Stephen Saint-Onge has done his share of couples counseling.
"Couples will stop me on the street and ask for advice for their homes," says the designer and author of No Place Like Home: Tips & Techniques for Real Family-Friendly Home Design (Wiley, $19.99), "because they know I understand what issues they're facing."
His advice? Keep communication open. And if all else fails, brace yourself to accept your spouse's favorite ugly chair.
Saint-Onge gave us his pointers for keeping in sync while designing your first place together.
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Question: What's most important for couples to remember when planning a first home together?
Answer: It is going to be a representation of who they are for the first time — as a couple — not just one over the other but a home that should truly capture what they are all about as a family. Like in any part of the relationship overall, communication is key, and feeling like you can vocalize what you are hoping for should be OK too.
Q: What's the best way to start figuring out a style that works for both partners?
A: If you have the luxury of time, if you are not moving in tomorrow, I'm all about creating your own look-book together. Simply put, you create a journal or sketchbook that gathers all the things that represent your home style. Start gathering images from magazines, newspapers or advertisements. Maybe a friend's house has a great solution for storage, and you snap a picture of it to paste into your book. The point is to have a record of what you like. The book will start to define your style.
And I do think using homes in films is key ... as (a way) to educate yourselves about design. For example, the film The Holiday, with Kate Winslet, has several great houses in it. One style is a cottage in the English countryside, while the other house featured is a lush, modern mansion in the Hollywood hills. You can watch that film and gain insight into various styles and moods. See what each of you is responding to.
Q: How do you combine two apartments' worth of stuff into one coherent whole?
A: One of the biggest issues with most homes in America is that we have too much stuff. So be proactive before you start combining. It's not about being personal — it's about the task at hand, figuring out which sofa to bring into the new space, what dining room furniture works. You do not want to have to be standing in a room full of both your furniture and stuff in your new home and then have to start paring down.
Q: Is the overall look most important, or does the "nicest" or best quality furniture automatically win out?
A: Certainly if something is rundown or shabby, it is probably best to go with the better option that will last longer. Also, if both options for a sofa or chairs are not great, maybe you sell both and pool the money from the sale into the new sofa. Sometimes it is better to have a blank spot in the new room instead of moving something you do not feel good about.
Q: Is it fair to exclude something your partner loves just because it's hideous?
A: I think that you need to have personal items that are part of your personal history as part of your home. ... larger pieces can be more of an issue if the couple does not agree. Depending on the size of the home you are moving into, a fun thing to offer up is that each of you gets a space that will be all your own, style-wise. If you don't have extra space, it may be just putting the thing in the room and letting it speak for itself over time. Might be a battle not worth choosing. It may become less of a focal point of discussion and debate if it becomes obvious that it is wrong for the space. You might find that it might just go away.