On the Loveseat? Or the Counseling Couch?

A newlywed couple I once worked with had quite an argy-bargy over a carved dragon. Who knew that a 6-inch long sculpture, much like the one here, could cause such a brouhaha?

Painted, hand-carved figures called "Alebrijes" come mainly from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Alebrijes, strange figures of dreams or fantasies, are painted in astonishing colors.

Kim delighted in that critter. Its bright colors looked great on the mantle of the  mostly-white condo she and Ed had bought, and it reminded Kim of the beaches in Cancun.

Ed hated it, hated it, hated it, hated it! He said so quite emphatically, and repeatedly, and in a way uncharacteristic of his normal soft-spoken self. “A matter of style, or something deeper?” I wondered. Ed liked color and primitive art, so why, Kim wanted to know, why had he taken such a dislike to this particular chatchka? The more she demanded an explanation, the less articulate he became. Because the conversation was starting to generate considerable heat, but no light, I decided to get Ed alone to see if I could slay this particular dragon.

It  turned out that Ed was suspicious of the dragon’s provenance. He knew that Kim had bought the carving in Cancun when she was there with a former boyfriend.

Although I’m an interior designer, rather than a marital counselor, I was able to quickly diagnose the problem: When Ed looked at  the dragon, he saw his old rival bearing his fangs and worse – the guy was occupying a place of honor on the mantle of Ed’s honeymoon home!

Half a Dozen Warning Signs: Rough Water Ahead

I’m not only skilled at banishing itty-bitty basilisks, I have also had fairly good luck in designing for couples. Having a background in psychology and communications doesn’t hurt, and generally, when my clients have disagreed, but I have been able to find an option that pleased them both. I will also confess to having pretty good instincts  for recognizing when the waters ahead are about to get choppy. Here are half a dozen classic recipes for discord:

  1. The Defacto Designer – One person in the couple fancies himself a designer (usually a female) – but she doesn’t have the experience or education to know what will and won’t work
  2. The Purist – One person is a design purist, insistent on a particular style, and views variation from that style as compromising his/her artistic vision
  3. Newlyweds – It’s a new relationship and the partners haven’t developed joint decision-making skills
  4. Cuckoo’s Nest – One partner is moving into a space that has been occupied for the other partner, alone, and perhaps for a long time
  5. The Collector – One (or both) partners has collected a lot of belongings, and is highly resistant to parting with anything
  6. The Elitist – One partner looks down on the other partner’s taste or background or discounts his/her needs

Why Working with a Designer Helps

The entry of a condo a recently designed for a wonderful retired couple
The entry of a condo I recently designed for a wonderful retired couple. Ron and Claire occasionally disagreed, and then one or the other would tell me, "the management doesn't necessarily agree with this opinion." That was my signal to dig a bit deeper and come up with a creative option that made them both happy.

While there’s no panacea for domestic discord and designers can’t begin to muster the kind of skills a marital and family therapist brings to bear, working with an interior designer can help couples over some stumbling blocks. For one thing, a design professional should be able to look at each partner’s likes, dislikes and belongings, and find shared visual elements that unite the partners’ desires.

The fact that a couple wants to work with an interior designer in the first place, rather than just hashing things out themselves, also sends a good signal. It means that they want a neutral third party involved, and that brings with it a number of benefits:

  • With both experience and formal education to draw on, a qualified interior designer is apt to see options that won’t have occurred to the couple.
  • By repeating shapes, defining a common palette of colors, finding continuity in materials, or articulating a cultural or regional theme, the designer can take elements from each person’s taste, belongings, and background and weave them together in a way that visually enables “mine” to become “ours.”
  • When there are three people involved, as opposed to two, there’s always a majority point of view, and the designer can play a mediating role.

If you’re designing or redesigning a love nest and looking for an interior decorator or designer to help you, it’s a good idea to pay attention not just to the person’s portfolio, but also to his or her interpersonal skills. Your goal isn’t just a handsome home, it’s a happy home, and what happens en route counts. You don’t want to wind up with a showplace home in which a resentful partner is giving you the cold shoulder. (That’s why, when working with couples, I’m always careful to make sure that the partner who holds the minority view – the one who doesn’t agree with me, the quasi-authority figure! – doesn’t feel marginalized.)

Having a professional like me in on the planning for a shared space can help in multiple ways.  For example, when one partner is a Purist, a professional who understands architectural history can sometimes suggest ways to meet both partners’ needs without compromising the style, or may be able to redirect the Purist’s design impulses in a way that’s more hospitable to his/her partner. Consider this scenario: The Purist wants a home  that’s International in style – all steel and glass, stone, neutrals and textures with no embellishment of any kind – and she declares that the pressed oak rocker that he got from his grandpa has to go.

He knows nothing about the International style, and this whole thing about “purity of style” totally escapes him. But he loved Grandpa Jo, and feels that, in rejecting the rocker, she’s going to be seen by his relatives a rejecting the family into which she has just been welcomed.

The designer might be able to redirect the Purist by letting her know that currently, the design trend is away from uniform styles and toward a more eclectic look. The designer may also be able to figure out a space plan that allows the Purist and the Family Man to have their visual and emotional needs met in different rooms, while still defining colors or motifs that give the over-all house a sense of visual continuity.

In the case of Newlyweds, or one partner moving into another’s nest, the designer can also play a moderating role. For example, I have used quizzes and weighted voting to help new partners develop a sense of shared style and make decisions on key pieces. I was extremely pleased (and somewhat surprised) when one gentleman took my advice and moved all of his things out onto the sidewalk in front of the apartment he had occupied for five years, then moved back in afresh when his new bride moved in. This allowed her to feel that she was creating a new nest with him. That’s far better than her being pushed into the crazy-making role of the cuckoo who moves into an already-occupied nest and tries to commandeer space for herself.

Professionally, I approach Collectors and Elitists carefully – and occasionally pass up the opportunity to work with them.  The following cautionary tales will explain why.

A Brief Interlude with the Purists

I have known of a couple cases where a couple has reached absolute deadlock. In one instance, a couple bought a fixer-upper house intending to remodel it and run it as a Bed and Breakfast. The B n’ B never quite got off the ground, because they never could agree on how to fix it.

sale signAs an overnight guest in their Boston home – it was  more of a rooming house than a B ‘n B at that point – I saw potential all over the fine old house. But it was shabby, and in dire need of maintenance. And the state of the house pretty much mirrored the state of the relationship. She was a Purist with a French Country Vision; he was a Modernist. Neither party was willing to trust the other enough to experiment, and neither was willing to compromise on their idiosyncratic view. They both just wanted what they wanted, and they could no more decide on a designer than they could agree on a couch, a color or a vacation destination. (Or as I learned subsequently from a mutual acquaintance, when to have kids, or how to behave at the marriage counselor’s office!) Listening to them at breakfast, I looked across at my own new spouse and thought, “Ah, let us not go there!”

I believe that’s pretty much what most potential guests decided about their B ‘n B as well.

What’s It All About, Alfie?

Most often, I see partners squabbling not over the style or color palette, but about a particular piece, as was the case with Kim and Ed. The disagreement usually isn’t about style at all, but about the psychological meanings that the people are assigning to the couch, or the lamp, or whatever. This is something I learned in the School of Hard Knocks.

My ex-husband, Dan, collected antiques, magazines, clocks, opals, flavored rum, magazines, you name it! One day while dusting, I accidentally broke a crystal tumbler that pre-dated me in Dan’s life.

To say that Dan was upset would be an understatement – and I spent months trying to replace it! The tumbler was one of a set of six that Dan had gotten from his dad, who had in turn gotten them as a gift in a pro-am golf tournament. The six tumblers fit on a silver platter that was engraved with the name of the tournament.  After writing and then phoning the British Isles, it turned out that the glass was a special edition, not a standard Waterford pattern, and it couldn’t be duplicated.

Dan held a grudge about that glass for many months. He said that if I truly loved him, I would be more careful with things he cared about. Vice versa, it also meant that if I was that careless with his glass, then I was going to be careless with him, personally! Huh? Why would he think that?

It’s All Just Stuff, Isn’t It?

Waterford Tumbler
If the Waterford isn't quite right...
Then how about the Royal Doulton?
Then how about the Royal Doulton?

I found Dan’s worldview odd because I draw quite a distinction between “stuff” and people. Stuff can almost always be replaced, and on the rare occasion when it can’t, then I know that there’s another, different furnishing or space solution that’s going to be equally delightful. If you can’t get Waterford, there’s always Royal Doulton, Baccarat, and Orrefors!

Dan, like other Collectors, did not share my worldview at all. Dan and his things were merged in a Zen-like state where they were all one. (In my experience, that “I am what I own” view is fairly common among young males who own trendy cars, but most, I think, grow out of it. I’m hoping that will also be the case for the young woman who answered my “who decides about home decorating” question by saying, “My boyfriend’s idea of decorating is hanging t-shirts from historic rock concerts on the wall!”)

But Collectors can be old as well as young. I recently assisted a charming 60-ish couple with a space-planning consultation. Their house is crammed to the rafters, not only with family, but with piles of books, toys, musical instruments, travel mementos, clothing, etc., etc., etc. When I queried them about what could be stored or moved, I quickly discovered that one of the partners was a Collector, for whom virtually everything belonging holds emotional significance. She can’t part with anything.

The lesson to be drawn from all of this is that, for Collectors, it’s not just “stuff”. It’s identity. That memorabilia  defines who they are, and changing it involves wrestling with emotional issues. (I will be writing more about these issues about in a subsequent post.  I’m interviewing a psychologist who has researched and written a book about the psychological mindset that underlies hoarding behavior.) For now, let’s just say that Collectors are a bit too complex for this blog post, and turn to some successful couples for advice on how they cope.

Good Advice: A Little Help from our Friends

With a little help from my Facebook friend Brian Howlett – a naturally gracious host who has a knack of drawing people into all manner of interesting conversations – I recently participated in an online discussion about how couples make home design decisions. Brian asked, “So you’re going to paint the walls and buy new furniture. who makes those decisions in your home?” Here are some the answers he got:

  • Dian: LOL!!! We are extremely compatable when it comes to our tastes. …..so our issues are small like “the shade of wine” for the kitchen. We get a few samples, put them up and decide (is it too pink, is it too dark?). As for furniture, one of the things we had in common before marriage was our love for mission style antiques. After children that has changed some, but our tastes are still very agreeable.
  • Stephanie: Me. And then I run a long campaign to convince my S.O. that it is the perfect choice.
  • Joan: Paint color me, furniture we.
  • Amos: She has me confirm the decision she already made.
  • Patricia: Compromise, compromise, compromise!
  • Honey: My partner and I are usually like (or at least similar) minded, so that helps. We each listen to the other’s ideas and then choose. We don’t always agree 100%, and it’s not a big deal to compromise. After all, it’s just stuff.
Honey Ward and her partner Sandy Davis
Honey Ward and her partner Sandy Davis

It turns out that in twosomes, just as in tumblers, there are lots of options that work. You might divide up areas of expertise (one partner does furnishings, and another does paint), have similar tastes, agree that one party is really in charge, or like Honey says, compromise. (Honey Ward, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a nationally known keynote speaker and a success coach who helps people to live happier and more conscious lives, so she has the credentials to offer good advice.)

Despite what some of my interior colleagues write and practice, I hold that designers should not be “arteests” who get huffy when their vision is “compromised.” It’s all just stuff, and a designer worth his or her salt should be able to think of many options.

During the Facebook discussion I mentioned earlier, several people had an interesting exchange about the emotional and spiritual values inherent in making decisions about interior environments, those places where we share the lion’s share of our time.

  • Brian: So you’re going to paint the walls and buy new furniture. who makes those decisions in your home?
  • Daigan: The Director and Senior Staff
  • Nicolette: Which one of you gets to be the director?
  • Daigan: I live in a Monastery, so there are other folks who make those decisions.. I just get to enjoy the results.
  • Julie: How cool! how does one get to live in a Monastery?! unless they are a monk…?
  • Daigan: And there you have it Julie!
  • Nicolette: Fascinating, Daigan. Who decides what the furnishings will look like in a monastery? Do the people making those decisions know that their choices have spiritual impact?
  • Daigan: LOL!  It’s Zen… Nothing has spiritual impact … or wait maybe everything does… or maybe it’s everything and nothing… hrmmm
This lovely family - a minister, his partner and five adopted sons - lived in a modest house, and because the living room/dining room was so small, they had to eat dinner in shifts. In a design project I called Extreme Makeover, Ministerial Edition I created a space plan and found multi-purpose furniture that let them eat together as a family.
This family - a minister, his partner and five adopted sons - lived in a modest house, and because the living room/dining room was so small, they had to eat in shifts. In a design project I called "Extreme Makeover, Ministerial Edition" I created a space plan and found multi-purpose furniture that let them eat together as a family.

That seems about right to me. It’s all stuff and none of it has spiritual impact – except that, subconsciously, it all does! We are deeply influenced by our surroundings. Light, color, temperature, sound, and space influence our feelings of well-being and contentment. (As the Zen Master said to the hot dog vendor, “Make me one with everything!”)

Our homes also influence how we relate to one another – whether we’re squabbling over closet space or cuddling on the couch. It’s important to create spaces that encourage shared activities and enable us to engage in important rituals, such as gathering as a family over dinner. As Brian put it, “Decoration and furnishings are an extension of ourselves, like clothing… we’ve lost the skill of compromise. To compromise means you have to sacrifice opinion in lieu of the prize you get from cooperation. A loving home is more important than a beautiful home from my perspective.”

For me that’s the whole point of a well designed interior. It needs to be arranged so it enhances health, happiness, and human connections. That’s what we’re all here for!

Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website


The Marriage of True Minds

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
Oh, no! it is an ever-fixéd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come’
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

-William Shakespeare


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