Posted Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012, at 1:04 PM
Given the potential pitfalls of her subject matter, reporter Emily Weinstein did an admirable job with her piece in yesterday’s New York Times, titled “In Dire Need of Design: For Recently Divorced Men, A New Breed of Decorators.” Weinstein’s article does its due diligence (more than two examples, larger economic contextualization, divorce stats, etc.) in plausibly making the case that a certain group of recently-single men, despite being “alpha-male” types, can’t seem to figure out how to hang a picture on their new pad’s barren walls. These men are so helpless, in fact, that interior decorators have found it lucrative to shift their respective firms’ entire focus toward coddling them; and we’re not just talking about the taxing task of choosing upholstery—these intrepid designers will even feng shui your pantry with handpicked canned goods:
The designer’s team began by installing the man in a SoHo rental with nothing but a box spring, a chair and a TV. In short order, they had fully outfitted the apartment down to the books, dishes, sheets, towels and toys for his son. “We even found him a housekeeper,” [one decorator] said.
Everyone knows that divorce can be extremely disruptive, especially to the tempo of day-to-day life and doubly so when kids are involved. Dads understandably want to return their home lives to some semblance of normalcy as soon as possible for everyone’s sake. But the assumptions at play in this paradigm of expedited home installation are at least as troubling as some mismatched furniture.
I’m reminded of the scene in Mrs. Doubtfire in which Robin Williams’ kids visit his new apartment for the first time; it’s unfinished and a little rough around the edges, but perfectly safe. Yet, when Sally Field comes to pick up the children, she acts as if Williams is living in a trash heap, as if the kids couldn’t help but be gravely scarred by spending time outside of a Crate and Barrel photo spread. That’s the attitude at play here, too—paper over the real and profound rupture that has happened as quickly as possible so that we can pretend that it doesn't exist.
Far more healthy, in my view, would be to let children gently confront the fact that dad is having to make a new life, part of which is the process of creating a new home. Now, I have nothing against decorators, but a willingness to have one’s books, dry goods, and toy curation outsourced says something disconcerting about one’s engagement with parenting. If dad really can’t get it together to make such basic choices about his new life, he probably needs more help than a decorator is qualified to provide (and may also have an answer as to why his marriage failed).
In any case, a home is not something you can order from Amazon. The sense in Weinstein’s piece is that mom has kept the old house, a space that was presumably built over time with input from (hopefully) everyone who lived there. The movie sets described here can’t hope to capture that kind of cozy energy, and there’s nothing worse for divorced kids than to have one parent’s house be home and the other’s a hotel. Building something unique together, over time, seems like the best way to prevent this dynamic—and it’s probably not a bad way to renew a sense of family, either.