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 there."

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."

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