Few marital dust-ups over décor actually end in divorce. But interior decorators frankly acknowledge that scuffles are so common that marriage counseling services could have its own line in the standard design contract.
It all came down to a coffee table.
On an otherwise normal fall day about 10 years ago, DD Allen, the fashionable New York designer, was showing a married couple, whose apartment she was redoing, some Japanese furniture at Naga Antiques on the Upper East Side.
“Such a Zen space,” she recalled wryly.
A tension between the two, which Allen had noticed earlier, started to mount. They began to bicker, then quarrel, then fight. Then it turned into a no-holds-barred meltdown right out of “War of the Roses.”
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“It got really ugly,” Allen said. “We were looking at this coffee table, and suddenly it became the symbol of everything that was wrong between them. We were just talking about where it would go and whether it would work, but it became like, ‘If you think that, you don’t understand anything about me.’ “
Luckily, there was no china handy. Finally, the screaming match subsided and the couple stormed off in different directions. A few days went by. Then, Allen said, “We got a call from the husband wanting to resell all the furniture.”
Few marital dust-ups over décor actually end in divorce. But as Allen and her peers frankly acknowledge, such scuffles are so common that marriage counseling services could have its own line in the standard design contract. Designers have rockier psychological issues to contend with than do most client-based professionals simply because they effect transformations that — for all the plaster and wallpaper that go into them — can get almost as personal as psychoanalysis.
But help may be on the way. An architectural designer in Round Top, Texas, Christopher Travis, who has long given a kind of personality test to his clients in an effort to probe and avoid these collisions, is planning to roll out a software version of his tool in December. For his trademarked product, which is called Truehome and is currently a thick sheaf of paperwork, Travis’ client couples answer a long list of questions that are intended to expose deep-seated domestic preferences that they may not even be aware of.
“It’s about how to reduce friction,” Travis said of the software, which he hopes to license to other design professionals. “I ask them, where in your home do you find your spouse particularly irritating? It’s easier to remodel houses than people.” Frequently, he said, the solution is just some personal space that they can call their own. “I give a lot of guys man-caves,” he said. “But we’ve also found that there’s a huge desire for women-caves.”
Whether Truehome will catch on is anyone’s guess, but what is clear is no designer, even the most respected, is immune to the problem it addresses. Mario Buatta, Victoria Hagan, Robert Couturier, Lee Mindel — they’ve all seen their share of couples’ spats.
“You’re spending so much time with these people in their homes — you hear everything,” Buatta said. “They can disagree over the simplest things, a fabric or a wallpaper or a bill. If you’re smart you never take sides. I leave the room and let them square things off.”
As Couturier observed, “If the man and the woman want the same things, it’s fine; it’s when they want different things that it gets bad. You know, maybe the woman wants a passport into society, and the husband wants a house to live in. I’ve witnessed battles where you think they’re going to divorce! You just sit there, saying, ‘Please God, take me.’ “
Daniel Sachs, another Manhattan designer, knows well the fidgety feeling Couturier describes. “I’ve sat through things that are so shockingly embarrassing you wouldn’t believe it,” Sachs said. “We did a client who in the middle of the meeting just went off on her husband, accusing him of all kinds of things, having been with prostitutes, as though no one was in the room.”
What’s striking, designers say, is that the topics that anger people often come out of left field. Sure, money is a constant issue, as are control and personal space. But beyond that, couples will lock horns over matters that neither of them could have foreseen — the color of a room, the placement of a door, the style of a drinking glass.
Hagan, whose clients include many of the nation’s most wealthy Type A’s, noted, “It can be very emotional, and design is so subjective to begin with. Who’s right? And a lot of times, people can be in very successful fields and never have gone through a creative process.”
Several designers who were asked about client discord said they have lucked out and seen very little tension — a claim at which other designers snort in derision. But if some designers say they have had good fortune in this regard, others say the opposite. All told, said Joe Nahem, of Fox-Nahem Design in New York, “My job is 35 percent marriage counselor. There are so many layers of psychology involved.”
He continued: “Even when my own spouse and I were building a house, he said, ‘I don’t care how many best-designer lists you’ve been on — this is my house, too.”‘
Worse, these settings are tailor-made for triangulation. The classic situation: After a designer meets a couple, the man will pull the designer aside to insist he keep the costs down and to let him know if his wife starts going over budget. Once the man is out of earshot, the wife will tell the designer not to worry about money, that she will take care of it. It may not be “The Lady or The Tiger” — but which door do you choose? “I have more divorce disaster stories than anything else, I think,” Sachs said. His worst story, from the early years of his practice, featured an architect and his wealthy wife.
“We set out an agenda and a budget they liked, and we met to talk about it,” Sachs said. “But he kept hammering us down on the price, and I kept telling him, ‘Well, we can do it, but it will be harder with a small budget.’ And he seemed really angry about it for whatever reason. Then later, when I was talking just to her, she said, ‘Don’t worry about him, I’m the one who pays the bills.’ Then he calls me up later and tells me how offended he was that I described his budget as ‘small.’ It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to figure that one out.” Sachs continued with the project, crossing his fingers that the drama was over. It was not. “We start on the project, and they were still living there. Every day this guy would be there, crazily distraught and smoking, with dark eyes and frazzled hair, accusing me of this and that, and trying to play everyone off each other, complaining about his wife to me, about me to my partner, and so on. Then she had us working on her side, and she’d do things just to antagonize him — she’d make choices she knew he’d hate. We were caught in the middle.”
Neither the project, nor the marriage, ended well, Sachs said.
What was so frustrating about the episode, he said, was not just the furtive, passive-aggressive behavior, but the illogic of it all. It is a syndrome that Travis, the developer of the Truehome software, understands.
“The thing is, even if you design what they want they don’t like it,” said Travis. “I’ve learned that people lie about themselves, and that they don’t really know what other people are like. They just have incredibly big blind spots. I had one client who was complaining about how not neat her husband was, and I went over to their house to see. Nine-tenths of the stuff is hers, and his stuff is neat as a pin.”
The Truehome test is designed to expose these blind spots from the start, Travis said. Some common conflicts are when one partner wants a pragmatic house and the other wants a dream, or when one really does not want to spend money but the other does. (The Truehome Web site, truehome.net, will offer a basic version of the test for free, while more intensive versions will range from $19.95 to $200.)
Of course, designers have also developed their own tools for managing client discord.
A little humor can help. “I had a couple in here yesterday,” Hagan said, “and he was saying, ‘I really love color. What about a bright, acid-green leather sofa?’ I didn’t even have to react, because his wife said, ‘Yeah, with your next wife.’ So we all played this game of poker with color, and by the end of it, they’d come up with something they were psyched about.”
Mindel added, “A lot of conflict can come out of the way people communicate, so we go to a lot of trouble and even expense to be clear. A husband’s definition of traditional could be the wife’s definition of contemporary.”
Mindel now also prohibits BlackBerrys at meetings — to prevent miscommunication through distraction.
Of course, designers must also be careful not to worsen the problem. Nahem said that when he works with classic, two-job, alpha couples, he can have days when he spends more time with each of them than they do each other.
“One time, I’d met with the wife to go over some plans,” he said, “and then later, I was going over them with the husband, and explaining, ‘Well, your wife wants the two kids to go into this one bedroom to make room for the baby.’ And he said, ‘What baby?’ “
“Yeah,” Nahem said, shaking his head. “I was like, ‘Oops!’ “