Divorced guys, empty spaces

  • Article by: EMILY WEINSTEIN , New York Times
  • Updated: February 25, 2012 - 5:50 PM

Designers find a niche helping newly unwed men make themselves at home.

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As the national unemployment rate starts to fall, signaling a strengthening economy, some bullish Americans may spend money on something they've been putting off: divorce.

Among the battalion of specialists who will meet them on the other side of their split is Susan Manrao, an interior designer in Los Angeles who prefers one type of client over all others: the divorced man. Her "aha" moment came about two years ago, she said, when she was doing a walk-through of a house that belonged to one such client. It was basically empty.

"I realized my role in this project wasn't simply to design a space," she said, "but to help rebuild a home."

Working with men alone is easier than working with couples or women, Manrao said, because they tend to be more hands-off, affording her greater creative freedom.

Divorced fathers, especially, often want their homes done quickly, to make the transition as smooth as possible for their children, which means they are apt to agree with her design decisions.

But what truly distinguishes her divorced male clients, she said, is how appreciative they are. "They are thrilled to have a new home that actually feels like a home."

Like other designers with numerous divorced clients, Manrao has honed insights into what the newly divorced (particularly newly divorced heterosexual men) want and need as they create a new home for themselves.

And that knowledge may be increasingly in demand, as there are likely to be more of them soon, said Andrew Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University who has written extensively about American marriage.

Since 2008, he said, nationwide divorce rates have fallen, as they did during the Great Depression. Once the economy began improving back then, however, divorce rates rose significantly, something that is bound to happen again, Cherlin predicted. "Without a doubt, there are unhappy couples out there looking for the resources to separate."

And when they do, at least half of the newly divorced will need a new place to live, a new sofa and rug, new towels and coffee cups and prints to hang on the walls, and all the other trappings that make an apartment or a house into a home. If they have children, they may need it urgently. And if they were in a marriage in which their spouse did the decorating, they will need help.

Men coming from heterosexual marriages are more likely to move out of the family home than women are, said Steven Mintz, a historian at Columbia University who studies families and children.

"A huge percentage of them leave the matrimonial home and live in dumps," said Deirdre Dyment, a Toronto designer who, like Manrao, has shifted her business to focus on divorced men. "They've got the old hand-me-down furniture that was in the basement. They've got their grandmother's dining-room table and mismatched this and that. And they really miss the warmth their home had. And they don't have a clue how to pull it together."

Room for kids

Of course, today's divorced man is a more evolved creature than his counterpart of a generation or two ago. For one thing, he is more likely to care what his home looks like, Mintz said. For another, he is more likely to seek joint custody of his children.

His home, then, is not a Hefner-like bachelor pad with a round bed and a conversation pit, nor is it Don Draper's dark, drab apartment on "Mad Men." Instead, it tends to be a place that balances cheerful comfort for the children with a scary new reality: Dad is a single guy.

And he is starting from scratch.

Kimberlee Paige Hanson, founder of the New York firm Interior Bliss Design and an offshoot called Sexy Bachelor Pad, said: "They've left her everything. They've got one trophy and a mix tape."

Hanson has worked with at least two dozen divorced men in the past five years, she said, offering services that go well beyond interior design, to include pantry stocking, cooking lessons and more. But when it comes to decor, leather chairs are one of the most common requests, she said, along with 60-plus-inch flat-screen TVs.

Dyment said it was the state of her husband's new home after they separated that inspired her to focus her business on divorced men.

"He told me it was the worst time of his entire life," she said. "And it was the worst time of my life, but I still got to sleep in my own bed. For the first six months, we both didn't want the kids to see his space because it was a basement, and it was dark, and it was awful."

When he moved again, she volunteered to decorate the apartment. "As a mother and an ex-wife, I want to know that my children will be in a clean, cozy, organized place," she said.

Room for romance

But the challenge is creating a place that feels welcoming not just to children but also to potential romantic partners.

The five-bedroom Los Angeles house Manrao decorated for Tim Geddes attempts to walk that line: It's comfortable for a family, but it is not a family home. "If you took a woman there, you wouldn't necessarily know there are kids," Manrao said. "It's not designed the way you would design a family's house."

Still, she took pains to include elements that she knew would appeal to Geddes' son and daughter, 6 and 8 years old at the time, such as wallpaper with a picture-frame print on which they could draw and paste their own photos.

As Geddes said, "People would say this house is a man's house, but there is still a softness to it."

And that helps when it comes to dating. A rental apartment he lived in after his divorce, Geddes said, "was not too much of a hit with dates. It wasn't like I had jerseys framed and hanging from the wall, but it was definitely an alpha-male-type place."

Manrao has plenty of experience when it comes to setting the mood. After serving as the director of design and brand experience for a group of Starwood Hotels, she started her own firm. She knows what quickens the pulse: a bar or a place to have a nightcap, layers of lighting and, most important, a double chaise or an ottoman large enough for "canoodling," she said.

"You need to have places to have sex other than the bed," she clarified. "I don't mean to sound brash, but that's what people want."

In fact, she would approach almost any space, for either couples or single clients, in the same manner, she said, though her design philosophy does seem particularly germane for a divorced client hoping to re-enter the dating world.

"I never discuss it with them in these terms, but if you're transitioning into this lifestyle, this is what you need," she said. "I try to always get them to let me do their whole bedding package, and do really good down duvets, the whole thing," she added. "You have a lady friend over -- in this age bracket, you should have nice stuff."

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