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Duelling palettes

Couples consulting a referee to help merge their styles Add to ...

When Marianne Potting met her future husband, she was pleasantly surprised by his home. Instead of the usual bachelor pad mishmash, his house was a study in modernism, from vivid paintings on the walls to geometric furniture in leather and chrome.

Ms. Potting says she remembers thinking, "This man has style."

But after a few years of domestic bliss, things began to clash.

Her husband's allegiance to mid-century modern - a taste he developed after a divorce - couldn't have been more at odds with Ms. Potting's love of shabby chic.

Her ideal sofa was made of fabric and festooned with pillows; his was a slab of black leather. She envisioned pretty plates on the wall; he wanted a gash of original art.

"I have this big orange leather chair in my living room that I hate," says Ms. Potting, who blogs about decor at Songbirdisnesting.blogspot.com. "But he made it very clear that if that chair goes, he goes."

Gone are the days when the man ruled the roost but the woman made the nest.

Bombarded with images of house porn - from slick interiors on HGTV to stylish spreads in GQ - men are more likely than ever before to demand equal say in home decor, notes Cheryl Broadhead, co-founder of BYU Design in Vancouver.

"It's a place that they want to be proud of," she says. "It's still the biggest investment you make."

And a room is no longer just a room - it's a second skin, according to Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, author of Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure.

"When you see someone's room, it's almost like with pheromones - if it's a good whiff, it can really cement the relationship."

Even so, based on his work as an interior designer, Mr. Gillingham-Ryan estimates that a quarter of couples have styles that don't match.

And when a man who dreams of a log cabin marries a woman with a passion for Hollywood glam, things can get ugly. On websites such as Theinspiredroom.net, bloggers describe bitter disputes with their spouses over paint colours, flooring and whether the massive oak bookcase made in grade nine shop class should be banished to the basement.

In many cases, couples end up hiring a referee.

Decorator and designers double as marriage counsellors, says Ms. Broadhead, adding that the subject is covered in design schools. "It's really rare to have a couple that has the same vision."

Some designers insist that couples should discuss how they will deck their halls even before they get married - a kind of decorating prenup.

Otherwise, decor can become a marital issue, says Ann McGuire, a colour consultant for Valspar Corporation. Spats over upholstery and bathroom fixtures may not be as trivial as they seem, she says. "It becomes about control, and who has territory over which part of the house."

As the layers of distrust grow, one spouse may book private consultations to get the decorator on side, or hide how much their home-related purchases cost.

"I've heard of people going to the ATM to pay the decorator in cash," Ms. McGuire says.

Earlier this year, she worked with newlyweds and couples seeking to merge their styles in a three-month program called Love, Our Style.

A good designer can marry the strangest of bedfellows, Ms. McGuire says. For example, mid-century modern can work with a traditional style if you combine beautiful antiques with a mid-century colour scheme.

But the relationship takes work, she adds: "You can't just throw any mid-century modern thing next to a Chippendale and expect it to be a success."

In her consultations with couples, Ms. McGuire says, she noticed a common theme: The women wanted to get everything just right "but the guys just wanted to get it done."

Kate Knowles of Caribou, Maine, says her husband is a case in point. For years he was an armchair critic while she struggled to find a common ground between his tastes - plaid couches, rustic touches - and her preference for neutrals and classic designs.

"I would get him too involved in process," she says. "It stressed him out."

Now she narrows down the options beforehand and uses images from websites and magazines to make her case. "Showing him pictures has been incredibly helpful."

When decor debates get heated, both partners have to budge, according to Mr. Gillingham-Ryan. But it falls upon the partner who is lobbying for a major change to be strategic, he says.

"When you're talking about an emotional logjam, I think it's more efficient to put forward a proposal that's piecemeal."

Smaller projects can make a huge difference, such as painting fake mahogany cabinets instead of remodelling the entire kitchen, he notes.

While the endless negotiating can be tedious, Ms. McGuire says, the couple may eventually develop a third style that expresses both of their personalities. The union will be stronger in the long run, she adds.

Ms. Potting says her fondness for shabby chic was overpowered when she first moved in with her husband, "because he was so strong about what he liked."

Then, after the couple bought a house together in Maastricht, Netherlands, Ms. Potting began to make her mark. She softened his austere furniture with pillows and handmade quilts, added painted wooden pieces with distressed edges and found a place for her apothecary jars filled with shells and pinecones.

Her husband agreed to keep his boldest art in his study, and she transformed the attic into a frilly studio for herself.

Still, she is careful not to alienate her husband with her feminine touches, especially in one particular room of the house.

Chuckling, she explains, "I want him to be happy in the bedroom."

 

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