10 Tips for Harmonious Design
Focus on key rooms
Rome wasn’t built in a day, says design consultant Davis Remignanti. And merging two households’ worth of furnishings into a compatible whole isn’t going to happen overnight either. So why not remove the pressure from yourselves and make decorating your new shared space a much more relaxed and enjoyable experience, he says. Then there will be fewer chances for stress-induced emotional blowups. "This is an opportunity to learn about each other and share what you love," he says. "It’s about the bigger picture—the start of your life together. Take your time."
To lower the stress level, couples should consider choosing one or two rooms to focus on, designers say. Pick the rooms where you spend the most time or that you care most about. For many couples, the bedroom will be the first private space they tackle and the living room the first more public space.
Whether choosing new furnishings or trying to figure out what the heck somebody sees in a certain item, be aware of underlying emotions, says Remignanti. "You may trample his feelings if you trash his well-worn recliner—a beloved hand-me-down from Dad," he says. Or you may seriously offend her if you question her taste. Even the look on your face can say loud and clear what you think of something, says interior designer Jayne Pelosi.
When, at the wife’s request, Pelosi brought some contemporary abstract artwork to a young couples’ home for approval, the husband gazed at the prints with an expression bordering on repulsion. "He muttered ‘Why do you like these?’ and the wife immediately became defensive and blurted out several intellectual reasons why modern art is important," says Pelosi, who owns Boston-based Renaissance Design. She delicately suggested that, unknowingly, the husband had asked a trick question. "The bottom line is we love what we love because we love it. There is no right or wrong answer. I counsel my couples' clients not to ask their honeys to explain. Taste is highly personal and often idiosyncratic."
Buy something together
"I tell couples to invest in a couple of new pieces they both love," says Sarit Catz, an interior designer in Short Hills, N.J. "After all, they're investing in their relationship." Maybe it’s a new queen-size bed or a comfy couch to snuggle up on. It’s something that’s not his or hers, but "theirs."
Purge a little
If either party truly hates an item, get rid of it. You don't want your new love to simmer with hostility every time he or she walks into your home, says Catz. What if you can’t bear to part with the offensive item? Catz says to put it in storage for a while to see if its hideousness declines. If you’re lucky, you’ll both forget you even have it. If worst comes to worst and the hated item has strong sentimental value, get creative, says Regimnanti: "Give it a corner in the bedroom if it’s a ‘no’ for the living room." Or suggest re-covering the item so that it’s less hand-me-down and more the couple’s combined style.
Compromise on color
It doesn’t have to be a black-and-white world. If she must have a pink room, try a wine. If he must have brown couch, try a cafe au lait tone. When it comes to color choices for everything from walls to window treatments there is middle ground.
Sketch a style
Start collecting magazine photos of rooms and pieces of furniture, clippings, fabric samples and color chips that you both like and keep them in a sketch- or scrapbook. Over time your taste will develop and you’ll have a handy reference guide to your own signature family style.
Mix it up
Just because X, Y and Z items have always been together, doesn't mean they always have to be, especially since your partner may have his or her favorite X's, Y's and Z's, too. Try things in different rooms. Be open-minded. Move things around and live with it for a while. "Anything grouped on a wall can be an interesting display for very little money," says designer Angela Beach, owner of Beachwood Designs in Southern California. This can be an inexpensive way to combine and showcase a bit of each partner’s family history, be it vintage family watches or spoons, quilts or family photos.
Rather than sticking to set style categories
(country, contemporary, traditional, mid-century, etc.) create an interesting mix and you'll probably be able to find a place for most if not all of each person’s favorite pieces, says Catz. The design trend right now is to make a space yours, make it personal. It’s not so much about what’s hot; it’s about what you do with what you’ve got and what it says about you.
Furniture stores such as Storehouse let you take home furniture, even rugs, for a few trial days. That takes the pressure off and gives couples a chance to see how something works (or doesn’t) in their space. This evens the balance of power, too, for the couple where one person is the visionary and the other person can’t commit until they really see, feel, or sit on an item. Try it in the store and try it at home. Or try it virtually. HGTV.com’s room planner lets you see what different room arrangements would look like, and other sites, such as Furniture.com, let you check out furniture options and styles and build a room together. Some even let you buy the exact furniture that you’ve used in your online room.
Stick to a budget
Issues around money are often a hot spot in marriages and it’s no different when it comes to decorating. Couples will avoid problems if they are realistic in setting spending limits that both people are comfortable with and work within them, says Remignanti. Your budget helps you determine what to save up for or buy first, he says. He suggests that you ask yourself as you shop: Will this be your "forever" dining room or just something to live with until you’re in a larger place? "Saving for a better selection is an option, too," he says. "While you’d love a sleek new armoire for the TV right now, how will it look if you’re sitting on a dorm-room futon? You have to budget for the entire room."
Designers have all sorts of horror stories about what happens when a couple doesn’t agree, upfront, on a budget. "I had one couple where the wife would have me write two contracts," says Shane Teegardin, an interior designer at Darleen’s in Naperville, Ill. "There was one contract that the husband saw and one that she paid. Her purchases were always more expensive than what he would let her spend."
Anne Krueger is the editor of HGTV.com's Decorating newsletter. She has written for In Style, This Old House, Martha Stewart Living and The New York Times.