When Two Worlds Collide

Three couples describe how they made the blending of their different design tastes (almost) fireworks-free.

Christianna McCausland - October 2009

When Two Worlds Collide

Three couples describe how they made the blending of their different design tastes (almost) fireworks-free.

Christianna McCausland - October 2009

Stacey Phinney's mother was an antiques dealer, so she grew up around old things—but without ever developing a love for them. For Phinney, they were simply the tools of her mother's trade, not pieces to be savored or treasured. So when she renovated her Canton home, she filled it with contemporary furniture, designed everything to have clean, modern lines, and detailed the kitchen with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. It was an antique-free zone. Now Phinney is living in a painstakingly restored Victorian row house in Reservoir Hill that is filled with antiques. What happened? Marriage.

In October 2008, Phinney married her husband, Mike Phinney, whose home style was far more traditional than her own. Mike already owned the Reservoir Hill house, and throughout their courtship she helped him renovate it. Mike even received a historic preservation award from the Baltimore Heritage society, after Stacey nominated him. When he wired the basement to accommodate her kilns (she is a fused-glass artist), she knew this old house was going to one day be her home and she would need to jettison most of her modern style.

"Normally, I'd be more opinionated about it, but understandably, the architecture of our house is so strong, it's hard to go too contemporary," says the 43-year-old creative services director for Laureate Education. "I've succumbed a little bit. The house is what it is and it wouldn't have looked right to have some big modern art piece in a Victorian dining room."

Increasingly, couples are marrying later in life, marrying for a second time, or living together at various stages of life. So it's not uncommon for couples with diametrically opposed design aesthetics to try to arrive at a successful design compromise. But while finding Mr. or Mrs. Right is a dream come true, fitting your guy's hideous leather recliner or your gal's collection of tacky porcelain miniatures into your new home can require, well, some painful compromises.

For Phinney, the word "compromise" became a mantra. She and Mike agreed that her minimalist, Shaker-style bedroom set and Art Deco dining room furniture would look out of place in the circa 1895 home. Finally, she decided to leave her furniture in Canton and rented her home fully furnished. Though she admits it's been a battle at times, together she and Mike embarked on finding furniture for their new home they could both live with.

"It takes us a really long time to hunt and hunt until we find something we both agree on," she explains. Ebay has been tremendously helpful—Stacey will bookmark items that she likes in their account, then Mike peruses her choices until he finds something that dovetails with his taste, too. That was how the couple found their dining room chandelier and formal dining chairs.

There are places where Stacey's style shines through, especially in the eclectic accessories throughout the home and in the kitchen, where the couple chose a bold granite countertop that features bright swooshes of color and contemporary pendant lights. Or in the master bathroom with its Italian tile, glass shower, jacuzzi, and—a small victory for Stacey—brand new sconces.

"It's all about open communication, respect for the other person's opinion and taste, and, most definitely, compromise," says Phinney. "I always knew that the style of the house would inevitably be more antique, but I do think you should talk about it before you move in together so there are no surprises and no one's feelings are hurt."

According to Lou and Bruce Stewart, co-authors of Your Way Home: The Psychology of Place Inside and Out, couples moving in together should, "address the issue of sharing space rather than claiming space."

"Sit down before the moving date and plan the bedroom design first," the Stewarts explain in an e-mail interview. "All too often, couples will address their bedroom last, which can be detrimental to a smooth transition. By creating their bedroom as a sanctuary, couples have a more harmonious foundation at the beginning of their lives together."

Much of moving in together is about managing expectations and finding the common ground. Start by flipping through interior design magazines and try to find joint inspiration. Focus on what you share in terms of aesthetic taste and build from there, rather than dwelling on your differences. If all else fails, head for neutral territory—literally: Using a neutral color base for a home provides a good canvas for each person to express him and herself through bright and unusual accents.

When Mary Ellen Chambers, 50, married Werner Mueller, 63, in 2001, both had lived full lives and had full homes. Her Rodgers Forge place had a number of antiques (her parents owned antiques stores) and his Bolton Hill house was brimming with sleek Italian leather sofas and Turkish rugs. Luckily, the 4,000-square-foot house gave them room to express both their tastes. As the home was still being renovated—Mueller, an architect, had been working on it as a hobby for more than 20 years—there were opportunities for Chambers to put her aesthetic stamp on the bones of the house.

Mueller and Chambers finished the third floor of the house as a complete apartment that can be used as a guest quarters. This proved an ideal place for Chambers's Rodgers Forge furnishings, while many of Mueller's contemporary pieces moved to his studio on the first floor.

"The idea was to create a third floor that was uniquely Mary Ellen, a first floor that was uniquely me, and a second floor where we would both have our comfort zone," explains Mueller.

The second floor is the couple's main living space, an open floor plan area where their tastes combine. Some of her favorite antiques, like a rosewood desk and a few paintings, are sprinkled throughout the house. Mueller's Turkish and Moroccan rugs give the rooms a warm, organic feel that is enhanced by the couple's mutual collection of plants and books, as well as oddities they collect together on hikes, like feathers and snake skins.

After melding their current things together, the couple set out to find things that they both enjoyed. Trolling through auctions they picked up treasures like a 16th-century chest.

"The pieces we bought together that form the nucleus of the second floor were special events, events that are about us being together," says Mueller.

The biggest compromise was the living room sofa; Chambers was not a fan of Mueller's modern leather ones, which were relegated to his studio and replaced by a contemporary Italian couch in a soft, neutral upholstery. Similarly, Mueller didn't know where to put Chambers's large, antique stove. It ended up fitting perfectly in the third floor bedroom, where it has found a new purpose as a storage cabinet.

Many things the couple created together. For example, they designed and built a bookshelf on the third floor that runs the course of an entire wall. "There's an integration of styles, and also labor, that pulls the whole house together," says Chambers.

"Combining our furnishings was really easy, and I liken it to Werner's philosophy as an architect," says Chambers. "If you have a historic building and want to expand it, you want to use a contemporary solution to create contrast and tension." Rather than copy a historic style, the couple married the newer pieces to the older, the contemporary to the antique. And now the perfectly blended home serves as a metaphor for their blended lives.

John and Donna Easton married late in life and moved from their respective homes—he from a condominium in Arlington, VA., she from a townhouse in Cockeysville—first to a large Homeland house, then to a slightly smaller, less maintenance-intensive one in Lutherville. Though John's style is more contemporary than Donna's, luckily, their tastes were similar. Their design challenge was not a matter of clashing taste, it was figuring out whose furniture to keep and whose to jettison when moving into tighter quarters.

First, the couple took pictures of their existing places, then looked at the new spaces and how they could bring things together based on color, proportion, and style.

"Don't think in terms of room collections," Donna recommends. "Look at them as accent pieces that you can break up and use to complement other spaces."

They also used a professional, Curtis Cummings, senior designer at Papier Interiors in Timonium, to help.

"If you hire an interior designer, it takes the emotions away from your furnishings and objects and puts a more logical perspective on where things belong and what fits best for the space, not where it's always been in the person's old home," Cummings explains.

In the Lutherville home, Cummings focused on making each room look new to the homeowners by replacing the first thing they saw when they entered a room with something new and special, then filling in with their existing belongings. For example, in the living room, the secretary that belonged to Donna's grandparents and John's old leather chair reside nicely with new accent chairs and a cream damask sofa.

Donna's dining room set wasn't quite right for the space, with its dramatic 19-foot ceilings. The couple opted for a "new" antique dining set and large chandelier (necessitated by the high ceiling). In the end, the new pieces are a better complement to the couple's collection of silver pieces, and the old dining set got a second life in the basement as a conference table in Donna's home office.

"We never had a family room before, so this room was of particular interest to us," says Donna of the cozy den off the kitchen. "John got this rug years ago in Kazakhstan and it became the basis of everything. It's interesting because the rug is very primitive but it lends itself well to very Tuscan colors."

The Eastons' new house is small, so they gave away at least 30 percent of their belongings to young family members happy for the donations. "Be bold about what you can jettison," Donna advises. "They're only things, after all." Now they enjoy filling the house with new things they collect on their many travels together.

Still, there are some special things, like artwork and family antiques, that John and Donna continue to cherish from their lives apart and bring into their lives together. "Understand the things that are important to hold onto," she says. "Other things I like a lot, but they're negotiable."

Sounds like good relationship advice, too.

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