Some women look at a man and think, how can I change him to make him perfect? Marni Jameson does the same thing, but with houses. The nationally syndicated home design columnist and author of “The House Always Wins ” and “House of Havoc ,” which is due in February, is a self-described “serial decorator,” with a whole-house remodel and a few new-home constructions under her belt. The Denver resident began her column, At Home with Marni Jameson, in 2004; it’s now in more than 30 newspapers throughout the United States and Canada.
Although her column is a humorous guide for people who want to do things themselves — or at least micromanage those they hire — it isn’t just about decorating. Jameson’s readers know all about her husband, Dan, a business consultant, their two teenaged daughters and even their dog Theo. And they also know that Jameson believes that a home — regardless of its size or style — supports, nurtures and sustains the people who live in it.
How did you become the mistress of home renovations?
By default. Right before we got married in 1989, Dan and I bought an old fixer. We were young and in love; what else could explain it? We spent several years rebuilding it, and got in way over our heads. By the time it was built, there was almost no money for interior decorating. But I’d come that far and was determined to have a beautiful home. So I got very resourceful. Since then we’ve built two more homes, and along the way I started writing a home design column for the Orange County Register about everything I’d done wrong. That column got picked up as a weekly for national syndication, and here I am, still figuring it out as I go.
How do you juggle writing, two active daughters and decorating?
Writing is a great career when you’re trying to also raise kids, because you do, at least in theory, have flexible hours. I work odd hours, and often drag my column with me to work on during gymnastics meets, flute recitals or while waiting for the school bus. The decorating often happens because I need something to write about that week, but I really don’t need much encouragement because I enjoy it, and there’s always something that needs attention.
You use your family as column fodder. How do your daughters feel about that? Your husband?
Uhh, I get mixed reviews at home. Mostly, I think my kids think it’s cool. Many of their friends, teachers and even their principal, read the column. The girls feign mortification, but I think they like it. I deliberately don’t use their names in the column, and refer to them as the older daughter, or the younger one, to give them some privacy. We have different last names … but when I was writing “House of Havoc,” I asked them if they wanted their names in, and they both said yes. So they’re in. As for Dan, he mostly wishes I’d leave him out of it, but that’s not going to happen. He’s the source of too much good material.
Household chores always seem to be the bane of relationships. How do you and your husband handle it?
Dan and I argue about plenty, but not about housework. When Dan met me, I had my own condo and a weekly housecleaner. I wasn’t going to get married and start doing housework. We kept the cleaning lady, and bumped up the frequency after kids arrived. Now that the kids can pitch in — in theory — the cleaning lady only comes every two weeks. It’s non-negotiable. I need it for my sanity because I get grumpy cleaning, and no one else cares if the place looks like a frat house. Other rules that help: Everyone does his or her own laundry. Even Dan. And whoever cooks does not clean. If I make dinner, which I usually do, the girls or Dan do the clean up. It mostly works.
I once heard a funny line from a decorator: the wife is always right unless the husband is gay. Do you always get your way when it comes to decorating?
Some men do have good design taste. And some men who are not gay have good design taste. But not many. Dan concedes he has no taste, and for that I am grateful — both that he has no taste and that he admits it. That doesn’t mean I always get my way; OK, maybe I do. But he pretty much gets to do whatever he wants outside, in terms of landscaping projects. And if truly pressed, he will tell you he likes what I do around the house.
Do women really want a man who has a strong decorating style?
Can a marriage survive two different decorating styles?
Yes, the same way a marriage can survive people of different religions, which can work if neither is too stubborn. But mostly couples can agree. It’s not true that all women want pink and red cabbage roses, and men want black leather recliners with cup holders. Most couples can find a transitional style they both like. When I learned the science behind how men see things, or don’t see things, it changed my life.
The joke is that if a marriage can make it through a remodel, it can withstand anything. How did you and Dan manage yours and stay married?
If our marriage had a caption it would be: “Under Construction.” Whenever we got to the point of divorcing, negotiations broke down over who would get the house. Neither of us wanted it. So we slugged it out. In the end, we were too exhausted to do anything drastic, so we made up.
As your daughters have gotten older, how have you helped them develop their sense of style?
Actually, they’ve helped me develop mine. Marissa, who’s 14, has an unerring eye. She was born with it, and she cares how things look. I often ask her for her opinion when I’m stuck, whether I’m putting together an outfit or a room design. She cannot only quickly spot the best design decision, but she can also explain why. Paige, 16, doesn’t care. She’s into horses and the barn, and often smells like both. She has taught me that houses are for living in, and that means choosing flooring the same color as the mud on your boots.
The concept of “home” is an emotional one for most of us — it’s our retreat; it’s an extension of who and what we are; it’s where we feed, love and raise our family. How can people turn walls, floors and a roof into a home?
It sounds cliché, but it starts with heart. The home isn’t the main event; it’s the backdrop for the memories you make there, the relationships you build. A beautiful home can bring back horrible memories, just as a homely one can conjure warm ones. I’m grateful I had parents who taught me this. My Mom and Dad, both in their 80s, have lived in the same, simple, unpretentious house since 1964. Talk about stability.
Most people don’t live in an 8,000-square-foot house; you do. Besides size, what’s different and what’s the same in decorating, say, a one-bedroom apartment or a 1,400-square-foot house?
I’d rather say 5,500 square feet, plus a basement, most of which is still undecorated. We happen to live in an area where land is more affordable and plentiful, so people sprawl. I could live very, very well in much less space. What’s the same no matter what is that all living spaces need a sure hand. You need rooms — whether two or 20 — to flow. You do that through restraint, by avoiding too much novelty and staying faithful to a color palette and a design style, and by keeping clutter down and proportions right. Then you have to make sure the house reflects you and what you’re doing there. … People get so busy supporting their house, they forget their house needs to support them, too.
Decorator, columnist, and author Marni Jameson was interviewed by Vicki Larson, Around the Watercooler  contributor. She is a journalist and single mom.