Top Design – Quixotic suggestions for Season 2

I was so looking forward to this show.

I love Project Runway, I love the Runway blogs like Blogging Project Runway and Project:RunGay and looked forward to their spin-offs Blogging Top Design and Project: Top Design. And I looked forward to taking a stab at adding my professional voice to the conversation. Well, two out of three ain’t bad, as they say. I loved reading the other blogs, I loved doing it myself. And I loved the other new blogs that sprouted up or expanded to cover the show – such as Kora-in-Hell, Top Design Blogger, Lazarus West, PinkNavy, Eric3000, among others (sorry if I missed anyone!). We’ve actually formed a sort of community.

Sad that it was a lot of effort for a show that lived up to no one’s expectations. I’ve said over and over again that it was too bad that the producers didn’t have the level of creativity, wit, literary depth and knowledge of the decorative arts that the bloggers have. And we’re not paid for our efforts. hmm… (note – when I refer to comments or commenters, I am referring to the readers of the blogs and their posted comments, not the bloggers themselves).

It’s been a huge learning experience for me to read the comments that folks have posted on the blogs. Bravo and its’ producers would be smart to have been reading along. They might learn something should they decide to have another whack at it. Because, it needs some major re-tooling.

This show suffered from a major lack of imagination.

In no particular order, here are some things I think went wrong, and what might be done to fix them.

• The catchphrase – “See you later decorator” was misguided from the get go. Was there no market testing on this? Judge Jonathan Adler claims to have made it up while playing ping pong, or pool, I forget which, with his husband Simon. It must have seemed like a funny quip when you’ve had a few cocktails and are goofing around. But in the face dashing someone’s dreams, it was demeaning in it’s frivolity. Heidi’s clipped “Auf Weidersehen” and Jaclyn Smith’s “You’ve made your last cut” (I think that’s it…) from the very new “Shear Genius” are serious sentiments that match the moment. This phrase also awoke the not-so-sleeping beast that is the debate about who can call themselves an Interior Designer and who is merely a decorator. Of course, Dororthy Draper and Edith Wharton were merely decorators, so, who wants to be lumped in with them… How about “I’m sorry, please turn in your swatchbook” (because, as we all know, we looove a swatch!).

• Not enough Todd Time! Todd Oldham may be a bit unpolished in his delivery, but he was sweet, genuine and a veritable fount of tips and tricks that were helpful to the designers. People like mentors (hence the Tim Gunn phenomenon) and the show really picked up when he was making suggestions to the designers on how to tackle a tricky project. His send-off to the “latered’ contestants were sincere and caring – making “see you later decorator” all the more disingenuous.

• The challenges were created to bring about the most personal drama and the least creative results. It’s my experience that a lot of people think that that they can decorate well, at least for themselves. I can’t say how many times I’ve heard how much people love to decorate, love the shelter mags, love HGTV and know that they could do it themselves if they had the time or money, or no kids. People think that being able to decorate is in the genes; much like we think we can cook, keep organized and balance our checkbooks. And, they think that high budget = high design. It does not.

Add to that the fact that most people have no idea how much high end furniture actually costs. What they don’t realize is that it’s not only about the furniture, it’s about what we do with it; how it’s partnered with its’ surroundings. (pun intended). So, a challenge like the kids room where they had $8,000 and change to spend but had no idea that they were decorating for kids resulted in mostly mediocre spaces that the average person could do themselves, given time and resources. Erik Kolacz’s winning Pirate Room was a winner in the kids eye – but I think he really won for being able to turn around his original plan on a dime. It wasn’t for the actual concept and execution. Any reasonably creative and handy parent could have done that room in a few weekends. This isn’t a slam on Erik at all. He’s a real talent and did what he could with a silly set of parameters. But, the audience got tired of hearing about lots of money being spent and seeing results that at times veered toward the “Trading Spaces” end of the spectrum. Many people may not know how much high end furnishings really cost, but they do know design television. From “Design on a Dime” to “Divine Design” – we see what can be done in 2 days with $1,000 and what can be done with a big team and lot’s of undisclosed cash. When you see $1,000 results from a $10,000 budget, there is a disconnect.

But, what’s the answer? I think it’s a better mixing of smaller vs. larger projects. Here are some challenges that I would like to have seen:

– design and build piece of furniture. Each designer picks from a hat the use, or type, or historical antecedent. They would have to draw schematics and work with a furniture shop to build a prototype.

– create a line of home deco products based on a single color, theme or pattern. Much like Missoni has branched out into home dec (see my recent post here) with their signature colors and patterns, the designers could be challenged to create products using a single theme or inspiration such as the Greek Key or Fleur-de-Lys. They could either just do design drawings or actually produce their line. All major fashion houses and interior designer have their own product lines. So, this is clearly within the scope of an interior designers skills.

These could, in fact, be fairly quick turnaround, relatively low cost, team challenges, judged by their success as creative and marketable products and team player skills – “Apprentice” style.

I didn’t mind the design “pods” in the PDC as much as others did. But week after week was just too much. And please, cut doors and windows into them – it’s reality tv people! Actual room design challenges, with actual clients, needed more time to plan and execute and more time spent in the evaluations. The audience was looking to be educated on the process of interior design, while enjoying the personal clashes. It’s why Project Runway is so popular – we get to see how their minds work and how they construct their garments. And we get to see how they are judged. Project Runway is about design and sewing, where the drama is an accessory. Top Design was all drama in front of a dimly lit back ground of design and construction.

It is not possible to design and build a room in the same time it takes to design and sew a garment. They needed 4-5 days for each larger challenge in order to really make something special. Even then, they’d be cutting corners unless they had a huge team of folks behind them – sewers, carpenters, electricians, tile guys, etc.

• The judges – I think the judges were all basically fine and would warm up to their roles if given the chance. I wanted to see more actual debate between them. I think there was a lot of mutual respect that made it hard for them to contradict one another on television – but good critiques would have come out of more heated debates. Instead, the viewers had nothing to do but think about Kelly’s crimped hair and Jonathan’s bare ankles. Neither came off looking like the true talents that they are because of the antics of their stylists and, in JA’s case, his peculiar use of “Adlish”, as someone else called it. Too many quips and cuteness. By contrast, Margaret Russell was seen as a kind of dragon lady when in fact, she’s the only one who looked like she took her role seriously. Plus, she had some of the actual best one-liners of the show.

• The Contestants – I think they were all fine. A nice varied mix of personalities, styles, ages and skill sets. A little less people editing would be nice. They delight in creating “personalities”. While they aren’t putting words into the contestants mouths – Carisa really did roll her eyes too much, Michael really did say he’d never painted a room before – they are only showing one side of these folks. It’s playing with the audiences emotions and, in the end, they are only shooting themselves in the foot. Why would serious professionals ever want to be on a show that might make them look like a fool, a biatch or egotist? (anyone wonder why the numbers are down for those auditioning for Project Runway season 4?).

Since I just spent all this time my “TD manifesto for change”, I clearly think they should do a second season. While working at PBS station WGBH, I watched several programs go from development to production. Changes were made and hits were born. You can’t imagine what the first versions of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” looked like. You’d never have seen a hit coming. It took creative thinking and a willingness to think outside the box on the parts of the producers. Oh, and Rockapella. Perhaps they’d come do the theme song?

So, gentle readers, what say you? Any suggestions for change? Write them in the comments section.

And what do you think, should there even be a season 2?

Should there be a Season 2 of Top Design?
No free polls

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xoxo Linda

18 thoughts on “Top Design – Quixotic suggestions for Season 2”

  1. I am very unenthusiastically voting for a season two. I guess I would watch it but they had better make improvements.

    You’re suggestions are great!

    My biggest problem with the show (other than too many terrible group challenges) was the ridiculous PDC budgets. Most viewers just can’t relate to buying a couch that costs twice as much as their new car. Even if I could afford it, I would not spend $10,000 on a table; that just seems like a waste of money to me. I enjoyed seeing the desingers build their own furniture, shop at resonably priced stores outside the PDC and even going to garage sales because I could relate to that.

    And yes, they should do more designing. Just picking out expensive furniture is decorating. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

  2. The thing is that those big budgets are realistic in the world of high end interior design. That was part of the point I was trying to make – that if you’re going to work with those budgets, the viewing audience has to be shown what you’re getting for the money and why it’s not totally unrealistic. Or you lose them, which is what happened.

    I think if we all sat down and added up the replacement cost of everything in our homes, we’d realize two things. 1) we are all under-insured, and 2) $150,000 for an entire loft space wasn’t as nutso as it may seem. I’m sure that my 1200 sq. ft. condo filled with Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, antiques and family hand me downs, would easily have a replacement value of $50,000. So, it’s not absurd to think that high end would be double or triple that.

    Also, what’s the point of calling it Top Design if it’s not the Top? On Project Runway, we hear of $200 budgets, so it doesn’t seem like a crazy thing. And it’s why the judges will say a garment “looks expensive”. But, how much is a couture garment from an established designer? $5,000? $50,000? I heard Helen Mirren’s Oscar dress was some crazy amount of money – $75K? Could be urban legend, but it had to be a lot. So, is one designer dress equal to the furniture in an entire room? Hard to judge.

    The show needed to be able to really show the results of bargain shopping vs. high end. Theoretically, it was good to see them have to make do with lower budgets and bargain shopping, but it’s not realistic in the actual interior design world. It’s realistic to our personal worlds. Neither is expecting interior designers to be able to build their own furniture. One person can’t be expected to be a master at professions that require years of mastery. I can sew very well and make great pillows and small items and simple window treatments. I don’t have time, nor is it worth my time, to learn to master drapery making. I hire out for that. Likewise, I could design a beautiful chair or table, but I couldn’t make it. Does that make me less of a designer?

  3. I So agree with 99.999% of what you said. The suggestion to do a piece of furniture would just be fabulous and fun!

    There were too many rooms which could have been replicated in pretty much any generic furniture store. That’s not design at all.

    I think there should be a second season, too. But only if it’s not the SOS. If Blahvo can learn its lesson….then again, after seeing Shear Hell the other night….maybe not…

  4. Excellent suggestions. I would add that they need to make it more like Project Runway in that the carpenters are a bigger part of the competition.

    I don’t mind using the pods some of the time — that is part of the profession. But it is too boring for viewers. Another problem with the pods is that it limits the space planning aspect of being a designer.

  5. Linda, all great suggestions. I think they should do season 2 in NYC. That would mix things up a bit. Take care and keep blogging.

  6. Yes Marius NYC! I totally agree.

    Great suggestions Linda. THe PRG boys, have posted a link to Matts floor plan. I would be interested in what you think.

  7. Mumbles – I saw that as well and copied the image. I have a bit of a desire to try to recreate the floor plan and see what I would do. But, without any measurements – which weren’t on Matt’s plans – it would be very time consuming and I’m not sure if I have the time! But, maybe..

  8. Linda,

    I completely understand what you are saying. I understand that those are the kinds of budgets that real high-end designers would be working with. I’m just saying that having a designer walking into a store and picking out a really expensive piece of furniture isn’t very exciting to watch on television.

    So maybe it wasn’t so much the budgets but the lack of creativity that annoyed me. When they actually purchased cheaper items they were able to change the upholster or finish, which is something I think you would do, as apposed to just buying something right out of the showroom. But they didn’t have options like that because they were just borrowing these pieces from the PDC.

    Also, I think designers often design custom pieces, even if they don’t build them themselves. I know they didn’t have time to send out for much custom made furniture but that’s some of the creativity I was missing by simply shopping in a showroom all the time. That’s why I liked it when the carpenters made built-in pieces. Even though they weren’t as nice as a real custom-made piece, it was still more interesting to watch than just shopping. Not that there is anything wrong with shopping!

    Correct me if I’m wrong. For high end design, in addition to paying a lot of money, wouldn’t you also choose upholstery and customize things sometimes?

    Sorry for the long comment.

  9. Honey, I am the queen of the long comment, so no worries there.

    And, you’re absolutely right, a big part of the process was missed because they couldn’t do any customization. And that’s not just high end design. Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel offer fabric and wood finish options. I think that’s why I’d like to see some smaller design/build projects like a single piece of furniture, or fabric line, etc. Then we’d see this part of the process, mixed in with the bigger PDC shopping excursions.

    I love all these comments and coming back to read them, because I think it helps us figure out what exactly we were missing.

    Another small challenge idea that just popped into my head – maybe that they have to repurpose an item intended for one thing and make it something else. Like a chandelier out of bottle caps or a functional table out of cardboard boxes. I think the audience would react better to a mix of big and small challenges because we’d see more direct creativity. And, I think as a designer, I’d respond better to this kind of challenge.

  10. p.s. I know it would be time consuming but I would love to see your take on the floor plan. I’m tempted, myself. There has to be a better way of incorporating bedrooms into that space.

  11. allrighty, seems like we’re itching to wrap our heads around this thing. So, I will see about creating a measured floor plan which I’ll put up in a post for whoever wants to try to tackle this space planning challenge.

    If anyone – you know, Carisa, Matt, bravotv – whoever – has an actual measured drawing and wanted to email it to me, anon-like, I’d be grateful.
    Maybe we’ll do our own mini-Top Design competion!

  12. Hope I’m not too late to throw in my thoughts about TD1 and 2? and that Linda, you truly don’t mind long comments. Here goes.

    As usual, the comments and suggestions here have a lot of merit. I’m one of those who is in the anti-PDC-cube camp, especially to the extent they were used this season. Among my beefs are that the pods do not allow “real world” space planning or lighting planning. While I suspect that many viewers feel relatively confident in their own ability to select furniture (especially with a budget), lighting and space planning are aspects of interior design most laypeople are less adept at, and one reason they turn to professionals. I think most of us had hoped to learn more from TD than we did, and the interest viewers have expressed in Matt’s loft floor plan both here and on PTD suggests this is an area we would have liked to see addressed more in the show. Having said that, it tends to be very difficult to photograph real rooms with real lighting so that they are easy for the viewer to grasp. On the lighting front, I think Goil tried to do something very interesting in his hotel room with having light emanate from behind the upholstered wall panels to make his room seem like a giant lantern and fit in with the element of fire, but it was virtually impossible to see that on TV with the overhead lights in the PDC pod washing them out.

    My other suggestion for an area needing improvement is that there needs to be more emphasis on working with a client, instead of so many contrived “twists.” As someone else has pointed out, I think we would have seen much more interesting children’s rooms if the designers had known from the get-go they were designing for children, and I certainly think we would have seen more interesting rooms for Episode 1 if the designers knew they were designing for Alexis Arquette. The SUV/garage family challenge was a totally ridiculous product-placement contrivance and did not produce results anyone was interested in. The cabana challenge did not have an individualized client. The Bacardi challenge was for a corporate client and a little far afield from what the majority of interior designers work on. To some degree, so was the hotel room challenge. The chef’s table challenge was for a somewhat more individual client, but it was still a little far afield. I’m not sure you could even say the “client” for the Elle Décor challenge was Elle Décor, since the designers were asked to “imitate but not imitate” existing designs (besides, based on my experience working on magazines, one of the first reasons a potential piece gets rejected is that it is perceived to be too similar to something else the magazine has done recently; if they were going to give the designers a chance to do something truly “editorial,” they should not have given them the amorphous restriction of basing that design on an existing cover). Designing for oneself in the final challenge was a bit of a “gimme.”

    A sprinkling of these over the course of a season could have been ok, but alas they predominated, and too many of the challenges were too tangential from what most of the lay audience could relate to in terms of their own home living spaces to offer much take-away value. I believe the only challenge that was, from the beginning, for a specific client the designers had a genuine opportunity to meet with prior to beginning the design process was the dorm room episode. Unfortunately, not only did we get to see only very limited footage of the student-clients’ reactions, if I remember correctly, Adler was the only one of the judges who actually talked with the student clients to hear their reactions (or was that the children’s challenge?). In any case, my sense was that the judges paid scant attention to how well the designers satisfied their clients and instead based their decisions more on their own subjective design aesthetics.

    Of course, how could you ever know for sure how the judges arrived at their decisions? We never got to see enough of their deliberations to gain much insight. On PR, and usually on TC, I feel I hear enough of what the judges have to say that, even if I don’t agree with it, I have some idea what they felt worked or didn’t work for them, and I learn something from that. TD, not so much.

    Finally, I think Bravo’s best bet if they want to try another season of TD is to bring in a different production company and give it a mandate to make some serious changes. TD was produced by Stone and Co., and it sunk like a . . . I think it says something that “The Assistant,” with his self-important, off-topic ramblings, is who they chose to represent them as a blogger on While I have much respect for the designers, I never got the feeling that the people behind the production were remotely knowledgeable, let alone interested, in the field of interior design. Furthermore, the editing was dreadful, and I’m not just talking about how they edited the contestants to appear as two-dimensional caricatures and to heighten drama (a given in this genre). When you look at a show like PR, the editing is fast-paced and it mixes in much less annoying music to keep the viewer on the proverbial edge of the couch. Too much time on TD was drawn out with the judges clomping through the echoing PDC cubes, saying little between themselves or to the designers that ever made it onto the screen. Heck, they couldn’t even edit this show so we could be clear what the judging criteria were. If there is to be a TD2, it either needs to give more insight into the creative process or be a silly, fast-paced hoot a la Shear Genius.

    Whew, glad to get that off my chest. Thanks!


  13. Carisa’s plan on Project top design. When I first glanced at it I thought the lofts were different. But she included the hallway into the loft in her drawing

  14. EG! thanks for your comments. All good ones. Because I can’t pass up a challenge, I’ve just posted a floor plan of the loft space that I cobbled together. Let’s create our own “Top Design FINAL Challenge”!

  15. I, too, voted for a 2nd season largely because I found it very refreshing to see how supportive Andy Cohen was/is of the bloggers and have no doubt that some of the input has found its way to the powers that be.

    I recall reading one of the PTD comments re: the luxury suite challenge. They questioned why they didn’t double the size of the cubes. I thought that question was brilliant. I can understand starting out with a tiny (12×12?) cube when there are 12 designers but I see no reason why they couldn’t have increased the square footage of the cubes as space became available. It was pointed out that Carisa’s air-vent design would have fared better in a larger space & I have to agree.

    Heather’s Here’s Heather post on the finale on BTD also raised the question of why eliminated designers weren’t brought back to assist the two finalists. This is another stumper. Bringing back eliminated contestants has become such a key element in the Bravo formula that I was really surprised it wasn’t used for Top Design.

    It’ll be interesting to see how the show evolves but I suspect the focus will remain on manufactured drama vs. showcasing the design industry.

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