Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Boxes for Stuff

Fancy-shmancy rooms. Judges judging. Designers standing around. Designers workety-working. More fancy-shmancy rooms. More workety-working. Over it all, Todd Oldham explains the premise of the show: 12 designers, "grueling challenges" (which could involve actual gruel, if Project Runway and Top Chef are anything to go by), 1 winner, lots o' prizes. Welcome to Top Design!

Establishing shots of Los Angeles. I was expecting New York, but okay. Designers begin to arrive at their assigned living spaces. In due deference to age:

Goil is the first to arrive at the men's loft. He interviews that he's "more of a problem-solver and not a stylist." Meanwhile, he rearranges furniture. It's good to be the early bird. I half-love him already. Felicia arrives at the women's loft and strolls around, reminiscing about dorm life. Goil introduces himself to Michael, who interviews that he has "always wanted to be an interior designer." I think the question was, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" He explains that he used to watch Dynasty and critique the interiors instead of playing.

At the airport, Ryan arrives with his skateboard and proclaims himself "half Henry Rollins, half Evel Knevel." Well, I suppose skateboarding amongst pedestrians could qualify as a daredevil act, but I think the pedestrians are assuming most of the risk. At the loft, Ryan shows off for his new roomies by skateboarding off the kitchen table (ew, they have to eat there) and fails to hurt himself. Erik checks under the bed and gripes, "No place for my mascara? That's called wasted space." Matt interviews that design can be finding a pumpkin at the pumpkin patch with his daughter -- "Everything's design." The last to arrive is John. He interviews his dismay on learning that he'll have to live with a bunch of young, "queeny" guys who are just the same as a bunch of girls. Yes, yes, you're the manliest man who ever manned. Now stop oozing testosterone on my screen and get to designing some pretty rooms.

John and Carisa discover letters, which they read aloud. The letters welcome them to the show and let them know that they'll be getting started at 8 a.m. at the Pacific Design Center. They're signed by Todd Oldham. "Shut up, Todd Oldham? Oh no way!" squeals manly John. He interviews that he's totally excited -- "How many designers are going to be able to say they worked side-by-side with Todd Oldham or got feedback from him?"

Morning at the conspicuously colorful Pacific Design Center (PDC). Todd Oldham walks out and the designers all clap, because the production assistant is holding up the "Applause" sign. Todd welcomes them all to the show. His voice is mellow but his speaking style is upbeat and announcer-ish. It's kind of like Mr. Rogers had to host TRL and make all the kids go "Woo!" every 40 seconds. Todd explains that he'll assign the challenges and give them feedback, but he's not a judge. Todd reviews some of the prizes, including the "spread" in Elle Decor -- Felicia interviews that they have "the best taste" -- and the money. Although I think Design Star had the best prize. Since the whole point of going on a reality show is to be on TV, what could be better than your own show? The PDC will be their base of operations. It's chock full o' fancy-shmancy stuff. Heather interviews that PDC stuff can be very pricey. And it's time to get to work.

Todd leads the designers into a big workspace. Everyone has a table and a bunch of supplies, including a fan of product-placed paint colors. (I happen to use the product-placed paint, so it tickles me to see them advertising. But until I see some free samples, they're still "product-placed paint" to me.)

First challenge: Todd explains that design is often a collaboration between designer and client. He reveals five objects on a table: a white-on-black framed abstract of a face, a small disco ball, a giant doll's head, another head-like object on a green block, and a framed green butterfly sculpture. The client is too busy to meet with them, but has sent over these items to give them a sense of his -- or her -- taste. John interviews his concern that the items were all "kind of campy. I'm not a campy decorator." No, he's a manly decorator, and don't you forget it, or he'll bitch-slap you into next week. Ryan deduces that the mystery client has a sense of humor. He suspects Wierd Al Yankovic, or possibly Rick James, "except he's dead." That would explain the not-being-available-to-meet part. Todd explains that the items are for inspiration only and won't be included in the room.

The assignment is to create an "inner sanctum, a very peaceful room" where the client can recover from her -- or his -- very busy and stressful life. Lisa interviews that her design style is "Modern Ethnic," so for a "relaxing sanctuary," she immediately thought Asian. That's the nice thing about clich├ęs -- no thought required. Todd gathers them to look at the space they'll be using. And on the way out, just pick up a paint chip, if you would.

And here we are, in a big, warehouse-like space. There are six large white "rooms" (minus a ceiling and a fourth wall), three on each side of a wide concrete aisle. Since there are twelve designers, they have to pair up. Which will be accomplished by matching those oh-so-innocuous paint chips. Cut to Michael looking gobsmacked. (Get used to that expression, by the way.) The results:

Todd says they'll have half an hour to confer and come up with a design. Each team will have a carpenter randomly assigned. By special arrangement, they can borrow furnishings from the PDC showrooms, with a "budget" of $50,000. Felicia speaks for everyone when she interviews that "$50,000 for a room is great." They also get $1250 for paint and lumber. And go!

Back in the studio, the teams get to work. Andrea explains that she and Ryan are doing a room that's "very '70s-inspired, very pop graphic." Ryan figures an inner sanctum is all about sleeping and having sex. Okay, that covers his extracurricular activities, but what about the client's? Andrea agrees with him that the client is male. She interviews that it's hard to come up with the right design just based on some objects.

Goil and Elizabeth have a meeting of the minds on their pit. Elizabeth describes their concept as "minimal meets retro meets fun meets eclectic." So basically they'll get whatever they want, and then not use most of it.

Felicia and Matt agree on asymmetry; Matt is pleased with their minimalism.

Heather tries to push the kitschy angle but Lisa is all about the peaceful angle. Heather recaps their different approaches.

Erik proposes some club chairs and Carisa calls him a "genius." Okay, that's a team player.

John proposes a fresco finish on one wall using a rag technique; Michael practically has a seizure at the word "rag." John assures him that he's not talking about rag rolling. Michael proposes a "really high gloss wall" and John retches. Michael interviews that working with John is hard because he's "very dominating." Michael tells John, "I'm thinking, like, Chicago suburb." Uh, why? John interviews, "His looked like your basic floor plan with the couch, two chairs, blahblahblah. And mine was a little different, so we opted to go with that." What do you mean "we," Testosterone Man? Michael tells John that he has "a very strong personality" and John protests that he can't concentrate. Michael points out that they only have 10 minutes left, and he already picked out colors. "But you didn't write them down!" John complains. Michael tries to figure out how to hide John's corpse in the workroom; John tapes his own mouth shut before he bites Michael's head off.

Todd calls an end to design time and gives them two hours to shop the bountiful showrooms after they turn in their product-placed paint orders. The designers shop. Lisa interviews, "With two hours and $50,000 in the PDC, you could do pretty good damage there." Goil and Elizabeth both love a giant yellow pepper. Erik doesn't like Carisa's lamp idea. Lisa pounces on an $8000 four-poster bed. Heather interviews again that they had different approaches; Heather kept trying to pry her out of Asia and into something "wacky." The John and Michael show continues in a fabric store. As they start talking over each other, John says, "Ssh, we're in a store" although Michael's voice wasn't any louder than his. Michael glides off in a snit. John interviews, "Michael acted like a spoiled little kid. I can tell from the way he handles himself that he has probably never been anything more than an assistant." John lectures Michael to tell him when he has fabrics, and Michael says he does, leading John to his choices. Michael explains he's thinking linen, and John rejects linen. Michael interviews, "It was not a pleasant experience. All of my ideas are instantly vetoed." John laughs at something and calls Michael his 'bitch," then hustles off while Michael glares. Michael voiceovers that he has "more high-end New York design experience than anyone else here." Unlikely, and so what? The client isn't looking for a high-end New York space.

Elsewhere, Matt and Felicia admire a large, white banquette and dark wood table for $17,300. Ryan and Andrea shop framed bug art, similar to the butterfly item. John asks Michael what he thinks of a black chest. Michael waves his hands and says, "I don't know how I feel." Other than wounded and rejected and dismissed. John takes that as an "ugh" and says, "Let's keep looking." Michael snips, "Fine." And that's how they get along when they agree. Michael interviews, "Working with John was a blow to my ego." John warns Michael that if they don't finish on time, he's on the chopping block, too. "But after much evaluation, I realized it's not me," Michael continues, "it's him. It's John." I wonder how many milliseconds of self-doubt elapsed before he came to that conclusion.

Carisa asks Erik about a $3000 Buddha statue. She interviews that you just have to get everything done before the deadline. Yep, that would be what a deadline is. Heather and Lisa agree on their cocktail table. Heather announces that they have $10,000 left. She interviews that she wanted to grab more stuff. But shopping is over.

Back in the work room, Todd announces that their supplies have arrived. He reminds them that they get carpenters (Matt's interview is all, "Yay, a carpenter!") plus they get seamstresses. They have until midnight to work on their rooms.

Work begins. Specifically, painting. Andrea interviews that two days is "the design equivalent of, it's like a minute." John interviews his approach was to create a neutral room so a featured object would look "like a museum piece." Goil and Elizabeth experiment with painter's tape. Elizabeth interviews that they "pushed the envelope" by choosing curves and a graphic pattern. Lisa explains that their wall treatment was just a bunch of abstract lines. Michael arrives at the space with his cup of coffee and is shocked (shocked!) to find work happening. "What's going on here?" But then he figures it out. "Let me help, please. What can I do? Can I do anything?" Constructive? No. John thinks he'll just get in the way. I have to say, Michael looks like he has a positive gift for getting in the way. But he proposes painting a wall. Not that he's ever painted before, although he has watched other people paint. So John instructs Michael in painting ("Go in a W"). Michael thinks that "in the real world of interior design, I wouldn't be handling a paint brush." If you have to hazard a guess about it, how much real world (let alone "high-end New York") experience can you have? Michael gets the roller going and John cheers him on. Then John leaves and Michael wanders off. John explains that Michael was always eager to do stuff, but then he'd go off and talk to people. Michael is visiting Matt and Felicia, bragging, "Well, you wait and see who wins. And it's going to be moi." John sums it up, "He's lazy."

Elizabeth warns her team that they only have two more hours to finish up painting. Carisa interviews that her design with Erik has "bright and funky colors and furnishings" that go with their horizontal stripes. Ryan describes his design with Andrea as "Stanley Kubrik meets funkadelic."

Time passes. Midnight approaches. Heather interviews that she saw Matt and Felicia doing "major construction" (they're creating a horizontal niche) and she realizes that her team lacks "design innovation." "We're being decorators rather than designers at this point." What she means is that they've limited themselves to the existing space, instead of changing the space to suit their needs. Which is not necessarily wrong, but it shows less creativity. She's feeling worried.

Michael urges someone to "hurry, hurry, hurry!" He interviews that the diagonal floor layout was "counterproductive" because it's taking more time than he expected. And with all his watching other people work, he would know what to expect. Michael stands with arms akimbo, aggressively chewing gum and staring at John, who voiceovers, "If Michael is nervous, it's because he knows in his heart that he wasn't a team player." Midnight arrives and the designers file out. John continues that he was "majorly pissed" with Michael's "prima donna" attitude.

Morning in the designer lofts. I could never be on a reality show because I don't want to share a bathroom with that many people. Andrea interviews that she's feeling sluggish. Today I notice that her ponytails are arranged horizontally rather than vertically. I'm not sure of the point of that, other than, "Hi, I'm creative." Over in the men's loft, John warns the guys that they have 20 minutes and Michael says, "Thanks, Mama Bear." John calls his roomies "little bitches." Michael whines, "If I get eliminated because of that jerk, I'm going to kill him." I suspect he has not looked past the actual murder, to the trial and the eventual prison sentence, because I'm sure prison-jumpsuit orange would give him the vapors.

And off to work they go. Goil interviews that seeing the space again gave him a chance to evaluate and prioritize. Carisa compliments the seamstress when she delivers their goods. I don't know how far she'll make it, but at least she's pleasant to have around while she lasts. (Next week: Carisa reveals she's really a bitch on wheels.) Todd arrives to give the designers a pep talk. To help motivate them, he breaks the news: two of them will be eliminated at the judging session. The designers bum out. Goil interviews that his reaction was, "Todd, I don't want to go home. I want to hang out with you!" Okay, it's official; I like him. (Next week: Goil reveals he's really a bitch on wheels.) Felicia sums it up as "pretty harsh." Todd dismisses them to get to work.

Workety-work. At least three teams seem to have had the following though process: "There's green in two of the items. The client must like green. We should paint the walls green." In a non-green room, Michael touches a wall panel and comes away with a palmful of stain or paint. John yells at him like he's a twelve-year-old, which he sort of is. Michael marches off, pouting, "I hate him." John back-atchas the sentiment. He gripes about having to "babysit."

Todd arrives for a looky-loo. He admires the green in Heather and Lisa's room. Heather interviews that he complimented their paint because that's all they had ready. Well, it is a fairly nice green. Ryan is pulling up tape, which Todd interprets as a good sign. The green here is more of an acid lime. Ryan is feeling good. "I can see a lot of you guys have used green," Todd observes while standing in Erik and Carisa's green-on-green striped room. He congratulates them on their progress. Over in Matt and Felicia's room, he spots a problem with a seamed fabric panel; the selvage (or seam allowance, as Felicia calls it) is "locked" so it doesn't have any give, unlike the rest of the fabric, which drapes. "You might want to think about unlocking that selvage and then your fabric will relax," he advises. Shouldn't a designer know this? It's not like seams are a rarity in their world. Matt interviews that having Todd Oldham critique his work was kind of nerve-wracking. He examines the seam while wearing a white coverall, like he's about to go excavate asbestos or some other hazardous material.

Goil zips off to fetch furniture. People start loading stuff into their spaces. Erik interviews that they all started loading with about an hour left on the clock, so everyone was busy. Heather and Lisa discover that their centerpiece bed has been broken down into a gazillion pieces, which now have to be reassembled. Heather recaps the discovery, and admits that the bed could not have been brought down in one piece. Their carpenter studies the pieces and he starts putting it together with Lisa's help. Or maybe "help." I can't tell. Heather watches with a frowny face and voiceovers that she was "freaking out." Lisa sends her off to finish "everything else." Frantic, rushing workety-work. Todd arrives, calling the five-minute mark. Designers hustle. Todd counts down the last five seconds and they're done.

Todd tells them that all the rooms look "dynamic" but now it's time to hand things over to the judges. Goil recaps the part about two people getting the boot; he doesn't want to be one of them.

Some time later, the designers file into the White Room, which is probably more of a cream. The front and back walls have a large-scale quilted and button-tufted effect which is probably not actually fabric. A third wall seems to be covered by a scrim-like curtain. We don't see the fourth wall, because the cameras are over there. The judges sit on tall, gilt stools and the designers stand at attention across the room.

So, this room. It does remind me of the judging room on Design Star. The good news is, the walls are not purple. However, the judges are separated from the designers by a sea of shiny black flooring. It's just not that interesting a space. I think the judges should be on a platform. And instead of the spindly stools, I'd like to see them sitting in historically significant chairs that change from week to week: Eames, Stickley, Chinese Chippendale. If there's an outdoor project, the judges could lounge in Adirondack chairs. Just as long as it doesn't turn into the Ikea Chair of the Week.

Todd welcomes the designers and recaps the challenge. Time to meet the judges. The lead judge is Jonathan Adler. Heather interviews that "his product design is amazing" and she's honored to be in his presence. Next is Kelly Wearstler. Andrea gives her props for mixing "glam into everything she does." Finally, we have Margaret Russell, editor-in-chief of Elle Decor. She smiles at the designers all kittenish and cute, but you know she can slash a jugular before you can blink. Carisa comments, "There probably isn't a better person to give us advice." Well, I don't know if "advice" is going to be the right word for it.

And the fourth judge is the mystery client, an actress and "member of Hollywood royalty" -- Alexis Arquette. John is starstuck because "she rocks it." Ryan snarks that without his glasses, he wondered "How did they get Iggy Pop in drag?" Probably by asking, Mr. Oh-I'm-So-Punk-Rawk. I mostly know her for being an Arquette, but she seems to have interesting taste, so we'll see how it goes. Todd decamps and Jonathan takes over.

Jonathan recaps the challenge again and announces that the judges will be looking at their work now. Carisa regrets not giving into her wild and crazy instinct. I think the whole logistics of the judging and the judging room need some work; this back-and-forthing feels awkward.

So we're back in the warehouse-like space, with the teams lined up with their rooms. The judges stroll, notebooks in hand.

Everyone heads back to the White Room for the judges' critiques. Jonathan summarizes: "Some of it was really, really good and some of it wasn't." Erik and Carisa are up. Jonathan says he gets "playful" and "young" from the five objects, but not from their room. Erik explains that they wanted to go contemporary "without beating it into the ground." Margaret wants to know about the pillow bonanza. Carisa wanted to fill up the space, and they might come in handy if you had a lot of guests over. "Party in the inner sanctum!" Nope, I don't think that was the idea. Nice thought, but not the assignment. I love their "fireplace" wall, though.

Jonathan turns to Goil and Elizabeth -- who came up with the sand pit? Elizabeth raises her hand. Kelly praises their originality. Margaret wonders about seating; she didn't think the swing looked comfy. Jonathan queries Alexis, who sat in it; she admits the swing was more comfortable than she expected. I think having a back cushion helped. I really like the idea of the swing, and the sand pit could make a nice Zen garden, but I would place the swing adjacent to the pit rather than over it. If you make a nice sand design, you don't want to step all over it on the way out.

Now Heather and Lisa. Jonathan asks whose vision it is, Heather describes how Lisa "immediately" drew a daybed, and then they "created around that." Margaret asks if they were under budget and Heather confesses. Jonathan wonders why they didn't "splurge" on some terrific pieces, but Lisa argues that they "nailed it" with the bed and they didn't want to distract from it. Jonathan just wouldn't pass up the opportunity to get all spendy if the client would let him get away with it. When Jonathan asks, Margaret admits she wouldn't publish the room in her magazine; it's too theme-y. I love the bed for sprawling, but the room is entirely too busy. For all Lisa's talk about serenity, she picked some ornate pieces, and she piled in a lot of stuff.

Jonathan wonders if Ryan and Andrea's room would work as an inner sanctum for Alexis. She comments, "It's almost like you took these things and threw them in a box and shook it up, and these things became a room. But I wasn't so sure if you were being too literal." Andrea answers, "I think we were really responding to the objects themselves and I think we really took this as, this is a vibe, and can we blow that up into 3D space." In other words, yes, they were being literal; they designed the room to "be" the objects. Kelly likes the "dialog" of the painted floor and walls. I think the furniture arrangement was rather sparse, though.

Jonathan tells Matt and Felicia that their room was "really, really chic" but he didn't see the client's personality. Felicia speaks to the "relaxation" angle. Matt explains that they used neutrals so the display object would "pop" and be the focus of attention. Now Jonathan gets what they were going for. Kelly compliments them for playing with the space itself; she liked the bench. Margaret complains that the bench is too high for the table. Felicia explains how the bench math works out to eighteen inches. I get the point of the neutrals, but without the featured object(s) to brighten things up, it's pretty dark and sort of dull.

Margaret wants to know if John and Michael were designing for a man, since they placed a man's shoes under the table. John explains that he tried to "stage" the room to be "very warm and inviting." And since Alexis is the judge, it was her "man there waiting." Jonathan likes the "narrative." However, he's "struck by the chasm between you guys." John admits that they were very bad at working together. Michael explains, "John is not somebody who should ever work in a team, and there is no team that should be subject to working in a team with him." But, Michael concludes, the room expresses both their viewpoints. Kelly asks if it was a "50/50 collaboration." Michael agrees and looks challengingly at John, who thinks the room is about 70% him. Michael wants him to break it down, but John is all, "They asked for my opinion." Michael turns to the judges and asks, "How do you argue with a narcissist?" How long do you think it took him to compose that line for the judges? You can just see him thinking, "Ownage!" Margaret is not amused. John announces that his "skin is crawling." Jonathan is like, TMI, dude. John continues that "It was the worst situation I have ever been exposed to" while Michael looks around all, "Can you believe this guy?" Michael argues that he "dove right in" and painted. Jonathan is surprised that he has never painted. Michael breaks out his "I've watched plenty of homes being painted" line, but the judges are all, dude, you have to get dirty. Michael insists that he did. John essentially calls him a big, fat liar. The room is nice, but again, I don't see the client's personality.

Jonathan puts an end to it by sending them all away while the judges review. Margaret thinks Erik and Carisa had a "tasteful room" but nothing special. Kelly commends the fireplace, though. Margaret was not impressed with the little round table. Jonathan calls the room "a bummer." Jonathan thinks Goil and Elizabeth were "totally original" if "weird." Alexis comments that the horizon line pulls the viewer out of the room and makes the room more of "an experience." Kelly thinks "unique and original" is much harder than "pretty." Margaret hates the rake sitting on the bench; it made her think of a litter box. Kelly gets the Japanese sand garden idea, though. Jonathan turns to Ryan and Andrea. Kelly likes their effort. Margaret observes it's the only room with anything "glitzy" or "mod" but "at the end of the day, to me it looked like a reasonably sophisticated dorm room." Jonathan is forced to agree. (Me, too.) Alexis found Heather and Lisa's room "a little cluttered." Kelly is thinking Chinese restaurant. Alexis agrees it would be hard to display any objects in the room. As for Matt and Felicia, Alexis loved the niche wall. Margaret calls it "tasteful" in a "damning with faint praise" tone and likes their attention to detail, but she's convinced the bench is too high for the table. (I believe she's right.) Jonathan found their display explanation convincing. Alexis thinks her objects would look "more high-end" in that room. Jonathan thinks John was doing most of the work in that partnership. Margaret calls the room "terrific" but doesn't see Alexis in it; Kelly and Jonathan agree. Jonathan verifies that they've reached a consensus.

The designers return. Jonathan reveals that the winners will get "a leg up" in the next challenge, but of course offers no details. Carisa and Erik are safe. They go stand to the side, along the scrim wall. Ryan and Andrea are safe. Now for the winner. Matt and Felicia had a "chic and sophisticated" room which "pushed outside of the box, literally." Kudos to Jonathan for using "literally" correctly. Goil and Elizabeth "captured your client's personality." Alexis chose the winners: Goil and Elizabeth. They hug. Elizabeth interviews that they took a risk, and her "voice as a creator was validated." Goil interviews that he didn't realize that he really wanted to win until he was actually in the White Room. Matt and Felicia are safe. The remaining designers step forward. Heather and Lisa had a theme room. Michael and John get spanked for their bad behavior, and Michael needs to paint. Heather and Lisa get the boot, so Michael and John are safe "for now." Jonathan hugs the departing designers (I'm ignoring the kicker line as a form of protest) and sends them to workroom to get consolation from Todd.

Heather interviews, crying, that losing was her fault, because she let Lisa walk all over her. Lisa is convinced that the judges "made a mistake." Todd arrives for consolation hugs. Lisa interviews the "thousands aspire, but there can be only one" premise. Todd reminds them that design is subjective, because it's personal. More hugs, this time in farewell. Heather interviews that she's really mad, but "the only person I'm angry with is myself." No, I'm pretty sure she's pissed with Lisa, too; she's just following the "how to lose well" script. But plenty of "superstars" have gotten "knocked down" repeatedly only to fight their way back to the top, so she's not giving up.

Interesting challenge. The premise behind the commercialization of design and the branding of designers (that's "branding" in the business sense, not the cowboy sense) is that our stuff tells people who we are. (Shopping is a form of self-expression, and therefore arguably an art form. So no need to feel guilty about that credit card balance!) Here, the designers were challenged to figure out who someone was based on some stuff, and struggled.

I saw three approaches to the challenge:

So it's not surprising that Goil and Elizabeth were the winners. I didn't love their room -- they had too many objects strewn around, like a surrealist painting -- but I loved their overall idea. The wall treatment is subtle, but I appreciate it more each time I see it. The swing is genius; it just needed better positioning. I would have liked to have seen more structure inside the room and a little more attention to function. There was no place to put anything down, so the room seemed more like an art installation than a real, usable space.

I suspected John and Michael were safe. Not because they bring the drama, but because Margaret, who is the hardest judge to please, liked their room. None of the judges liked the Chinese restaurant lobby, so Lisa and Heather were clearly doomed. For all that Lisa was going for a peaceful vibe, that room was far too busy. I think Team Drama got put on the chopping block because the judges (if not the producers) don't care about the drama and spanked them for carrying on at the judging conference.

Overall, the show still has its rough spots, so we'll have to see if they find their groove in the coming weeks.


I just adore your commentary - ever since I started reading it for Design Star

Very enjoyable

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