A black-and-white photograph of a Durfee suite from the 1870s features Victorian drapery, an end-of-the-century oak armchair and a rococo revival curvy-legged table. The elegant decor is a far cry from the IKEA chairs and movie posters in student rooms today that trade displays of wealth for comfort and a welcoming environment.
“There’s No Place Like Home: Student Rooms at Yale, 1870-1910,” an online exhibition organized by the Yale University Art Gallery, features black-and-white photographs of dormitories from a forgotten era in Yale’s history. While the exhibit shows how rooms of the past were decorated to emphasize the status and prestige of their inhabitants, six students interviewed said comfort and functionality have priority.
The exhibit, organized by history of art doctoral candidate Dana Byrd ’99, GRD ’11 under assistant curator of American decorative arts John Stuart Gordon, brings together five different photographs from the years immediately following the completion of the dormitories on Old Campus, along with images of furniture, paintings and objects from the gallery’s collection of American decorative arts.
The photographs selected are only five of hundreds in Yale’s Manuscripts and Archives collection. Byrd explained that photographing dorm rooms was a common practice from the 1870s to the 1920s as a marker of status at many elite schools in the country. The newly created rooms on campus were much fancier than the off-campus housing students inhabited before the completion of what is now known as Old Campus. She said she chose the more compelling photographs whose furnishings also matched pieces within the gallery’s physical collection.
These photographs — along with furniture, decorative objects, lighting, textiles and ephemera — were originally collected in the 1970s when the renovation of many of the Old Campus buildings created a renewed interest in documenting their history. In the summer of 1977, three restored student rooms on Old Campus were furnished using these objects to remind students of the prestige associated with living on campus. The following year, there was an exhibition at the gallery called “Home Away from Home: Student Rooms at Yale” using much of the same collection.
“Many of these objects are not traditional ‘museum objects’ in that they are serially manufactured and intended for everyday use,” Gordon said in an e-mail.
In sifting through hundreds of photographs in Manuscripts and Archives, Byrd said she noticed trends in how students decorated their rooms. For instance, while a Victorian aesthetic dominated the rooms of the 1870s, the early 1900s saw a transition to the arts and crafts — a design movement that advocated simple designs and traditional craftsmanship.
Today’s Yalies are less concerned with status and more with creating a homey environment, six students interviewed said. Though the desire to decorate still remains, the heavy drapes and elaborate chandeliers of the past are replaced by hand-made lamp shades and scarves that double as curtains.
For Rachael Styer ’12, hominess trumps luxury. Styer said she decorated her previously “generic” Ezra Stiles single with personal touches to make it feel more like home: She covered the stone floor with a cream-colored carpet; put movie posters, personal mementos and a large black-and-white photograph on the wall; and added more shelving with a large unit from IKEA. A floral bedspread completes the transformation, turning what she said was an ugly room into a colorful and cozy haven.
“This is the only place on campus that’s mine,” Styer said. She added that for her, maintaining an organized space is more important than impressing guests. Absent from her room are the elegant fin-de-siecle armoires.
Alice Wang ’12 spent her Thanksgiving break this year decorating her Pierson suite with textiles from a local vintage store and a wall-sized mural that she painted as a final project for a literature course. The huge painting depicts a Victorian house and landscape scene and, as Wang explained, makes the room look bigger. The painting is quite different in tone from the rugby memorabilia in the art gallery photographs that showed membership of an elite group as much as athletic prowess.
“Atmosphere is really important to me,” Wang explained. “It’s something we don’t focus on much, but you really can be more productive if the atmosphere of the room is better.”
In an all-male suite in Trumbull, aesthetics takes a back seat to function. A futon, a black chair, and a huge, wrap-around couch found on Craigslist provide seating for the many visitors that frequent the suite. A red shag carpet and an Andy Warhol-inspired photograph of a sleeping student provide the only color in the room.
“With the rooms in the [exhibition] photos, the people had to be way more grown up than we are today,” Michael Gocksch ’12 , one of the suite’s residents said. “It’s almost like we’re delaying growing up by putting so little effort in the room.”