DECORATING A HOME WITH YOUR SPOUSE, says Dee Elms, is a lot like marriage itself. “It’s a process that involves a lot of listening and compromise. You also need to pick your battles.” Elms, a principal of Boston interior design firm Terrat Elms, should know: She and her husband, Doug Brown, have lived in three homes together and are about to begin renovations on their fourth, in Cambridge.
Selecting color schemes, fabrics, and furnishings is Elms’s business, but Brown, who works for a software company, is equally interested in the process. “We’re always tearing pages out of magazines that show things we like and sending each other links online,” says Elms.
Elms and Brown share a similar design aesthetic, but there are instances, of course, when they don’t agree, such as what color to paint a room or which sofa to buy. In such cases, says Brown, it sometimes helps to put the issue on the back burner. “Take some time off from discussing it,” he says. “Often when you come back together, either someone has changed their mind or they don’t really care about it anymore or someone has a new idea that seems good to both people.”
Dedham-based interior designer Christine Tuttle works frequently with couples who, like Elms and Brown, approach home design collaboratively. The old-fashioned sensibility that men made all the decisions about the exterior of a home while women focused on the interiors no longer applies, she says. “Increasingly, men have become dialed into home design on all levels as much as women.”
Most often, Tuttle says, the couples she works with already have some shared tastes. “It’s rare to find a couple where one is very contemporary and the other wants the house done in shabby chic,” she says. “When disagreements do occur, it’s about the details.”
In working with Ben and Angela Cavallo on the renovation of their Italianate Victorian in Dedham, Tuttle encouraged each spouse to recognize what was really important to the other. For Ben, it was the kitchen’s layout. “Ben is a total foodie; cooking is his hobby,” says Angela. “I was overwhelmed by all the options. So I stepped back and let him take over the design of the room, because he had a real vision of what it should be.”
The couple did consider the design of the powder room together. While Angela wanted bold colors and wow factor, Ben was intrigued by wall coverings made of maps and nautical charts. They found common ground when Tuttle came upon an aqua-hued Osborne & Little wallpaper patterned with gold foil stars. “Angela got the glamour and color that she wanted, and Ben got something interesting, too,” says Tuttle.
During the renovation of their 19th-century home in West Roxbury, a divide-and-conquer approach worked for Rachel Reider and her husband, Jamie Harper. The ambitious project involved not only major cosmetic work but also a redesign of the layout and all new plumbing and electrical systems. Reider, an interior designer, focused on creating the layout and selecting materials and finishes, while Harper took charge of the home’s electrical and technological components. The couple did consult each other on most decisions, looking for answers they both could live with. While Harper had no problem with Reider’s choice of wall colors, he vetoed an oversize zebra-hide ottoman she’d picked out. Their compromise? A durable ottoman in snakeskin-print leather and smaller scale chair in zebra.
Even if you’re committed to negotiating your differences, sometimes in nest-building, as in marriage, one partner may simply have to cave to make the other happy. “There should be non-negotiables. If someone loves a particular chair or they want a steam shower, there should be a way to make it work,” says Tuttle. “You just need to be creative and work together.”
Designers offer this advice for collaborating with your mate.
Get a clear picture of what you want
It can be hard to verbalize design concepts, so Dee Elms recommends collecting images of things you like. “Pointing to a photo and saying, ‘See, this is the stone vanity top I like,’ and ‘This is how I want to hang the sconces’ really helps communication.”
Don’t be hasty
“With two people working on a project there are a lot of ideas,” says Christine Tuttle. “Diligently going through the process takes time. Though it may be tempting, you will regret rushing into decisions.”
Make it memorable
Enjoy the process and select items that are touchstones for you both, says Rachel Reider, who recommends using pieces that recall experiences shared as a couple. “A painting my husband and I got in celebration of my 30th birthday hangs in our dining room; it really brings meaning to the space.”
Jaci Conry is regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.