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Design, don’t divorce: How couples co-decorate

When faced with designing or redecorating a home, men used to just groan and moan and go along. But now men want a voice in decorating a shared space — and sometimes conflicts erupt when design concepts clash.
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.'"

It's possible to decorate without battling, says interior designer Kathryn Bechen of Solana Beach, Calif., who teaches a seminar called "Decorating without Divorcing." But conflict is common when both partners weigh in on which sofa to buy and where to put it.

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, so Bechen advises couples to agree on a budget in advance.

Designer Brian Patrick Flynn, founder and editor of the online design magazine, 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 your shared experiences
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 with items that evoke their shared travels.

Today, they have a home in Florida. "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 you both can 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.

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."

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."

Bromstad agrees: Let one person pick a modern sofa, he says, while the other chooses an antique looking, ornate 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."