Friday, April 20, 2007


The Ooh Factor

Previously on Top Design: disappointment. Cool idea, uninspiring execution. I think it could be better.

But first, in the spirit of constructive criticism, let's look at what was good:

  1. No wakey-wakey montages. Project Runway used to drive me crazy. In order to let the viewers know that it was a new day, they would show us several shots of designers trying to rouse themselves out of bed. This was not only boring but occasionally unappetizing. When Top Design begins a new day, we see designers having breakfast or designers heading out or designers arriving at the PDC. In general, designers interacting. Far more civilized.
  2. Todd Oldham. I don't care about his hosting prowess. A host handles exposition; a good host is a delight, but a bad host is not significant enough to wreck a show (see the first season of Top Chef). What I love is his interactions with the designers. If Tim Gunn is the professor with exacting standards whose approval you long for, Todd is the cheerleader in your corner who always knew you could do it. His kindness doesn't keep him from raising pertinent issues, but he's always confident that you'll come up with a solution. And nothing could soothe the lacerated self-esteem of a booted contestant like one of Todd's fond farewells.
  3. The party tent challenge. It reminds me of Top Chef's Restaurant Wars challenge: Yes, it's a team challenge, but it's a good one. There's enough scope for everyone to exercise their abilities, but the objective is well-defined. And we got to see the designers work with real, 3-dimensional spaces, even if they didn't have walls in the traditional sense. I don't care if the space varies from season to season (hotel reception rooms, gazebos in the park), but keep the task.
  4. The garage sale challenge. Every designer should know how to stretch a dollar. More importantly, every designer should know how to recognize and imagine possibilities. The garage sale challenge really illustrates how designers think about objects, and for that alone, it needs to stay. But I'd like to see them working in real student or volunteer housing.
  5. The chef's table challenge. There's nothing really specially about this challenge when you get down to it: just a client with specific tastes looking for a specific atmosphere for a specific room with a specific function. They should all be so well-defined.

Now, before I get into detail about what needs to be changed, I have an observation. When you deal with a clothing designer or a chef or a hairstylist, you're spending a fairly limited amount of money for an item or service that is simply one of many items or services you will purchase in your lifetime. And you're exposed to the work of dozens of clothing designers or chefs or hairstylists, so you can pick and choose. So what attracts you to a particular one? Call it the "ooh" factor -- the ability to make you say "ooh, I want that." Now think about how you deal with an interior designer. You're spending thousands of dollars, and you'll be stuck with the results day in and day out for several months at the very least. You want to be reassured that you're making the right choice. So most designers, if they want to earn a living, don't concentrate on standing out; they want to be perceived as stylish but safe, someone who can take the client's taste and make it work. That's not the kind of designer this show is looking for.

So, start with the premise that you want to find a tastemaker, a style-setter, an "ooh" factor. Then think about how you identify someone like that. Hint: it does not involve team challenges.

More than anything else, it's the challenges that need some work. Since it's going to take a while to cover all that, let's discuss some of the smaller problems first:

  1. Cut loose of the PDC showrooms. I'm sure it's convenient not to spend real money on furnishings, but the PDC showrooms cramp the designers' style. They're wickedly expensive and the range of styles is limited. What if your strength is working with antiques or vintage pieces? You're screwed. I do think there should be a luxury challenge -- but just one.
  2. Fix the judging logistics. Meet and greet in the White Room, visit the designers' work while the designers talk about it, then go back to the White Room for Q&A -- too much back and forth. I know you don't want to look like you're copying Design Star, but display the designers' work on video screens while everyone talks about it.
  3. This should leave more time for the judges' comments. Unlike some people, I am willing to believe that the judges know what they're talking about. I'd just like more evidence.
  4. Put the judges in real chairs, for heaven's sake.

Okay, now let's dig into the challenges. The biggest complaints are the lack of real spaces, the number of team challenges and the number of twists. The twists have to go. You can throw them for a loop when you challenge them, but no fair changing the game halfway through. I think there's a certain value in giving designers identical spaces so you can compare their solutions -- but not for every single challenge. After a couple of episodes, we've figured out that Carisa is pop modern and Matt is chic, so it's time to learn something new. I think there's a certain value in seeing how well someone works with others -- but that's already largely covered by their interactions with the carpenters and seamsters. I'm happy to see the party challenge continue as a team challenge; that shows how the designers interact with their creative peers, rather than their subcontractors. And maybe one more team challenge along the way, but that's it.

There are plenty of possibilities for challenges, of course. However, the guiding principle is to find people with the "ooh" factor. So the challenges should fall into three tiers:

  1. Show us your style. It's okay to use fake spaces here so everyone starts with the same blank slate. Make contestants present their point of view. Weed out the people who don't have anything to say.
  2. Show us your professionalism. Have the contestants prove that they can do the job on time, on budget and to the client's satisfaction. Make them demonstrate a solid foundation of technical skills. Weed out the people who don't have the dedication.
  3. Show us your creativity. Make the contestants apply their skills and their points of view to specific situations with difficult limitations. Weed out the people who are good but not great.

So the first two challenges, at a minimum, should be individual challenges that let the designers strut their stuff. If space is limited, you don't have to assign them a whole room; it would be interesting to have everyone create a fireplace or dress a bed or arrange a set of bookcases. Give everyone the same basic room and have them accessorize it. Give everyone the same basic white room and let them change only the color. Have them design the perfect chair. If you're looking for an "ooh" factor, you have to give them a chance to do whatever they want, so keep the clients out of it at first. Give everyone a chance to express themselves and size up the competition.

At this point, it would be interesting to see what the designers think of each other. So I'd be willing to have a large team challenge where the designers have to nominate the two team leaders (you can name yourself, but only once) and then the leaders pick teams. And since the focus of the team challenge is not their design chops (which we've presumably already seen) but their ability to work together, I'd have the guest judge provide the design, which the teams then have to implement in a very limited time. It takes a certain skill to bring a design to life, even if it's yours, but moreso if it's someone else's.

Back to individual challenges for the middle section. Hopefully we've weeded out the weirdos and the hopeless by now, and it's a matter of separating the competent from the accomplished. One of the things the judging sessions illustrated, but left unspoken, was the importance of being able to present your work. So there should be at least one challenge where each designer has to present to the client, and the winner is based on the presentation rather than the design. This doesn't mean the designs get a pass; part of the presentation is defending your choices to the judges once the client has had a say. I like the garage sale challenge; I think that's a keeper if the designers get to work in actual rooms instead of pretend rooms. Perhaps even rooms with limitations on painting and pounding nails. I'd also like to see a challenge involving historical styles; after all the fuss over the combination of mid-century modern and Arts & Crafts, I'd like to see what designers actually know about various design periods.

Then it's the party/event planning challenge, and you should be left with the top of the crop. Now it's time to try to stump 'em. I think you see some of the best creativity in response to constraints. This would be the time for a universal design challenge, perhaps combining that with the luxury challenge. To see how well they've paid attention to the competition, have them design a workspace for another contestant. I'm running out of ideas here, but a common problem for many homeowners is the multipurpose office/guest room. It was a staple on Clean Sweep but they came up with different rooms every time.

And for the final round? If we're looking for tastemakers, we want them to do what they want, but we also want to see if they can get others to respond to their work. So I'd revisit the boutique hotel room challenge, only with real hotel rooms, and let guests vote on which room they like better.

There are plenty of other challenge possibilities. What it all comes down to is, this show could be really good. The challenges are the heart of the show, so work harder at coming up with good ones. And always keep in mind the purpose of the show: to find a designer with the "ooh" factor.


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