A few years ago, a woman I know and highly admire was divorced. She had been married for many years to a medical doctor and her home was lovely, spacious and well designed in the French Country style. During her adjustment to single life, she sought my advice on becoming an interior designer as a new career. She certainly had the eye for fashion and beauty. However, I counseled her to continue in her profession as an accomplished concert violinist and teacher. She eventually began dating and found a wonderful man who proposed marriage. After she accepted, he expressed some concern about the style of her home and asked to see her bedroom. As his eyes scanned the very feminine room accessorized with her valuable collection of porcelain dolls, he was dismayed.
In a plaintive voice he asked, “Is there room somewhere here for a football?”
And so it goes. Men and women can’t get along without each other in life, but sometimes getting to a happy medium in a common, acceptable style in their shared domestic spaces can be a bit tricky. Although both genders enjoy visually pleasing, comfortable interiors with a touch of luxury, the interpretation and application of comfort and beauty often varies with each sex’s viewpoint.
In today’s politically correct world, we are reticent to label women’s spaces as feminine and men’s spaces as masculine, as though we are worried that offense might be taken —and perhaps sometimes it is. Yet the simple truth remains: men generally like different looks than do women. Their interests generally lean more toward things like sports and leisure recreation, developmental technology and their own careers. They tend to focus on one thing at a time and are typically frustrated when listening to a woman whose brain is wired to connect every topic—at the same time!
Women also are the connectors between people. Loving, serving and striving to help others become happy comes naturally to many women. This means that a woman’s ideal space is more touchy-feely, comforting, aesthetically lovely and perhaps softer; whereas men tend to gravitate toward hard surfaces, simple lines and heavier visual or tactile textures.
TIMES AND PEOPLE HAVE CHANGED
Now, the inevitable disclaimer: Of course women are now more interested in careers and developmental technology. Computers, PDAs, cell phones, iPODs and so on are an integral part of nearly everyone’s lives today—men and women, elderly and youth. Less often do women discuss the technological aspect of lives than men do, however. Rather, they learn the programs, apply them and then live life, secretly hoping their present gadgets and software will remain unchanged for as long as possible. Fewer women are concerned with the future aspects of technology; whereas with men, a techie gadget and new program constitute another big-boy toy where the next model is eagerly awaited.
As women have become comfortable with and excellent adaptors to the information age of technology, men also have changed. Many men are less threatened with roles or activities once relegated to women. Some men love to cook, many are adept at living clean and many more are passionately interested in interior design. Young fathers often feel no embarrassment as they push baby strollers and even change diapers—something that a generation ago would have been considered a betrayal to the male ego. Of these new men, Faith Popcorn, celebrated marketing expert, has attached the label mancipated. Of women, she has proclaimed them a part of a phenomena titled Eveolution.
As one who lived through the 1970s and 1980s women’s liberation movement as a young adult and tracked what its effects have been on society (hence, on my university students and their attitudes), I have observed that as a society, women no longer are threatened by men nor are they striving to be like men. To be fully feminine (girly) is celebrated. Perhaps all women really are princesses at heart.
Our culture has now reached a more open platform for women to express themselves. There are many ways for women to achieve success. Parallel with this new openness is the fact that an estimated 90 percent of all purchases in the United States are made by women. They hold most of the purse strings, and much of the funding they have earned themselves, as successful women startup businesses are taking place in unprecedented numbers. Women have evolved into confident, competent professionals.
This translates into the reality that women make most of the decisions concerning residential interior design. And the resulting dilemma here is whether they are fairly being considerate of a man’s point of view in spaces shared by both genders. Knowing this inevitability, I have often given this tongue-and-cheek advice to my introduction to interior design students: “Men, if your wife wants floral fabrics in her bedroom, you let her have her way. For if she feels more like a woman there, you can feel more like a man.”
There is usually a brief pause then an uproar of laughter as they realize that women really want to feel feminine, and in so doing they are often more congenial to male attentions in spaces that are pleasing to their feminine sides as opposed to environments that are stark, linear, modern and, well, masculine.
Is this a blanket statement? Perhaps, but as a general truth, I think it holds. You may find it true for your clientele, also.
FINDING MIDDLE GROUND
Where, then, is the middle ground where both sexes may happily co-exist? No doubt all design professionals have sometimes acted as liaison, negotiating between husband and wife to find style elements that satisfy each spouse. Understanding what each party desires—their wishes and style preferences—is the first step.
Important in the process is to listen carefully and take notes. Validate each person’s point of view with words such as, “I see your point,” or “I understand how you feel,” for example. Then begin the selection process with carefully considered materials, textures, colors, furnishings and treatments that will be agreeable to one party or the other, compromising and negotiating so that neither party feels short-changed.
If selections for the room’s background tend toward durable and unisex, then be flexible with other elements. Details and accessories can be of a softer look and large furnishings such as sofa, bedding and window treatments can be somewhere in the middle, appealing generally to both sides.
As a general rule, neutral colors that lean toward the desired color scheme are best for backgrounds. Brighter colors need to be individual choices—emotional response to color is a complex issue. Gentle curves rather than tight or busy circles are more palatable for men. Draperies with straight lines or slender diagonal lines in tie-backs with a straight valance or with a genteel curve is often acceptable to both parties.
Another key to success is to look at individual personalities, skills, professions, hobbies or leisure activities that will allow for a common theme that is held in value by both man and woman. Give praise liberally for common ground. Build bridges of communication where both can feel safe, secure, happy and as a team.
After completing the monumental task of making both clients happy, your next assignment is to find one room in the house that can be a man’s den and make it all his; and a room for the lady of the house that is her special place where she does things that are satisfying and fulfilling to her. The rule is, only that person gets to decide and the mate has no say, no criticism, and is fully supportive.
You, the professional, make this rule and the couple will be surprisingly more congenial with each other. If they do have this independent luxury, then the task of making spaces that they share a happy coexistence will be far easier—for everyone.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She has authored several books including Window Treatments, Un-derstanding Fabrics and Interiors: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.