Leather-bound books. Old Olivetti typewriters. Cigar-scarred chesterfields. What, to the uninitiated, might sound like the cataloging of the Dead Poet’s Society set, is really a burgeoning design style known as dark academia. Cultivated by social platforms like TikTok and Tumblr, dark academia co-opts motifs from the Ivy League coterie and marries them with Victorians’ dark romantic whims. The result is a bookish style that puts a new spin on the art of darkness. Despite its popularity with the under-25 crew, you don’t need to be an undergraduate to appreciate the dark academia aesthetic. Here, we delve into the origins of dark academia rooms. Plus, we show you five sophisticated ways to imbue your own rooms with dark academia style (no dowdy school uniforms required). 

Hallway with purple floral wall paper, large taxidermy head, and antique-style gold framed mirror.
Design by Jasmin Reese Interiors / Photo Credit: Michael Alan Kaskel

How Did Dark Academia Get Its Start? 

With their poetic depictions of beauty and darkness, Romantic-era texts by novelists like Lord Byron and Mary Shelley have long been popular with the prep school set. When fused with prep schools’ own lettered charms—think dog-eared textbooks, libraries full of burnished leather chairs, illustrious plaids—dark academia comes squarely into focus. 

Since the style assumed hashtag status (way back in 2015, believe it or not), dark academia’s appeal has always been accessibility. Dorm room-bound co-eds can easily interpret the style with cast-off books, second-hand candlesticks, and decommissioned classroom globes. As dark academia has graduated from a social phenomenon to a full-fledged interior style, it’s adopted a more elevated milieu. Designers dabbling in the style are fond of factoring in classical European ephemera that hints at the trend’s Victorian blood. Among their stand-bys? Chandeliers, Renaissance and Baroque art, and Neoclassical busts and reliefs. Ahead, we break down the essentials for leveling up the look.  

Dining area with black walls and ornate gold chandelier and mirror with stacks of books and small vases throughout.
Photo by Stephen Kent Johnson / OTTO / Design by John Pope

Dark Walls

Black-painted walls always feel a bit rebellious—ideal for a trend that favors itself to be a touch subversive. Dark walls also have a knack for skewing sophisticated and scholarly, which makes them a hand-in-glove fit for dark academic rooms. If cloaking your walls in a color that conjures the cosmos feels too polarizing for you, consider a hue with warmer undertones. Shades of cocoa, mink, or greige can all be used to achieve a similar effect. Alternatively, consider applying a textured technique to black-painted walls. Feather brushing can enliven black walls, making them feel like less of an abyss. Not to mention, the treatment can cue up a look that’s redolent of another classroom classic: the blackboard.

Mid-century inspired seating area with large wood bookshelf, interesting lounge chairs, and stone raw-edge coffee table.
Photo by Stephen Kent Johnson / Design by Studio Shamshiri

Spine-Chilling Silhouettes

There’s no denying that balloon-ish leather armchairs and barely-leg tables are the lifted-from-the-library archetypes that fit the dark academic aesthetic to a tee. But for a more mature take, consider a piece of statement furniture with an elegantly eerie silhouette. Spine-cradling chaises or languidly-limbed armchairs can all impart a feeling of the spectral. With their abbreviated arms and surrealist-shaped frames, designer Dan Johnson’s Gazelle chairs and chaises are particularly apt. For less of a splurge, try burlwood tables—the gnarlier the better. Animal-footed chairs and case pieces also work. Use ball-and-claw-footed Chippendale pieces to evoke a classic academic feel, or Postmodern pieces inspired by John Dickinson’s surrealist, paw-footed tables for an undercurrent of the uncanny. 

An Abundance of Antiques 

If ever there was a time to resurrect antiques, Dark Academia style is it. From gothic benches to Eastlake settees to Georgian demilunes, chances are, if it has a history,  it’ll vibe with the aesthetic. If you have a suspicion your room is skewing more period piece than bookishly chic, consider integrating some antiques with less visual heft. Brass rococo mirrors and Windsor chairs dovetail seamlessly with traditional pieces but conjure a more contemporary mood. These types can also be sourced new and for relatively cheap. Ideal when you’re saving those pennies for a piece with more pedigree, be it a sweeping set of mahogany Klismos chairs or a specimen Regency-style divan.

The black walls in this seating area provide a welcome contrast to the pink couch and mid-century inspired shearling accent chairs.
 Photo by Stephen Kent Johnson / OTTO / Design by Suzanne Demisch

Echo Classic Academic Shapes

Leave classroom ephemera like globes and typewriters to more literal interpretations of the aesthetic. Rather, source decor with shapes that merely echo scholarly stand-bys. Lamps or pendants with orb shades, for instance, can recall old-school globes while checking the overly thematic overtones at the door. Similarly, shapely marble and alabaster obelisks can evoke classical campus architecture, and urns can feel redolent of trophies. Of course, some academic accouterments feel classic enough to fuse with a more refined milieu. Dark-lit oil portraits and stately busts offer a fine way to bridge dark academia 101 with a next-gen incarnation. The same goes for books. Pile in a passel of texts to give your room the feel of a true scholarly hideout.

Make a Mirror Your Muse

At its core, dark academia is a romantic trend. While florals are generally too saccharine, mirrors—gilded, shapely, and reflective—instate a moody beauty that feels apropos. Hang mirrors in places that allow for optical opportunities, so to speak. For instance, in a location where it might reflect a portrait or a bust. Maybe a sprawling collection of Fornasetti’s Lina Cavalieri plates? Given that it’s still in its infancy, dark academia invites a prankishness that mirrors play the perfect accomplice to. Use them to spark wonder just as much as style and function.

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October 12, 2021

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