Decorating a home together: How to fix up, not break up

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In some ways, it was simpler before. When Joy Lane Hicks wanted to buy a new piece of furniture or do some redecorating, she says, “I would start with, ‘Hey, honey, I have an idea,’ and he would drop his head, groaning and moaning.”

She’d decorate, and eventually he’d learn to love the finished product. But much has changed in the decade since Hicks and her husband got married and bought their Jacksonville, Fla., home.

Audiences — male and female — now lap up hours of TV programming about renovating, decorating and DIY-ing. Magazines and Web sites explore every aspect of home design. And big-box retailers offer surprisingly stylish furniture and home accessories at bargain prices.

Men are now as likely as women to want a voice in decorating a shared space, says HGTV’s David Bromstad, host of “Color Splash” and the network’s original Design Star winner. “There’s more education about design now,” he says, and cutting-edge style is accessible to everyone.

That’s good news to Hicks. She loves when her husband sits down to watch a design show with her. But some nights, “These ideas start percolating. We’re watching and he says he loves something, and sometimes I’m like, ‘No way. That is ugly.’”

Communication and compromise are essential to reconcile competing wish lists on how a space will be shared, says Kathy Laurent, who co-owns Toile to Wall Interior Design of Vancouver with her husband, Keith Laurent. Both partners need to have an open mind.

Talk first, buy later

Bromstad suggests that couples approach a joint decorating project by going together to favorite “bars, restaurants, hotel lobbies, anywhere the atmosphere appeals to you.” Really look around, he says, and discuss what works and how you might replicate aspects of it in your home. Also, leaf through magazines, tearing out pages and making a collage of what you both like.

Money is a common source of arguments. Interior designer Kathryn Bechen of Solana Beach, Calif., who teaches a seminar called “Decorating without Divorcing,” advises couples to agree on a budget in advance.

Designer Brian Patrick Flynn, founder and editor of the online design magazine decordemon.com, says it’s important to discuss priorities.

“If she wants to spend $1,500 on a nice damask wallpaper,” Flynn says, “he may think $1,500 for something that goes on a wall is ludicrous. But maybe he just spent $1,800 on surround sound. They need to compare notes on how much they value certain things.”

Look to shared experiences

Laurent says it’s important to recognize that everyone has a personal color and style history that guides our likes and dislikes of patterns, colors and style. “If your mom made you wear green to school every day, chances are you don’t want to paint your bedroom green. If you grew up in a house with Mediterranean-style furniture, chances are you are not drawn to heavy wood side tables and armoires,” Laurent wrote in an e-mail. No one can tell one partner that their choices are wrong; they just have a different history, Laurent added.

Candace Moody and her husband, Thom, have spent portions of their 30-year marriage living outside the United States, and they developed a habit of combing flea markets for decorative pieces. Although he favors more crowded rooms and she prefers a sparser look, they find common ground decorating their Florida home with items that evoke their shared travels.

“When people come in, they say, ‘your house feels so much like you.’ And it does,” Moody says. “It’s us together. It’s our story.”

Find a palette to live with

Shades of gray and green are gender neutral, and couples often agree on them, says Flynn. Even some purples — deep royal purple, for instance, or a rich violet — tend to appeal to both sexes. Again, planning and discussion help. As they look at specific shades, couples may find they agree on more than they expected.

At Vancouver’s Toile to Wall Interior Design, it’s been Laurent’s experience that the differences become most obvious when assisting couples with choosing wall color. “If the walls are white, he usually looks surprised that she wants to paint them a color. She, on other hand, can’t believe that he does not share her want and need for color,” Laurent said.

To resolve the difference, Laurent asks clients to take what she describes as a color aptitude test.

She shows them photos of the same room, painted in different colors. The couple is then asked to silently vote on their least favorite and most favorite. Then, they share their selections aloud. The exercise typically determines some common ground that they either both like warm colors or cool colors.

If there’s a large disparity, such as one partner’s favorite is the other’s least favorite, Laurent works on a solution such as selecting a focal wall that can be painted in one partner’s favorite color, and the remainder of the room in the other’s favorite — if they can agree on a warm or cool palette.

Take turns

When decorating an entire room, says Bromstad, start by agreeing on one major piece — perhaps the bed or sofa. Once that’s chosen, each partner then suggests other pieces. “It’s not a competition to see who can come up with the best night stand,” he says, but you’re looking “realistically at whose suggestion works best.”

But, when it comes to accessories, Laurent suggests living by the rule that “less is more.”

“Clutter is not attractive to either gender, so keep it simple. Try to include a few keepsakes that are important to each partner,” Laurent said. “If you have large collections, display a few, grouped together, and consider changing them out every few months.”

Make the most of disagreements

Mixing and matching sometimes creates the best result.

“If he wants to use a pair of masculine, leather club chairs,” says Flynn, “let her choose a pink throw pillow. It’s still a man’s chair, but you’re bringing in that little ounce of femininity.”

Laurent added that combining an upholstered sofa with a leather chair is a good compromise.

Bromstad also supports a combination of styles such as a modern sofa that’s paired with an antique-looking side table. Or if one partner has an old heirloom piece of furniture, let the other partner choose a nontraditional color to paint it. Bold contrast looks great, and leaves everyone feeling represented.

If you have enough space, Bechen suggests letting each person have one room that’s entirely theirs to decorate. That tends to make compromising in other rooms more palatable.

If disagreements get heated, Flynn says, bringing in an outside voice can help restore the peace. Interior designers will do a consultation, often for just a few hundred dollars, giving you detailed design recommendations and information about resources.

In the end, says Bechen, “the focus should be on the relationship,” not the rooms. “The purpose of organizing and decorating is to enhance the relationship,” she says, “not the other way around.”

Columbian staff writer Elisa Williams contributed to this report.