Sharing a home with someone you love can be wonderful. But decorating together isn’t always easy, especially when your tastes aren’t the same.
If one partner loves filling every space with mementos and the other is clutter-averse, who gets their way? It can be hard to find good compromises when one loves bold colors and patterns, while the other favors calming shades of gray.
Interior designer Penny Drue Baird draws as much on her doctorate in psychology as on her design training when she works with couples decorating a home.
“I’m there as the mediator, like a marital therapist,” Baird says, “working out how to approach it so both persons don’t feel like they’re the one that can’t get what they want.”
Here, Baird and two other New York-based interior designers — Deborah Martin and Michelle Gerson — discuss how couples can tackle the sometimes challenging task of decorating shared space.
Sharing your vision
All three designers begin by doing an intake meeting with a couple to find out “everything that they are hoping to achieve, and the look they feel like they’re going for,” Baird says. Clients will bring photos they’ve ripped from magazines or show pages from design books to help explain what appeals to them.
A couple can sit down together and have this sort of meeting even if they aren’t working with a designer. By showing your partner what you envision, you may find that you have more common ground than you realized. Martin says that sometimes a client begins with a preconceived notion that they don’t like a certain pattern or style, but when they see it in context they do like it.
“It’s about discovery,” Martin says. Just as a designer must “take some risks and present what you feel will work very well in the home,” a partner can take the risk of showing their vision and taking in their partner’s vision with an open mind. Both may end up happily surprised.
In some cases, one partner might say they’re fine turning over the reins completely. If you’re redecorating a home or moving to a new one and your partner says you can make all the design choices, keep them updated along the way to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
Gerson recommends making a list of items you both need in the room or home you’re decorating. These are the shared must-haves you can agree on, like plenty of seating in the living room if you both like to entertain.
Find that common ground, she says, and try to agree on one major piece of furniture. Maybe it’s a sofa that one partner loves the shape of and the other likes the fabric.
Once each person feels like their biggest requests have been heard, it may be easier to compromise on other details.
Another way to compromise: If one person likes a space full of colorful things and the other dislikes clutter, Gerson says, “then we try to organize the stuff. When stuff looks organized and purposeful, and not just like stuff all over the place, then people start to realize they do like having stuff around.”
For one client who had a collection of music memorabilia, Gerson added built-in shelving in a home office to display the collection in an organized way that pleased both partners.
If a home is big enough, couples with differing taste might find it’s easier to compromise on the main rooms if they will each have more influence on one other room, Baird says. One person might choose darker colors for a home library, for instance, while another can use bright, bold colors for their home office or hobby space. The main rooms can serve as a bridge, connecting those styles together more smoothly.
Martin agrees: “I try not to create a ‘his space’ or a ‘her space’ in favor of creating spaces that flow nicely and have continuity.”
Some couples opt to mix their contrasting tastes throughout their home, but Baird says creating an “eclectic” room that mashes up two different decorating styles can be difficult. “People bandy around the word eclectic, but it really is a mishmosh,” she says. “It’s very rare to see a room or a home that I would call eclectic that is well done.”
Take your time
Gerson says people often are in a rush to completely decorate a room and fill every space. That can lead you to compromises that neither of you like, she says. Don’t be afraid to leave a bit of empty space until you discover the right piece to put there.
“It’s OK if you have a fabulous sofa and a great coffee table and a rug,” Gerson says, to then wait until you stumble upon a wonderful chair you both like that can complete the room.
Time also makes the shared decorating process easier: “I find that the longer a couple has lived together or been married, the more likely they are to have the same design objectives,” Martin says. “They’re on the same page, especially older couples.”
And with enough communication and patience, Baird says, most couples manage to decorate their homes without conflict.
“I’ve never had anyone get divorced,” she says, “until after we were done decorating.”