Posted on Fri, Sep. 9, 2011
Mediating husband-wife disputes part of designers' portfolio
By Christine Bahls
For The Inquirer
Interior designers are often privy to their
clients' inner secrets. "When
you are in someone's bedroom with their money, you couldn't get
any closer," says Miriam Ansell, an interior designer with
offices in New Hope and Manhattan.
That also means interior designers get to see their clients
in the middle of domestic disputes, and can end up becoming mediators
in real-life design wars.
Most couples argue about money during the
interior design process. "Everyone
gets surprised at how much it costs to ship product, to store
and warehouse the product," says John Kelly of John Kelly
Interior Design in Philadelphia and a member of the American
Society of Interior Designers (ASID).
However, as everyone in a relationship knows, a fight about
money is rarely just a fight about money.
Ansell, also an ASID member, says many
battles she witnesses focus on power. "It's a matter of control for how the house
looks," she says.
Kelly agrees. "It's power," he says. "One person
says, 'I want it this way, and this is how it's going to be.' " Interior
designer Karen Giuliano, owner of Second Opinion in West Chester,
said she had one female client whose husband hated the chosen
wallpaper so much that he insisted it be ripped off the walls
in one room after his wife had just had it put up.
Fights also can be about revenge. Caroline Millett of Caroline
Millett Design in Philadelphia recounts a tale of a mistress-turned-wife
who, resentful that her husband began philandering, had their
country home repainted 11 times.
Watching home-design shows on TV can also
lead to tension in the design relationship. It's easy to watch
Extreme Home Makeover, or a few hours of HGTV, and feel like
an armchair expert. However, this can give clients unrealistic
expectations about the design process. What they do in an hour
on TV takes six months to do on a job, says Kelly. "People
get a false impression of budgets and time frames."
To avoid opportunities for couples to argue
or reverse their decisions, designers use a particular toolbox
of strategies. Kelly now insists that both parties are there
when he presents the design. "I don't want to hear 'I didn't see that' " from
the absent partner, he says.
Giuliano finds out first if the spouse is going to be involved
in the design process. If so, she just leaves a selection of
fabric, wallpaper, and paint samples at the client's house so
the couple can discuss options. She's wary after a particular
job involving a couple who kept her coming back time after time
with different samples after one spouse had reversed the other's
decision multiple times.
Negotiating decorating decisions has a
lot to do with who spends the most time in certain rooms. Couples
tend to assert themselves in the places where they spend the
most time. Kathleen L. Penney of Kathleen L. Penney Interiors
Inc. in West Chester says the spouse with the home office often
has specific, nonnegotiable opinions about what goes where. "He has definite ideas as
to what will work because he's working there," she says. "He
wants a power cord at the countertop because he's eating lunch
Marcello Luzi of Weixler Peterson Luzi
in Ardmore says his firm will work to find three schemes that
one spouse will like. Then, he says, "that spouse will
present to the other one."
Millett is "into negotiating. If they can't agree, I continue
to keep thinking of strategies" until they do. "I'll
say, 'Don't buy the $28,000 sofa, buy the $12,000 sofa. You can
buy original works of art with the $16,000.' "
Often, designers broker a compromise that
gives one spouse mastery over a certain domain. One spouse
might agree to put up with an aquarium-filled man cave in exchange
for an all-white bedroom inspired by 1940s Hollywood. Ansell
remembers one job in which the clients had very different taste: "The couple was trying
to blend their two cultures. She wanted Asian-influenced, because
of her background, and he wanted contemporary," she says.
The couple negotiated and the husband gave his spouse free rein
- up to a point. "I did the living room, the bedroom - not
a word from him," says Ansell. "The only thing in the
entire job that he was involved in was the dining room table."