Marlene Pratt, Design Therapist
When couples vow "for better or for worse," few foresee the fights over the flowery drapes, the beer-can pyramids or the style of the living room couch. But Marlene Pratt has seen it all.
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Interior designer Marlene Pratt is a kitchen and bath specialist at Home Depot. She works the tri-state area around New York City and has seen everything there is to see when it comes to couples disagreeing about home design. That makes her an expert in solving those disagreements. HGTV.com asked her about the art of compromise.
You’ve been around the block when it comes to helping couples compromise over design. And you’re still alive to tell the tales.
Yes, they call me "the buffer." I’ve worked with quite a few couples and I always tell them that working together on a design isn’t easy. It isn’t a weeklong process. I tell them that once they enter into this either you’ll bond or you’re totally divorced by the end of the project. It either makes you or breaks you. But I am happy to say that I know of only one divorce on all of the many projects that I’ve worked on.
What are the challenges?
Working with couples is a little difficult because you’re trying to make both people happy. A lot of times she has her career, he has his career, she has her taste, he has his taste and now they’re together and neither of them have ever had to compromise. And sometimes the female tries to take over or the person who came into the relationship with the most furniture tries to take over. I have been with a couple that would literally go at it in front of me, fighting, fighting. I finally kicked the wife out of the kitchen for a while, and the husband was like "Whoa, nobody’s ever done that to her before." And I said, "Hey, this is what you’re paying me for."
You’re being paid to kick people out of the kitchen?
There has to be a happy medium. I’m being paid to talk to both of them to find out what they are thinking and give them what they want. You know they both have good habits and bad habits. I am going to find out those habits and find out where they need help. Sometimes they are very sensitive and you have to tread very carefully. You have to let them know that you’re on their side but that you have to listen to the other person. I call myself the psychologist of interior design for couples because it is a matter of listening to him and to her but not necessarily at the same time. Over time, it works out.
How are some of the ways you get couples to compromise?
Let’s say we’re doing a bigger home. A two or three bathroom home with five or six bedrooms. If she collects a lot of art and he doesn’t then she does the living room and then he does the den, and they do not butt into each other’s design for the rooms. He does one bedroom. She does another bedroom.
And before you know it they are asking each other’s opinions. They really are. I think it has a lot to do with they have a sense of control over the rooms they are given instead of one partner feeling intimidated because the other partner has more of a say-so. When you change everything around and you’re giving them all that power, they’re more generous with their power. One of them will say "Maybe I should ask him about this." Or all of a sudden the husband is shopping for furniture and he says to his wife: "Sweetie, come with me. I found this beautiful credenza, but you’re better with color. "There is no big battle and in the end they’re sharing the credit.
So it’s always divide and conquer?
Not always. There is such a thing as an eclectic home. And if they know how to compromise and are open to showing each other what they like, it can work. She likes French and he likes mid-century modern. We figure out how to combine the styles or make it stronger in one room or another. He may make the den more modern but asks her to help with the colors, which makes his room blend with everything else that’s going on in her French part of the house.
What is a common trigger point for disagreement?
Men are really into their entertainment systems. Women are really threatened by entertainment systems. Women drag me into the room and say "Look at this! What am I supposed to do with six or seven speakers?!" And men come in very proud and show you their six remotes. But we figure something out. We put plants in front of speakers or do some sort of decorative covers for them. If we’re doing a major renovation we can hide the speakers in the walls or put them on the ceilings.
Or the La-Z-Boy. That can trigger an argument every time. He brings a La-Z-Boy into their new home. Well, she may just have to live with it. Get another La-Z-Boy to match it or reupholster it in a fabric they both like. These things can be worked out.
What else have you learned?
I try to limit their choices without imposing my style of them. Too many options upsets people. If we can bring it down to four colors, for instance, couples usually can decide and feel good about their choice.
And sometimes you have to work hard to make sure each partner "gets" something. You’re doing a kitchen and she wants a 48-inch Viking fridge and he thinks that's extravagant and unnecessary and is going on about "We don’t need something that big." So I say, "What if we get you that $1,500 coffeemaker that you were admiring." And all of a sudden it’s "OK, the fridge might not be a bad idea."
What are the biggest mistakes that couples make?
One of the biggest mistakes couples make is they don’t research what they like or figure out what their partner likes. They rush into it. They buy a home and they want it to be so beautiful. But I tell them they need to think it through. Five, six years from now you want to still like what you’ve done. So don’t just go with trends. Do your research and make decisions together. Make yourselves happy.
The other thing is budget. So many don’t think about the budget and they may not have the financial means to do everything they want. They don’t need to have a million dollars to make it look like a million bucks. I will help them with that. We can use cabinets that are one quality on the top and another quality on the bottom. We can relocate furniture, change legs or fabric. Sometimes the things they have are already lovely, but they just need to look at it differently. To do that they have to not rush and they have to know what they can spend and then stick with it.
What do you suggest that couples do before they meet with a designer?
It’s wonderful when couples do their homework. An educated consumer is the best consumer; I agree with that 100 percent. I am so happy when they come in with measurements and they’ve researched stove hoods or something like that. It’s wonderful. When they walk in with a folder of torn-out magazine pages it helps me understand who they are and where they come from and helps them understand each other, too. I can discern the style; maybe all the door styles they’ve picked all have something in common or they picked out similar shelving. It’s all very helpful.
One bit of advice I give couples is that their home is their castle and that they should treat it with respect and be discriminating about everything they put into it and anyone they hire to work on it, including the painters, contractor, everybody.
What about your own home. Have you had to make compromises?
Because I did everything in my apartment before my husband and I got married, he felt bad. Before we got engaged he says, "I can’t compete. I feel like a leech." And I’m like "If you feel that guilty I’ll appraise everything I’ve done for the apartment and you make sure you buy me a diamond for that amount. And then we’re even." And he did. Like everything, living together and decorating together is really all about finding a way to compromise and turning the little disagreements into a little joke. It’s a journey; have fun with it.
Anne Krueger has written for In Style, This Old House, Martha Stewart Living and The New York Times.
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