Masculine Design: Beyond the Man Cave

By Kate Riley August 11, 2011

Hello!  Today I’m featuring an important topic that many couples face, it’s the age old struggle between masculine versus feminine in design.  This tug of war is not rare, rather it’s a common issue in so many relationships, and even plays into many a discussion of décor here in my own home.  One of the struggles I’ve recently faced in our shared master bedroom (always a work in progress!) is how to balance my mister’s love of dark furniture and his more traditional taste against my love of white and bright with touches of modern.  

Today, addressing the topic on a larger scale, Courtney is back with his monthly contribution. To me, this is a fascinating topic, and I willingly embrace any tips that address the issue of how both masculine and feminine style can coexist in harmony. 

Please welcome back Courtney and his interview with top designers addressing the definition of masculine style, and how to successfully balance it with feminine tastes.  

“A college friend recently moved in with his long term girlfriend and called me to complain.  He was distressed that all his favorite pieces of furniture and home accessories were being either sold, relegated to the guest bedroom, or simply being placed in that black hole known as offsite storage.  As more of his beloved possessions exited the new apartment, he became increasingly agitated and an argument ensued. 

After the dust settled, I went over to play “design negotiator” which is relationship counseling, but with furniture.  Sitting them both down, I asked a very simple question, or so I thought.  “What is it about his things that make them ineligible to enter the apartment?”  She turned to me and said quite simply  “Courtney, his stuff is totally way too masculine and it just won’t work in here.”

Too masculine?  Aside from his international beer bottle collection and large screen TV, my friend’s possessions were run of the mill items picked up over the years from IKEA, CB2 and big box stores.  What was it about his possessions made them :too masculine”?  Can’t masculine peacefully coexist with feminine design?

Seeking answers, I sought out advice from two designers I respect for not only their fantastic design talents but their ability to break down complex design issues.  I asked several questions of Joe Cangelosi of Joe Cangelosi Design and Brian Dittmar of Brian Dittmar Design to get their take on what elements create a ‘masculine’ space, how it deviates from a ‘feminine’ style space, and can the two exist in harmony?  Here is what Dittmar and Cangelosi had to say:

Q: First and foremost, is there such a thing as a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ room? Don’t people define spaces, and not the things within?

Joe Cangelosi (JC):  There is absolutely a difference!

Brian Dittmar (BD):  Yes, I think so. A ‘masculine room’ is the result of a feeling that is created through a collection of objects versus each object being one way or the other.

brian dittmar designs

Brian Dittmar

Image 2 - Joe Cangelosi Design LLC

Joe Cangelosi

Q: So you both believe in the concept of a masculine space, so how would you define it? I think many people, including my friend’s girlfriend, hear the term “masculine” and think “man cave” – large screen TV and leather sectional.

JC:  A masculine space is first about form.  Lines are straight and furniture has visual weight.  The space is edited, with bold choices in colors and accessories. The space is about the overall impact as a whole.  In contrast, a ‘female’ space has more curved lines, furniture is visually lighter, and the space is more about the details. 

BD:  Generally speaking, I would say that masculine spaces have very clean, tailored lines on all furniture pieces; a certain formality and order to the space, often times paired with symmetry as a strong design element; and either monochromatic color palettes or deep, rich, bold color palettes that have a definite presence.

When you then mix together objects like metal, horn, lacquer and leather with fabrics like wool, mohair, tweed and cashmere, and add in some geometric patterns or animal prints, you begin to create a space that would typically be classified as a ‘masculine’ space.

grant gibson dining room

Grant Gibson Designs

sarah richardson sitting room

Sarah Richardson

Q: If I hear each of you correctly, masculine spaces are about the whole taken in context rather than the individual items within a space.  Expanding on this concept, how does one go about designing a masculine space?

JC:  I have found that masculine spaces are more used.  These are not rooms to be admired from afar. Men generally want to put their feet up, and enjoy themselves.  That being said, furniture should be made well to withstand a lot of use.  For instance, watching a game with the guys is a lot of fun, and very active.  Nobody wants to worry about spilling something on the rug or the coffee table.  The materials chosen should meet the function of the room.

BD:  It really is all in the mix of objects, materials, and styles. I would tend to classify Neoclassic, Biedermeier and Art Deco furniture as being more ‘masculine’ in feeling, though that is not to say those styles of furniture don’t go in any other sort of room. But they, along with most contemporary/modern furniture, have a very strong sense of architecture, line and form which lend themselves well to that feeling being created in a ‘masculine’ room.

Image 5 - Billy Baldwin

Billy Baldwin

Image 6 - Barclay Butera


Q:  At the risk of sounding sexist, do men and women approach design differently?  Do you find your approach to projects differs from your female colleagues?

JC:  Yes!  The male clients I have worked with usually want to see an edited selection of two or three choices for each item that will go in the space. Generally, I have found that a lot of female clients like to see a lot more choices before making their selections.  Many female clients also focus a lot more on the details of a piece, and male clients generally are concerned with craftsmanship, quality, and price!

BD:  Perhaps, though it’s hard to say for sure.  I certainly don’t think that female designers are not capable of designing for a male client that wants a ‘masculine’ feeling space.  Mary McDonald (of recent fame on Bravo’s “Million Dollar Decorators”) is a perfect example.  She is obviously a very feminine person, but her design sense definitely skews to more of a masculine aesthetic.

mary macdonald living room

Mary McDonald

anne rue interiors bedroom

Anne Rue Interiors

tommy smythe bedroom

Tommy Smythe

Q: I once talked with a potential client who was set on incorporating his grandfather’s large taxidermy collection into his 800 square foot studio apartment. He was convinced that taxidermy equaled masculinity. So how do you steer clear of falling into the “bachelor pad” cliché when designing a masculine space?

JC:  Well taxidermy is just not my thing.  I don’t like it, and choose not to work with it. I also refuse to purchase gimmicky furniture like one of those reclining chairs with a built-in refrigerator for a 6-pack in the arm. That actually exists! I wish I was making it up! I mean, honestly, talk about a stereotype!

BD:  I would try to steer clear of making the space too flat and void of an interesting mix of elements. Often there is a fear with male clients that they don’t want a space that is overly decorated. But going too far in the opposite direction can make the space seem incomplete and possibly rather boring. For example, you can have beautiful floor-to-ceiling draperies in a space and not have them be frilly or frou-frou. 

When you select the appropriate fabrics and trim, you can make them very tailored. even possibly adding menswear inspired detailing. Those draperies will give the space the finished, cozy quality that many people desire, however some male clients I have encountered before equate them with something their grandmother had without being open to the idea that there are many different ways to execute them.

Image 9 - Domus Nova

Domus Nova

met home living room

Met Home

Q:  But let’s say that the client is stuck on having an English pub feel for his study.  What suggestions do you have for turning something potentially stodgy into a modern room?

JC:  My favorite type of design is a traditional skeleton with modern execution. Why not have wood-paneled chair rails, moldings and wainscoting?  But paint them white, or maybe distressed gray!  Then you can upholster the walls in an interesting fabric, perhaps ultrasuede in blue, green or taupe.  You will then have the look of a pub, but with an aesthetic of this century.

BD:  I would say to them that we can have one Chesterfield sofa or one collection of framed duck prints or horse prints but that we must mix in other items that are not of that style.  Otherwise you are almost certainly going to create a space that is a cliché. And ‘themed rooms’ never really work.  Taking that Chesterfield sofa and perhaps mixing in a French Deco armchair, a Biedermeir bookcase with a mid-century coffee table will give you a ‘pub-like’ feeling without being a historical reproduction of such a space.

Image 12 - Scot Meacham Wood

Scot Meacham Wood

Q:  Let’s circle back to my friend who is fighting to exert some piece of himself into his new home.  Do you have any tips on how couples can work together to ensure a bit of both of them end up in their home?

JC:  One way to resolve this is the “envelope versus accessories” method.  One person gets to choose the framework: paint color, kitchen cabinets, floors, sofas. The other gets to choose the details: drapes, cabinet hardware, faucets, pillows, etc.  This usually works as a nice compromise.  But, when all else fails, each person gets to design his or her own bathroom, with no questions and no input from the other!

BD:  It’s all about compromise. Both people need to give and take a bit in the process.  Often times one has more of a final say in the matter, but the most successful projects I have done for couples have been ones where each get to have several pieces that they love go into the mix.  The benefit of this approach is also that the overall feel of the space is more than just one note, and can have a feeling of a space evolving over time and being a collection.

Thank you Brian and Joe for your fantastic insight into creating a masculine space!”

Yes, thank you Brian and Joe for your advice in this discussion!  It’s true, harmony comes from compromise when both have a say in what goes into a space.  I’d agree that ‘masculine’ spaces tend to feature deeper colors like black, brown, gray and navy blue, and also incorporate darker wood tones as well.  They include angular lines, more industrial finishes, leather and menswear fabrics like tweed and wool.  Do you agree?    

This was such a great interview Courtney!  Be sure to stop by and say hello over at his blog Courtney Out Loud

What say you?  Do you agree with these designers’ definitions of masculine and feminine?  Which style to do you find yourself drawn to, and how do you strike the balance in your personal spaces? 




  1. We recently redid our master bedroom and I feel like we created the perfect combo of masculine vs/ feminine. We created a rustic wood wall behind our bed {masculine} and added layers of cream and touches of lace {feminine}. I think it works great for both of us! Here’s the link if you want to see it: Good luck with your bedroom-I think it can be the hardest room!

  2. Great article with interesting, detailed discussion of masculine style. I’d love a follow-up; how did Courtney’s friends resolve their decorating issues? It seems like they were falling into a common dynamic where the woman assumed all the decorating power and essentially disenfranchised her partner. That’s a deeper problem than whether or not she likes his sectional. I hope she was able to learn to compromise. How a couple – of any gender mix – learns to compromise, respect each other’s choices and styles, and develop a style that works for both of them is an interesting subject.

  3. Excellent article! Actually helped me decide I prefer the “masculine” style with some bits of softening. Hope Courtenay’s friends were able to work it out!

  4. I really like the definition of masculine design being about form first. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a house that was kind of cluttered, but I haaaaate extraneous stuff. Just put it away. I still want things to be pretty, but they need to have a purpose, too.

  5. This cracks me up. We have been married a year now, and I expected my husband to let me do whatever I wanted with decorating our house. Boy, I was wrong! He had opinions about everything. We gave each other our own spaces to be in charge of and compromised on the other common spaces. Like the article says, we each got to design our own bathroom, and my husband has one of the guest rooms that is his masculine space where he gets ready in the morning.Luckily for him, my aesthetic has a rustic, masculine feel to it so it hasn’t been too hard to combine. I feel for the couple who is trying to combine lacy shabby chic with black leather sofas!

  6. Great topic! My husband and I are actually in the process of this whole “compromising” thing right now. We’re redecorating our living room and while I lean towards light and airy with feminine touches, he looks for comfort and wearability. It’s definitely interesting! Funny enough, they mentioned that sectionals are typically more “masculine” and my husband insisted on having one. I compromised but ended up loving the one we ordered (it’s being delivered tomorrow!). Now he gets the comfy homey look while I get to play up the accessories and details.. it’s definitely all about compromise! Thanks for the insight!

  7. This was an amazing post, with really great tips and a really balanced interview. I loved this. In fact, I’m retweeting this!

    Most importantly, this isn’t a challenge just for couples; this is a challenge for roommates, college students sharing a dorm/apartment, even siblings! Matching tastes and design is harder than it sounds, and making sure a home reflects all of the people who live in that space is important.

  8. This is a great article! The insight is very valuable. The photos featured are not at all too “mannish”; each one strikes a nice balance.

    Kate, you should do a linky party where readers could link up their own “beyond the man cave” spaces! I’ll bet lots of people would join. :)

  9. I appreciate this article :)

    I don’t mind “masculine” style but how do you compromise when your husband wants to hang his autographed baseball memorabilia collection in the master bedroom or horrible sportsman-themed art in the family room? It’s a regular argument in my home and I’d love a solution!

  10. Great article. I love both the first and last photos. While I get alot of inspiration online that feature more feminine styles, I actually think my house has a more masculine vibe and I love it. I have threated to put a crystal chandy in the laundry room and I think my hubby would DIE.

  11. Great interview, Courtney! Very well done. It’s a tough topic to explain, but you structured questions well and they gave great answers! Very informative. Thanks.

  12. What great insight! I’ve found in our home that sharing each step of a room with my man helps him take ownership of it, which makes him more open to my design ideas. And when he LOVES something, I let it stay. Which is why we have a horrible accent wall. Sigh. Thanks for the great interview Courtney and Kate!

  13. I was so glad to see this post because I think this area of design is not discussed enough in the blogosphere. My husband and I have worked out the whole decorating thing really well. He usually likes a say in a few things in a room. They aren’t always the same but for our kitchen it was the floor, countertop, and backsplash. I got to decide on everything else :-). I always keep his point of view in mind and what also helps is that I have a masculine style anyway, something I didn’t realize until reading this interview – lots of texture from items we have collected over 30 years of travel and a neutral palette of earthy tones and no florals! Because compromise means I don’t get what I really want, I use pinterest to collect photos of decorating styles I love but will never have and that seems to satisfy me. Thanks for a great post.

  14. This is a great article. Thanks Courtney!
    I love a pretty feminine style, but think that a more masculine design works better for my life.

  15. What an excellent article and interview, Courtney! My husband and I are constantly at odds. He hates change and is very traditional in his tastes. My style has evolved in our 10 years of marriage, and I’m ready to change things up. You’ve given some great food for thought. And too funny about “counseling with furniture.” :)

  16. Great article! I did a post last week on the set of True Blood(specifically, Bills house) and I think its an excellent example of “masculine” design. I cringe whenever I hear “man cave”, can’t we call that space something else?

  17. This is such a great topic to post about…one that many couples need to find a medium ground on agreeing upon. In our Hamptons home, my husband has his man cave…one area that I have not put my mark! I am happy that it is on the lower level and he is happy that I desire no say in his space. Otherwise, we agree on all other areas of the home!

  18. Thanks for the article. What’s wrong/so masculine about a large screen TV and leather sectional?? I love my leather sectional!

  19. my hubby and i like 80% of the same things including color palettes (earthy tones-lots of teals,greens and browns -light woods-no gold metal and definitely no pink of purple). We each have our own offices so that’s the only places we differ on decor since mine is crafty and artsy and messy and his is clean and uncluttered. He has is own bathroom and actually has what we call “feminine touches” (candles, pretty towels, great soaps, pretty art & mirrors) in his bathroom so…I think there is no line of masculine vs. feminine when you like nice things-it’s all about lines and color and finishes. Since there are so many color combinations that can be mixed masc/fem (for example: teal and brown or black and cream) the only time I think something is truly feminie is when I see loads and loads of PINK. your article did make me wanna redesign a space come fall!

  20. I’m mulling over how I feel about this one… I think my irritation started around the “men’s spaces are functional. Men just want to put their feet up” area.

    I love this blog, and think this subject is super interesting — however, my boyfriend and I do NOT fit the traditional m/f dynamic, and so I think reading this was a bummer. I’m more interested in the subject of combining two people’s styles, and less interested in having those styles defined as m/f (and hey! What about same sex couples? Probably real tiring to fit that dichotomy…)

    Anyway, just wanted to throw that out there — but in general, a really great blog!

  21. I believe it goes without saying that men and women have different tastes. Any man that says he likes what his partner says she likes is probably trying to just make things easier. Most men I think would be more inclined towards the same things, and women to theirs. You should create a survey… show a few different rooms, and see which ones the men and women choose. I would be willing to bet that the results are clearly defined.

  22. Courtney, great article and interviews! I’m working on decorating our bedroom and I wanted to incorporate both of our styles. Thanks so much.

  23. Loved the article and I tend to love masculine spaces and have to work to make mine more feminine. I guess it’s because I have a house full of boys. I would love to hear what happened with Courtney’s friend and see if the couple compromised…

  24. Same sex couples have just as many differences. My wife and I have different ideas about decor which we settle with discussion, screaming, crying and compromise. She likes a sleek but traditional. I veer between overpopulated cottage and mid-century! We collaborated on the public rooms and each of us has her own lair which consults only her own taste.

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