Mixing Without Matching

By Lesley Myrick

How to merge design styles with a significant other

Last fall I taught a class at McLennan Community College about cultivating your aesthetic. Week after week a recurring concern echoed from the students: “Sure, I’m learning to embrace what my own design style is, but how do I make it work when my husband’s style is the complete opposite of mine?”

Others nodded in agreement, murmuring about clunky brown leather recliners, hunting trophies and other typically “masculine” things that did not go with their newly cultivated, often quite feminine, style. I could see the disappointment wash over their faces after all they’d done to discover their individual styles. How could they possibly design a home they loved when they were stuck living with furniture and decor that didn’t fit their ideal aesthetic but made their partners happy?

Marriage involves a lot of discussion, compromise and collaboration, and this goes for making decorating decisions too. But don’t think that if you’re not married, you’re off the hook. If you’re living with someone else — a significant other, partner, roommate, boyfriend, girlfriend, parent or child — you’re bound to encounter some stylistic conflict along your decorating journey.

My personal aesthetic leans quite eclectic, so I naturally embrace a mix of design styles, eras, colors and patterns. Being flexible and willing to expand beyond your own preferences to create a perfect custom design blend is a little easier to do when it’s your natural inclination, but it’s certainly achievable for anyone. The key? Finding your style together is all about layering furniture and decor in the right proportions.

You may have heard of the Pareto principle, commonly known as the 80/20 rule. It’s the observation that most things in life are not distributed evenly. For example, when it comes to our wardrobes, most people wear approximately 20 percent of their clothing 80 percent of the time.

I find this principle totally fascinating, and it translates well to interior design too. Here’s how: if 80 percent of a room is decorated in one dominant style, then the remaining 20 percent can be in a contrasting style and create a successful balance. If 80 percent of the architecture, furniture and decor in a home is masculine (for example, stronger design lines and darker colors), then 20 percent can be feminine (often visually lighter and curvier), and the two contrasting aesthetics will look like they belong together despite being quite different.

But here’s a heads-up: when you try to please everyone and get murky with design proportions — 20 percent in one style, 30 percent in another, 15 percent in another and so on — that’s when a room can spiral from a curated blend to a hot mess.

If you’re new to branching beyond one design style, then keep it simple and stick to what my pal Pareto teaches.

Although it might seem more equitable for each partner to get an equal balance of their preferred style, ultimately the best results come from a layered look that’s not equally distributed. A 50/50 split does not equal 100 percent design happiness.

While two contrasting styles can work together in the right proportions, finding common elements to tie the two styles together will result in an even more cohesive design. Do you love traditional accent chairs with a curved camel back? Perhaps you can find a streamlined sofa that has a soft rolled arm to echo the chair’s curve. Or maybe your ultra-modern coffee table can work with a traditional sofa, as long as the sofa has a graphic row of metallic nail heads across the bottom to complement the coffee table’s sleek finish and clean lines. Identical aesthetic preferences with a partner are not essential, but complementing each other’s taste is. And sometimes new pieces may be needed to bridge the gap between your two styles before things really click.

So, have there been times when my husband and I have been at odds with decorating choices? Sure. When he brought home a handsome mounted buck to hang, I was initially resistant. As a city girl, I didn’t think I was one who’d be into the “rugged outdoorsman” look in my home. But I learned to love Hector (once I named him I liked him a lot more) and the quirky mix he brought to our interior. In our shared home office space, strong and silent Hector sat above my husband’s black industrial desk opposite my white and bright workspace, and our office was a fantastic mix of dark and light, masculine and feminine, deer head and…me.

We’ve since separated our offices — no fault of Hector’s — and I surprisingly miss the unique edge that our space had thanks to my husband. Our design partnership resulted in a balanced mix of contrasting elements wherein the whole became greater than the sum of its parts. Don’t fret if you can’t stand your spouse’s snooze-worthy style. With the Pareto principle in your pocket, you might be pleasantly surprised where this collaborative decorating adventure takes you.

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