Decorators share thoughts on marrying two tastes

Couples can learn to keep their cool while combining disparate visions

October 12, 2003|By Claire Whitcomb | Claire Whitcomb,Universal Press Syndicate

Pat Ross was used to buying a can of paint without consulting anyone other than her inner decorator. She was secure in her taste. After all, she'd owned an American country shop on Madison Avenue and written a popular stylebook, Formal Country. Then she met Ken McGraw, a businessman as comfortable talking about wallpaper as Wall Street. He frequented antiques shops on his lunch hour and carried fabric swatches in his briefcase.

The two fell in love but, alas, their tastes were hard to marry. He liked things woodsy and formal. She liked things bright and light-hearted.

Fortunately, both learned to decorate together, an experience that informs Ross' latest book, Home Nesting Basics (6th Avenue Books, $19.95). In it she covers focal points, floor plans, color schemes -- and "the gentle art of compromise." She begins her chapter on "Quick Fixes for Decorating Conflicts" with a quiz for couples that leaves no pillow unturned. It inquires about whether a partner likes to set up an exercise bike near the TV, throw large cocktail parties or make the bed as soon as he or she gets out of it.

It assesses color preferences, shopping habits and closet usage. ("Do you drop your clothes on the floor and hope that somebody else picks them up?") When all hidden differences have been aired, Ross recommends sitting down and thoroughly discussing the three most common sources of conflict: the TV, the style of window treatments and the style and amount of decorative pillows.

But taste isn't the only matter to consider.

"A lot of couples don't talk about money," Ross cautions. She stresses the importance of agreeing on a budget -- and deciding who will keep track of expenses -- before undertaking any joint decorating project.

Once the shopping actually begins, Ross advises heading off unforeseen taste differences by trying out a decorating scheme before implementing it. Ask for several small carpet samples so you can get a sense of what a proper rug will be like. Invest in a yard of fabric and live with it for a full week before you decide to recover the sofa or fashion the curtains.

If you're planning to paint, buy the smallest can of paint possible. Then paint a 3-foot-wide sample on the room's sunniest wall and another similarly sized sample on the room's darkest wall. You may need to prime the wall first or do two coats to get a true sense of the color.

And if you're only planning to use the fabric for a throw pillow, wrap the sample around an existing pillow.

"Prop the mock pillow in place and leave the room," Ross advises. "Re-enter and check out your 'new' pillow as though seeing it for the first time."

If you're interested in reading more about love and decorating, pick up Our Place: Improve Your Home, Improve Your Relationship by Suzy Chiazarri (Watson-Guptill, $29.95).

Chiazarri, a British holistic interior designer and stress consultant, deals not only with tips for negotiating specific decorating decisions, but with the larger meaning of home.

She points out that if you enter a house and immediately see a desk in the hall, it's probably a sign that you're in the house of work-oriented couple. If, on the other hand, you instantly find yourself in a kitchen or dining area, meals and food are most likely the focus of the inhabitants.

A home, Chiazarri explains, mirrors "the way you see yourselves as a couple and what you want from your relationship." To check out your own home's messages, tour it as if you were a stranger. Is the living room dominated by a specific hobby or acres of CDs? If so, it might reveal "the presence of one person more than the other," according to Chiazarri.

A little-used kitchen could indicate the homeowners place "little importance on relationships." And a large formal dining room might signal "a family where everyone knows their place." If you accept the fact that a home is a Rorschach test of personality, then it's hard to ignore a corollary conclusion: If you want to live a certain kind of life, the place to begin it is at your front door.

Just talk to your significant other before you rip off the wallpaper.

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