It's been more than two years since Donna Robb moved from the UAE back to England with her family. Slowly, the family home in rural Lancashire that she, her husband and two children settled into is taking shape. All except one space. "It's the office, which is in a small outbuilding and where we both spend a lot of time. It's chaos; unopened removals boxes; piles of papers; a PC on a too-small writing table that actually belongs in the bedroom. I hate it."
The problem is, Robb and her husband John simply can't agree on how to decorate and furnish their home office: "He wants a big, solid, wooden executive desk, a padded leather chair and filing cabinets. I'd just rather have a simple airy space with a glass trestle-style table and floating shelves than a hideous 'office away from the office' set-up." In any partnership, issues erupt that are weighty and significant. The trouble is, decorating isn't supposed to be one of them. However, when two differing tastes are at loggerheads conflicts aren't easy to solve. Where is the middle ground when one half of a couple gets a kick out of velvet portraits of Elvis and the other is into French farmhouse-style?
"Generally my clients fall into three camps," says the interior architect Kamal Helou of the Dubai-based Carpe Diem. "There are those clients who have full reign over everything and their partner doesn't mind (or doesn't have any choice in what they would like). Then there are those ladies whose husbands say, 'Do what you like but don't touch my office/garage/games room.'" (For one client, he designed a garage complete with chandelier and flat-screen TV to keep his Ferraris company, featured in House&Home on July 3.)
"The most difficult client situations," says Helou, "are those in which the husband is paying the bills and wants to approve all the choices. It can be a real headache and as a designer you are having to play counsellor and organise trade-offs, which can be wearing and very time-consuming." Helou says that, like most things in a marriage, designing a home to please everyone is about compromise. "I find it's the big-ticket items that men have more of an interest in: sofas, beds - and, increasingly, kitchens. As a designer I'm more interested in spaces than the finishing touches and guys understand that too. I often find that if the male is happy with the strong shapes and muted colours that make up the basic feel of a room and with the overall use of space, he is quite content for his partner to do her own thing and soften the look with her taste in cushions, throws and decorative items - and that works well. I have yet to meet a man who will quibble over accessories," he says.
Mimi Shakhashir walked into what would be many a woman's worst interior nightmare when she arrived in Dubai from her home in London six years ago. Having already moved several months before, her husband had chosen a house and forged on with decorating it - sofas with strong masculine lines, oversized chairs - even a selection of gaming machines plus the prerequisite pool table for his boys' nights in.
Shakhashir didn't get mad, however. She just got on with finishing the job. "To be honest I thought it was funny, but in the same way that I often wear cargo pants with a pretty embroidered shirt, I just set about feminising the space with all my treasures [Shakhashir is the co-owner of the interior boutique O'de Rose] from around the world; it's eclectic but it works - it's very us. "Our home is about entertaining - and all generations get a kick out of the boys' toys around the place; it's not difficult to put soft touches into a room and you can change the complete ambiance in a few minutes by swapping around accessories such as cushions."
So important has the male/female perspective on design become to the interiors business that the US network HGTV commissioned five series of Designing for the Sexes, a makeover show where couples would thrash out their sartorial grievances and, with the help of an interior designer, create a mutually harmonious space. In almost every episode it became apparent that most men have different criteria when it comes to picking furniture. Women are more likely to look at furniture and see something that is "stunning" or "goes perfectly with the antique chest in the living room". Men, on the other hand, look at furniture and immediately get to the bottom line: "That is the most uncomfortable sofa I've ever sat on. I don't care how good you think it looks."
Rather than dreading a male perspective when it comes to an interiors project, however, many designers infinitely prefer it: "Male clients are far easier to work with," declares the Dubai-based interior designer Julia Dempster. "They are less emotional than women and open to suggestion and ultimately, they just want the job done, whereas women pick over every little detail." Not surprisingly then, Dempster has taken on several projects where the male half of the couple chooses everything. "Generally, though, these clients are very educated about design and they rule the roost at home," she explains. "They love their cinemas, their gyms and their dressing rooms."
Rather than play it safe, Dempster says, these men are far more likely to go for colour than their partners and they're more willing to be adventurous: "For instance, I'm just doing a house where the husband really wants a pool table but to make it a little more funky it is made from purple instead of green baize to fit in with the room's stylish surroundings - and that pleases his wife." In a February 2008, a (US) National Association of Home Builders study said that speciality spaces were becoming more important as homeowners set about re-modelling projects and embarking on new builds. Rooms for him and her as well as spaces such as project rooms for children or living areas for adult children and ageing parents - all who want some say on how their space feels and looks.
This is nothing new of course. In Victorian times, wealthy households thrived on gender-specific spaces such as sewing and smoking rooms - and century and a half later designers are seeing this more specific division of space as a way to please everyone. A new trend in master bathrooms, for example, is for completely separate spaces instead of the traditional double-sink vanity. "Women like a place for their makeup and electric appliances that is apart from her partner's area. Men then have their own area - even perhaps their own bathrooms - with state-of-the-art showers and maybe a TV," says Dempster.
Other combination spaces, such as a large master bedroom closet or dressing room, are increasingly gender specific thanks to companies such as the Dubai-based Creative Closets which will customise spaces for robes, tie and belt holders and sporting equipment. Women may prefer more shoe cubbies, a jewellery insert and display cabinets for handbags. Sometimes the seating solutions chosen for a room hint at who is going to spend the most time there. Women love sofas, says Helou. They like to curl up and get comfy. But the "man chair", which may be a recliner or an oversized chair and ottoman, signals this is a guy space.
At the cutting edge of the UAE's design world, Laith Abdul Hadi is not merely aware of the current trend of a male/female blend of interiors - he's positively inspired by it: "I am very influenced by designers like Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood who have done the whole 'Angels and Demons' masculine/feminine thread throughout their work and I think it's important rooms have a split personality to be interesting."
He adds that the women buying at his Dubai interiors boutique, Burlesque, are into the "eccentricities and the one-off pieces" and the men are looking for stronger design statements. "Men are definitely more interested now in design than they were even a decade ago. They are asking questions and interested in the whole process. "Even though we are very avant-garde, they realise that you don't have to buy into a whole look - you can cherry-pick a softer piece here to lighten up that Natuzzi leather sofa or a studded leather bench (the red and black leather version would fit perfectly with a Chinoiserie-inspired interior) to add strong interest to softer lines."
Hadi reports that his Japanese fabrics appeal equally to style-savvy couples: at first glance red roses riot across a black background and look very feminine - but get closer and there are small skulls and crossbones dotted throughout the design too. "At this extreme, the male/female divide becomes very glamorous and dramatic. "I don't know any man who could achieve the perfect gender balance of a home or a room on his own, however," admits Hadi. "Even the most design-conscious man needs a woman's touch to make a house into a home."
Back at the Robbs', they've decided to delay making any decisions on the home office until they have time to research together to find common ground: "In other mutually important rooms of the house we made a list of what we both wanted and had a pact that neither of us was allowed to buy without the other's consent," says Robb. "It means that we didn't end up making impulse buys and, although the process took longer, it was actually more fun. I guess, like all partnerships, neither of us is as good alone as we are together."