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‘Til decor do you part? How couples find style harmony

Ask the Expert Style
Michelle-Gerson-Interior-Design-Office
This 2015 photo shows a home office Michelle Gerson designed in New York. When one partner has a collection to display and the other partner prefers an uncluttered space, it's important to take an organized approach, as seen in this home office space, where custom shelving was designed to prominently but neatly display a collection of music memorabilia. Patrick Cline/Michelle Gerson via Associated Press

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.

“I’m there as the mediator, like a marital therapist,’’ Baird said, “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

Penny-Drue-Baird-Design-Mirror
This 2013 photo shows an entry Penny Drue Baird designed. If a home has enough rooms, Drue Baird said, couples who have conflicting tastes may choose to compromise on the style of common areas like the living room or entryway, and then each have a few separate spaces that express their personal style. —Francis Hammond/Penny Drue Baird via Associated Press

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 said. Clients will bring photos they’ve ripped from magazines or show pages from design books to 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 said 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 said. 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 said you can make all the design choices, keep them updated to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

Cohesive compromises

Penny-Drue-Baird-Bedroom
This 2017 photo shows a bedroom Penny Drue Baird designed. One solution for couples seeking to compromise on design choices is to agree on a relatively neutral plan for the overall style of a room and then add more intricate accent pieces, such as draperies or a striking light fixture that one or the other member of the couple really enjoys. —Antoine Bootz/Penny Drue Baird via Associated Press

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 said, 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 said, “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 said. 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 more smoothly.

Some couples opt to mix contrasting tastes throughout their home, but Baird said 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 said. “It’s very rare to see a room or a home that I would call eclectic that is well done.’’

Take your time

Gerson said 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 said. 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 said, 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 said. “They’re on the same page, especially older couples.’’

And with enough communication and patience, Baird said, most couples manage to decorate their homes without conflict.

“I’ve never had anyone get divorced,’’ she said, “until after we were done decorating.’’

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