Gender continues to influence residential design, but not necessarily in the conventional or stereotypical ways. "Gender is still something that clients bring to the table, whether overtly or stumbling into it without even realizing what they're saying," says interior designer Alene Workman in Hollywood, Fla. "It's the designer's responsibility to listen to these sometimes clear or unclear directions or subtle clues, and then incorporate those requests."
Designer Molly McGinness of Falmouth, Mass., experiences similar situations with her clients. "When someone says, 'I don't really want feminine or masculine details,' you have to figure out what they're saying," she says. In one instance, a client told McGinness she didn't like black, modern-looking sofas, which she associated with her husband's former bachelor pad. Instead, McGinness selected a warm brown sofa with a tufted feel done in leather – a choice pleasing to both wife and husband.
What's more, couples are making many of the design decisions together, a shift from years past. "Design isn't the way it used to be where the wife was the one decorating the home," notes Cleveland-based designer Dawn Cook, who reports that in the last 18 months she has worked with four men who are completely involved in their projects. The collaboration between men and women often means compromise – gender neutrality in some spaces, gender influences in others.
For those gender-specific rooms, the key is to design them uniquely, according to Cook. "It's important to incorporate interesting color palettes, textures and accessories that reflect the person who's using the room, while still having that gender-specific slant."
Cook, McGinness and Workman share their favorite projects where gender played a role – whether explicitly or subtly – in color selection.
Children's rooms are the most likely spaces to feature gender-specific colors, furnishings and accessories. But that doesn't mean they have to be conventional. For example, a couple in Florida commissioned Workman to oversee a renovation of their home, including the bedroom of their five-year-old daughter. Workman decided to create a room that was reflective of the young girl's dynamic personality but that would also grow with the child.
"The parents wanted their daughter's bedroom to be vibrant like the rest of the house," she explains. "They liked a lot of strong color but mixed in a sophisticated way." To that end, Workman selected a palette of hot pink, bright lime green and white. "It wasn't just another 'pink' girl's room, rather, it was the kind of room where you could easily just change out a few things as she got older."
For a recent project, Cook completed a "teen suite" occupying the entire third floor. One girl's bedroom integrated coral and purple, while the other used apple green and gray. In the shared bathroom, a palette of hot pink and indigo is accented by iridescent tiles. The girls – along with their teenage brother, whose bedroom is in the lower level – also share a community room designed to be inclusive of both genders. A fresh yellow-green color acts as a neutral in the room, complemented by carpet tiles in a variety of colored stripes and patterns. "We made the spaces classy and not too juvenile, yet we made sure everything was age-appropriate," Cook notes.
Designers walk a fine line in outfitting master bedrooms for couples. They must meet their clients' needs without skewing toward one gender or another – unless the clients specifically ask for it. Cook designed a master bedroom and closet where the wife requested feminine details throughout. "She wanted to feel at home in her space, and her husband was all for it," she says.
Cook selected colors and textures that were soothing "yet not so frilly that it would make the bedroom uncomfortable for her husband." To that end, she used a palette of soft white, cream and caramel, along with a pale icy blue-green color. In the closet, a chandelier accents pearlized gold paint on the walls.
McGinness recalls a project where the couple designed their bedroom as a joint venture. The color scheme comprised light- and medium-toned grays combined with a peachy orange, while a heavy gray burlap mixed with a silk ombre drape added both masculine and feminine details. McGinness also chose two different nightstands that reflected the pair's design preferences.
The home office has long been considered the man's domain. But with more and more couples working from home, designers are keen to carefully create spaces suitable to the user. In one of her projects, Workman designed dual offices divided by a glass wall. "His office is very rich looking with a mixture of dark woods and dark colors," she explains, "but with her office on the other side of that glass, she didn't want to feel like she was in a man's den.”
Workman used dark wood for the woman's desk to provide some continuity between the offices, while the surrounding cabinetry and bookcases are painted in white. "It's open, airy, clean-lined and incredibly feminine, yet the two spaces balance well," Workman notes.
Places like the living room, kitchen and dining room are typically gender neutral, but once in a while, a homeowner will request a gender-infused public space. Such is the case with a current client of Cook's, a man who spends a lot of time in the kitchen. "He was looking for a Tommy Bahama–type space, something that was reflective of him," says Cook, who has chosen a palette of bamboo, dark mahoganies, dark and light greens, and ochre browns.
Whether clients are subtle or outspoken about gender influences, the ultimate goal is to create livable spaces that work with the rest of the home's design. "Men and women will gravitate toward [their own] color palettes," Cook says, "and it's our job as designers to pull everything together in a way that is unique and reflective of both spouses."