x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Don't let an interior decorating project result in couples therapy

Nowadays, home design isn't an exclusively female pastime, which can lead to style clashes. Before you leave it to a professional, try a little compromise and communication.

When it comes to home styling, there is plenty of scope for disagreement, and it is not as simple as women wanting to fill the house with pink cushions and men wanting to surround themselves with dark leather furniture. iStockphoto.com
When it comes to home styling, there is plenty of scope for disagreement, and it is not as simple as women wanting to fill the house with pink cushions and men wanting to surround themselves with dark leather furniture. iStockphoto.com

My other half and I agree on many things. Politics, the state of the world economy, the need to reduce our carbon footprint, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, how to best cook a steak, and the importance of having chocolate in the house at all times, for example.

But when it comes to the important things - the colour of the curtains in the spare room, the merits of wallpaper over paint, how many lamps you can reasonably expect to fit in one room and the difference between accessories and clutter - we seldom see eye to eye.

My tastes veer more towards the contemporary. I'm a fan of monochromatic colour schemes, have an unwavering love of wallpaper, believe that you can never own too many lamps and am constantly adding to my collection (hoard) of accessories (clutter). He, on the other hand, is the world's greatest minimalist. He loves natural, understated materials and neutral, calming colours. If he had his way, the only "design feature" in our living room would be an iPod docking station.

As such, our home is the ultimate exercise in compromise. Every shopping trip is a fervent search for the few items that fall into the tiny overlap between our very different tastes. And every purchase is the result of negotiations worthy of a hostage crisis.

As it turns out, we are not alone. While decorating used to be an almost exclusively female pastime - I doubt Betty Draper felt obliged to discuss her fabric choices with Don before investing in a new set of cushions - things are changing rapidly. For most couples today, setting up home is a joint effort, and both the financial and design responsibilities are shared equally.

"Traditionally, it has always been the woman who decided on the design of a piece of furniture or an interior, whereas the man more often than not controlled the purse strings," notes Patricia Boettcher, the founder of the Dubai-based luxury furniture store B5, The Art of Living. "I think in the current day it is a lot more equal, with women being as much a financial contributor as the man."

But that certainly doesn't guarantee that both parties will be on the same page when it comes to aesthetics. Unfortunately, there is plenty of scope for disagreement when it comes to home styling, and it is not as simple as women wanting to fill the house with feminine touches such as pink cushions and scented candles and men wanting to surround themselves with masculine elements like dark leather furniture and the latest electronic gadgets.

Kevin Mitchell, an associate professor of architecture and vice provost for undergraduate affairs at the American University of Sharjah, explains that while gender may have an influence on what an individual desires from his or her interior space, the matter is in fact much more complex, and the result of a range of factors that include everything from socio-cultural background to personal preference.

"Age and experience may also play a significant role. In the early 21st century, personal preference may play a more significant role as the internet allows exposure to possibilities beyond that which may be available locally. One should also not underestimate the role that socio-cultural norms may play in interiors: a home plays a role in representing one's taste and status, and taste is often formed by not only personal preference but by what we see around us and what we try to emulate to become who we aspire to be rather than who we may be.

"The choices one makes are often subconscious and result from a complex interplay between factors that range from gender to social aspiration; I would argue that gender may play a role, but it is minor."

While style preferences may not be governed by obvious gender stereotypes, both Boettcher and Kamal Helou, an interior designer and brand manager of the Dubai-based furniture shop Carpe Diem, note that the way the sexes approach the buying process can differ enormously. Men will often opt for more simple, comfortable pieces, while women are more likely to make purchases based on their emotional response to an object.

"In my experience, my male customers are more rational and their partners more emotional when buying anything from a small item like a cushion to a huge designer kitchen," says Boettcher. "Men often will ask, 'Do we really need that?'"

So, what can be done if you and your loved one are struggling to find any common design ground? Marie-Noelle Swiderski, the managing director of the Dubai-based interior design firm Blanchard, suggests that you both go away and do your homework. "Instead of going around shops pointing things out to each other in order to better disagree, I think people should each go their own way, collect magazine cuttings of things they like and present these to their partner, explaining why they like the things that they like in those images."

This process will also enable you to get a better idea of your own likes and dislikes, and you may be surprised at the findings. "You'll see a picture and think you like everything but actually you might just like the leg of that sofa, or that particular colour, or that general mood. It's all very well saying you want a modern theme, but what exactly do you mean when you say modern? Show examples of what is in your mind. As they say, an image can speak a thousand words," Swiderski says.

"This will allow you to get to know your spouse a little better, which is never a bad thing, and you might discover that you actually have more in common, design-wise, then you initially thought."

The key is communication and compromise, says Helou. As with most areas of a relationship, it's a matter of finding the right balance. This could either mean trying to blend your differing styles within one space or dividing your home into different areas where different styles prevail.

"If you really can't agree on something, it might work to let one member of the couple pick a certain area of the home and the other person to have the say for another. While compromise is important, sometimes it is also important for couples to let each other maintain their individual style and taste, as long as it goes both ways," says Helou.

This is what the interiors public relations consultant Fiona Falconer and her husband, Craig, the creative partner of the Dubai-based North 55, have decided to do. While Craig is a fan of the minimalist look, Fiona prefers eclectic, colourful, creative rooms. So when she announced that she would be redecorating the lounge of their Meadows home in limes and pinks, the news was greeted with some scepticism.

"Living in a house full of males (my husband and my two sons) I really felt it was important to retain some femininity in at least one of the rooms, so I recovered my sofa in pink, chose lots of patterned scatter cushions, and created a Designers Guild floral feature wall to create the perfect room for my precious 'me-time'.

"Despite this being the ultimate girlie room, Craig and the boys love it. As a compromise, Craig now has carte blanche to renovate the bathroom so no doubt he will want to put his own 'boys' stamp on it."

As with any such undertaking, it's important to trust each other, says Craig. "Although we quite often have different ideas, I really believe it's important to commit to a theme 100 per cent," he explains. "We will often debate a direction, but once we've decided we try to stay true to the vision, which often means one of us has to take the lead. In general I am a bit of a control freak, so when I'm in charge I am quite relaxed, but if Fiona, my wife, is running it, I'm often very apprehensive. Nevertheless I do trust her to get it right, and 99 per cent of the time she does."

Of course, if none of this helps, it may be time to get help. No, not counselling - at least not yet. Why not enlist the services of a professional interior designer? An objective third party could be the answer to all your problems.

"When I work with couples there are almost always clashes on style and design direction during the process but my role as their interior designer is to hear both sides and work to come up with the best solution not just for them but for their project," says the interior designer Melissa Greenauer. "I always advise them that it is important to stay focused on the reason we are all together, which is to complete the design project."

sdenman@thenational.ae