As Seen on TV
Designers play out their fantasies on the small screen
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 6/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
For two decades, aspiring designers worshipped at the uncompromising altar of CNN's Style With Elsa Klensch. Among the future TV personalities taking notes at home was the young Nate Berkus, son of interior designer and HGTV personality Nancy Golden. TV was clearly in his blood, and he made his first appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show around the time Style was canceled, in 2001.
For his first Oprah assignment, producers got him to book a last-minute flight from Chicago to Boston and assemble a team of local contractors for an apartment renovation. There wasn't much time for sleep. "I broke down the boxes. My field producer and I were Windex-ing," he recalls. "I just had to slap my face and step in front of the camera." The half dozen annual makeovers that Berkus now does for Winfrey's TV show have transformed him into a bona fide sex symbol, stalkers and all. Still, TV has clearly been good to him. "My headquarters is in Chicago, my boyfriend lives in Milan, and my social life is in New York," he says over lunch at a crowded West Village café. How about a turn on Dancing With the Stars? He shakes his head and replies, "They've asked."
At 37, he sells his signature furniture, accessories, and bedding on HSN. And Nate Berkus Associates takes on about 15 big-budget projects annually. "There is no more effective way of growing a design firm," he says.
That's a big part of why every designer I know seems to have a fantasy about being on TV. Ondine Karady—a former Sex and the City set decorator who considers Martha Stewart and Kelly Wearstler role models—is counting on that. If she hadn't been a finalist on the reality-TV competition Top Design, she believes, the Obama administration would never have reviewed her portfolio in the recent search for a White House decorator.
Karady arrives for tea in what appears to be the same fox-trimmed vintage sweater she wore in promotional photos for Top Design, explaining that she sewed on the fur herself. The daughter of Eastern European immigrants—her mother is an architect, her scientist father an amateur woodworker—Karady kept her wits while cast-mates "forgot they were on TV," she says. Nevertheless, she notes the role that producers played in shaping the footage: "I spilled paint in one of the episodes, and it wasn't a huge drama, but they showed it over and over and over."
Since Top Design, she has acquired an entertainment lawyer and a seemingly unlimited supply of interns. She jokes that some fans have even learned how to pronounce her first name if not her last, which sounds a lot like karate. Fans have also stopped her as she shopped with clients at upscale New York showrooms—not exactly the sort of places she found herself during filming. "You try to make it upscale, but you're at Pier 1," she says.
HGTV senior vice president of programming, development, and production Freddy James explains that the makeover audience is "primarily real people, home owners." But in Top 10, a magazine-format show launched since his appointment last fall, a parade of talking heads, from Jonathan Adler to Karim Rashid, alternates with eye candy practically ripped from the pages of shelter magazines.
Designers on television are judged on their looks, too. Karady admits she was unnerved by her own image on tape: "You wore your own clothes, did your own makeup. I saw one episode and was like, 'God, I need to brush my hair.'" Twin sisters Jayne and Joan Michaels of 2Michaels were pressed to wear bright red lipstick after being cast in another show, Double Vision, as a result of an article in Interior Design. "You have to be really careful with your image. You cannot cheapen yourself," Joan Michaels says.
When the shows finally aired, she found the attention stressful. "At first we couldn't stand watching," she recalls. "Then I starting liking it." This despite having to relive the scene when the home owner screamed epithets at her and ordered her out. Despite watching herself cry. "It was like being in boot camp," she says.
Though the $1,000-per-room budget was absurd and the pressure imposed by the accelerated production schedule ridiculous, Jayne Michaels feels she became "addicted to the breakneck pace." She also gets credit from her sister for having an innate sense of what looks good on TV, and the experience has made her off-camera work bolder. Producers particularly prodded the twins to use stronger colors in their TV rooms. "Just because it pops in person does not mean it will pop on television." James warns. The camera-ready citrus orange that 2Michaels chose for a child's bedroom at the Idea House in Bridgehampton, New York, last summer was incontrovertible evidence of a lesson learned well.
Following my friend Amy Lau's 2007 debut at the Kips Bay Decorator Show House in New York, Bravo asked her to star in a reality series about day-to-day life at Amy Lau Design. Guessing the price of that sort of fame, many of us urged caution. Although Lau still thinks about a television career, she shocked network executives with her decision. They said that no one else had ever walked away.
From top: Nate Berkus, photo by Carter Berg; Nate Berkus sofa sold by HSN, courtesy of HSN; guest room by Ondine Karady for Top Design, photo by Isabella Vosmikova/Bravo; Ondine Karady and Little Bear, photo by Jennifer Karady; Idea House girl's bedroom by Jayne and Joan Michaels, photo by Bill Davis/Newsday; Jayne and Joan Michaels of 2Michaels Design, photo by Larry Weinberg; Amy Lau Design lounge for the 2007 Kips Bay Decorator Show House, photo by Roger Davies; Amy Lau, photo by Roger Davies.