every year is a cardboard perfume advertisement. It depicts the torso of a headless blue woman with her arms tastefully wrapped across her naked chest above the name of the perfume company, Marco Viviani. It was a gift from a bartender in Micronesia to my dad, and for some reason it is always somewhere on my wall.
Another piece that sticks with me is a poster of Rosie the Riveter. How do the objectified naked woman and the feminist icon fit together? A quote from a Walt Whitman poem on my wall answers: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Below is a picture of my dorm room my first year at Georgetown University in 2017. I would never, ever decorate like that now — just look at those cookie-cutter inspirational quotes — but at the time, it accurately represented my tastes and values, and for that reason I am not ashamed. And below that one is a picture of the art on my desk right now: a collection of kind notes, travel mementos and that naked woman. Just another snapshot of me.
If decoration is done in this spur-of-the-moment, intuitively driven manner, an incohesive theme could materialize: the strange little bits might all fit together in odd ways, and an overarching idea could develop. This is a reflection of you, and that is a very powerful thing to have on a wall. Could we go so far as to call it a self portrait?
I am of the mind that all spaces deserve some artistic attention, regardless of whether one considers oneself “into art” or not — whatever that means. Take an unpretentious look at your dorm walls, blank or filled, and view them through the eyes of a visitor. Who occupies this space? What does this space say about them? What is their story? A good museum with a skilled curator could capture a personality, but the unassuming, honest dorm room does it much better. This kind of self-reflection is always needed, especially as the pandemic rages on and we are stuck in our insular spaces — both physically and mentally.
The act of decorating a space is a crucial part of occupying it. It lays claim to ownership and acts as a mirror of one’s taste and self. When I am surrounded by my objects, my art, my memories and my taste, I feel at home. And that is all you can ask from a room. Especially if it has cinder block walls — I’m looking at you, Village C West.
Maddie Finn is a senior in the College. Off the Wall will appear online every other week.