R5 Home Relationships

Want to become an interior designer? Study marriage counseling.

He, She, and The Art of Dodging Flying Chairs

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There’s much more to helping design a home than finding dapper drapes, sumptuous sofas, and fancy faucets. There’s navigating the sometimes treacherous waters of a marriage.

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Text by Libby Cameron • Illustration by Marilena Perilli

 

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A successful marriage is an edifice that must be rebuilt every day,” French author André Maurois wrote. From what I’ve experienced, it might be more accurate to say that rebuilding that edifice—and decorating it—without filing for divorce is a sign of a successful union.

 

In many cases, interior designers are the contractors of choice for creating the well appointed home, as well as helping to navigate the minefield of choices that can divide and conquer even the most solid marriages. When it comes to playing marriage counselor, I admit that I am practicing without a license. It is a de facto role, one inherited by any professional so ensnared in the workings of the home, the most personal and intimate of places. Often, it’s best to let the couple slug it out themselves, take a step back, and hope to blend in with the Zoffany wallpaper and avoid any bloodshed.

 

Yet it’s not unlikely for the designer to be pulled into the fray. Often, I am asked by one spouse to be the bearer of bad news to the other spouse. One client, for example, recently called with a request: “I’d like you to say that you don’t believe my wife would really want that in our bedroom.” It doesn’t matter that, if consulted, I’d side with the spouse and grab the French armoire before it’s gone. I’m given my instructions, and pray that the messenger isn’t wounded—or worse.

 

With clients Mr. and Mrs. Y, I could count on calls from Mr. Y, worried that his wife’s spending was out of control and that the entire budget could be consumed in one fell swoop. He had reason to worry. One time Mrs. Y called and asked me to “just add another zero to his budget and say that you’re sure that’s what he told you. He won’t remember.” (She had her eye on a beautiful Besserabian rug and believed that she could not survive without it.) With this couple, I felt like a negotiator between sparring nations, appeasing him by reigning in reckless purchases and placating her with reassurances that her spouse wasn’t a controlling miser.

 

Not everyone learns from experience. Some of my clients are on their second and third marriages, which brings additional challenges. One client, with whom I have worked on several houses, is a newlywed for the third time. His current wife is quite different from her predecessors—much younger, feistier, and determined to get her way. In the past, he had had free reign in home-design decisions, but that conjugal right disappeared along with the summerhouse in the Adirondacks. Both he and the new missus have short fuses; their fights can be brutal and painful—and even more miserable for me. There’s little worse than mediating a war over chairs, curtains, or the color of the walls. Such battles usually have me praying that my office will call with a dire emergency that would justify a quick exit.

 

I was silently praying the time I met another couple, clients who bought a beautiful waterfront house in Oyster Bay, Long Island, at an outdoor furniture showroom on 59th Street. It didn’t take long to realize that there was a huge difference in how they envisioned filling the empty expanse of yard. She had images of multiple seating groups—by the pool, on the porches and the lawn, with tables of six scattered in the yard for entertaining. He was in the market for four chairs and two chaises by the pool, case closed. The divergence of opinion resulted in the wife’s full-blown temper tantrum, much to the horror of the nice young salesperson, who had started only two weeks prior. The wife stomped out of the store, leaving her husband, the salesperson, and me stunned.

 

Three days later, en route to the couple’s country house, the wife told me that after leaving the shop that day, she went to her favorite lingerie store because she knew “that was the only way I would get the furniture I want. Don’t you think that was clever of me?” she asked. It was, apparently, a rhetorical question.

 

Situations like these make me wonder what happened to the art of compromise. Or just talking. Not long ago, a client asked about the status of pieces for which I had gotten estimates; I had been waiting to get approvals and deposits from her husband. She didn’t think there would be a problem, reminding me, “You got the living room curtain approval finally, didn’t you?” Just the week before, I had received paperwork on window treatments with elaborate trims, special lining, and gilded cornices. Even I had sticker shock when the estimate came in. “I haven’t ever pouted that long, but I really wanted those curtains,” she confided. “I knew he would eventually give in!”

 

Research shows that finances are one of the top causes of divorce, so it isn’t surprising that it can be a source of contention in the design process, too. I have clients who request that I not share details of their spending with their spouses. “It came out of my own, separate account,” they’ll inevitably say, ending with “…and he just doesn’t need to know.” One client reassured me that husbands “just don’t have that visual ability that we do, and don’t understand that more is better. You can’t just have one of something.” There’s not even enough room on her end tables to place a glass of wine.

 

While I appreciate the confidence, there’s only so much I want to know about someone else’s marriage. For one homeowner, I had scheduled an appointment for my curtain maker, Frank, to measure the master-bedroom windows. Frank arrived at 11:30 in the morning and the housekeeper showed him upstairs. The lady of the house, well and awake, was still in bed, but allowed him access. The room was strewn with her clothes and underclothes, so the poor man had to walk around the bed and tiptoe about to avoid stepping on the pieces that were scattered about the floor, even leaning over her at times to access the window. She never budged. 

 

I’ve found that how a couple negotiates the intimate and intricate endeavor of decorating a house is indicative of their relationship as a whole. I’ve found that those who are of the same mind—or amicably strive to find a common ground even when it seems impossible—often do so in most areas of their lives. The respect those husbands and wives have for one another is palpable: they agree to disagree and eventually come to a decision that both can live with. In other cases, one (usually the woman) takes on the role of major decision-maker, with the other acknowledging that the shade of blue on the walls isn’t a top priority. In these cases, carte blanche decision-making is happily agreed upon.

 

And sometimes agreements are reached
—if you can call them that—in the saddest, most heartbreaking ways. Several years ago, I started working with a client whose mother had discriminating taste and beautiful houses. The prospect of decorating her own place was daunting and “Mummy” clearly was a huge force in the endeavor. I made an appointment to meet her and her husband to go antiquing in Connecticut one Saturday afternoon. Mr. Q, a controlling man, would not let his wife purchase anything unless he viewed it himself.

 

I left the house at 8:30 in the morning and drove an hour and a half to the town where I would meet my clients. More than an hour past our designated meeting time, I decided to call Mrs. Q’s cellphone to find out what time they expected to arrive. “Oh, I am so sorry that I didn’t call you,” she said. “We were on the highway heading north when my husband told me that I have no taste and he won’t like anything that I like anyway.” She started to sob. Suddenly, Mr. Q was on the phone, announcing that he hated everything that his wife had selected for their home thus far. “My mother-in-law dresses impeccably and her houses are beautiful. I just don’t understand why my wife makes our houses look like a tenement.” I hit the off-button on my cell phone. What was there left to say?

 

There’s a saying pertaining to family life: “You never know what goes on behind closed doors.” But that’s not entirely true. As a professional who works inside the home, I’m privy—or, in some cases, subjected—to life beyond the threshold. I may not always be able to help, but I can lend an ear—and make what’s behind those doors look fabulous.

 

Libby Cameron is the founder of and chief designer at her Larchmont-based firm, Libby Cameron, LLC. She has been published in House Beautiful, House & Garden, Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, and the New York Times. Cameron worked for Sister Parish at Parish-Hadley Associates in New York for 15 years. She is widely considered to be her last protégé.

 

 

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