Originally published in STIR®

Designer Rebeca West teaches her clients how to revitalize their lives and homes with color after divorce.

Vibrant orange walls. Sky blue ceilings. Charcoal gray accessories. For many of our clients, making color changes can be fun. But for people who have experienced the emotional trauma of divorce, color changes can also facilitate healing and renewal.

So says Seattle-based interior designer Rebecca West, who has created a specialty of sorts in helping post-divorce clients revitalize their homes — and their lives. STIR asked West, whose business was born out of her own experience with divorce, about the transforming power of color and why the best post-divorce therapy might just be a gallon of paint.

STIR: How do you use interior design changes — color, in particular — to help people after they've experienced a divorce?

Rebecca West (RW): Before my clients call me to help make a change, they’re still waking up to the same bedroom, using the same bathroom, and cooking in the same kitchen where they spent their lives married, with all the accompanying memories and beliefs that go with that environment. Together we make small changes ⎯ moving around the furniture, editing accessories, painting walls ⎯ and suddenly they see their world with new eyes. They realize that if these small things can change and make such a difference, imagine what else is possible!

STIR: Are any of your clients hesitant to change things?

RW: Quite the opposite. Often, my post-breakup clients make changes they never felt they were “allowed” to make while their partner was still in the home. One of my clients literally giggled as we chose a dramatic zebra-stripe rug for her living room and painted the walls vibrant orange. It would never have worked in “their” home, but now it was “her” home.

STIR: How do you help your clients select the right “post-divorce colors” for their home?

RW: It all centers on how clients want to feel in their new lives. One woman wanted to create a serene, feminine sanctuary, a “no men allowed” kind of space so she could focus on healing after her divorce. We chose soft lavenders and sky blues for her home. But another client wanted to feel youthful and alive in her home, which led us to a spicy pumpkin orange. A male client wanted a space that felt masculine without screaming “bachelor pad,” so we went with a deep charcoal gray and soft pebble brown on the walls and with the accessories. After a divorce we all get to write a new ending to our story, and a new color on the walls can be a great way to start the next chapter.

STIR: Do clients come to you knowing a color change will help shift their attitudes, or is it a pleasant surprise?

RW: In general, my post-divorce clients don’t know how much changes in the home will affect them, and often they don’t really connect the divorce to the changes specifically — they just know they don’t like how the house feels and want something different. Afterward, though, they can’t stop talking about how energized and hopeful they feel, all because of the new space. One of my clients was able to climb out of his depression in large part because his environment changed and he was able to see hope for his future. Another started dating again because she could finally look around and see that her life still had possibility.

STIR: Do you have intentional discussions with your clients about color and its effect on the mood and feeling of a space?

RW: I ask questions about how they would like to feel in their home. I try to draw out how they feel now (Cold? Lonely? Heavy? Disconnected? Depressed?) and how they’d like to feel (Warm? Connected? Light? Energized? Hopeful?). I start with that because we can all relate to general feelings. If I started with color theory or talked about what red or blue might do in the space, I would fail to first understand what the client needs from his or her home. 

After I understand their needs, I take in the architecture and geography of the place and suggest some colors that might give them that new feeling they seek. It’s only then that I talk about why I am suggesting a particular color and what it does for the room. As I present colors, I watch their body language and listen to their answers to see if I’m headed in the right direction. It becomes clear very quickly when you find the right color — their eyes light up, their shoulders relax, and you can see them physically let go of stress as they see that change is possible.

STIR: Why should people consider changing their personal surroundings after experiencing a divorce?

RW: If everything you wake up to every morning reminds you of your previous partner, renews your pain and depression, and reminds you that you failed at marriage, how can you possibly move forward and create something new and wonderful with this second chance? Divorce is awful, but it really is a second chance. You have nothing to lose, so you have to seize the chance to color and shape your new life. What easier way to start than with a gallon of paint?

STIR: How long after a divorce should people wait to make interior color changes?

RW: It really depends on the person. If you do it too early, you’re likely to have to do it again as you settle into the new you. At the same time, if you don’t do it soon enough, you might never get started becoming the new you. That’s why I generally suggest to clients that they do the smaller things first: work with the furnishings and accessories they already have and change the paint — things that don’t require a huge investment and are easy to change again later. Look at some of my wonderful clients. Orange walls and a zebra rug gave one woman the confidence to date again. Cheerful buttery yellow walls in a made-over bedroom helped a woman let go of the pain of her past and greet every day with a smile. These are just a couple stories. Now it’s just a question of what will be your new, post-divorce color — and your new life story?