It’s never easy to be the first one sent home on a reality competition show, but HGTV Design Star Season 5 finalist Julie Khuu is taking her dismissal after the premiere episode in stride.  I spoke to the Santa Ana interior designer earlier today and got her take on the good, the bad, and the bitchy.

The White Room Challenge is a given on every season of Design Star.  Did you come prepared with ideas for this task?

Of course.  I had been thinking about the White Room Challenge ever since I knew that I made the show, but because of the different variables and conditions, you can’t really plan anything.  I really wanted to do a million things at once!  The hardest thing for me was just to focus on one idea and run with it.

Julie Khuu and Tom Vecchione team up to design a space for each other that reflects who their fellow contestants are as designers and as people.  © 2010, HGTV

Julie Khuu and Tom Vecchione team up to design a space for each other that reflects who their fellow contestants are as designers and as people.

What was the one idea that you ran with?

I really wanted to capture Tom’s personality and not necessarily his lifestyle.  We were talking about how he wanted the space to make him feel like, so I was trying to capture more of an experience and a mood.  His personality was so dynamic and I really wanted to bring that out.  I didn’t want to go the simple route or paint the walls one color.  I wanted to show an artistic approach to it, and went with a concept of bringing the four different elements of feng shui (water, fire, earth, air) into balance.  I think from concept to execution it was starting to become too literal, but at that point you just kind of have to go with it and go with your gut.

How did the pressure affect your design decisions?

Oh my gosh, it was insane!  I always have a really good idea of what I want the spaces I design to look like.  Under normal conditions in everyday life, you obviously have a little more time to seek that out.  I think I was very effective and trusted my instincts.  The minute I came up with a solution, I just went with it.  I didn’t really think about it.  I didn’t think about anything other than the time constraints and my original concept.

Julie Khuu of Santa Ana, California shops at Pearl River Market in Chinatown for the first week's challenge on Design Star season 5. © 2010, HGTV

Julie Khuu of Santa Ana, California shops at Pearl River Market in Chinatown for the first week's challenge on Design Star season 5.

Was there anything you would’ve done differently?

Oh, absolutely.  In retrospect, I think I could’ve done a lot of things differently, but I don’t think my thought process allowed me enough time to go a different route.  I think I would’ve been a little more thoughtful with the paint application.  I would’ve taken a bit more time to lessen the chaos of how it was applied.  I have to say I really defend the feathers on the floor.  When I first spoke to Tom, I asked him how he felt about fur–was he okay with me using a fur throw or fur pillows? How did he feel about the texture?  He loved it.  The idea was to create an inset carpet almost like a flokati rug.  Tom loved it when I was finished, so when the judges blasted it, I so defended my choice.  When it all came together, I definitely see where the missteps were.  I relate it to my fashion choices–some days I hit, some days I miss, but every day I take a risk.  That’s really how I kind of live my life and that’s my approach to design.  I never want to be boring.  I always want to be memorable.  In some cases, some of those days are memorable for really good reasons, and then some are not so good reasons, and I just think this is one of those days where it was a miss.  Obviously, if I would’ve had a bit more time, I definitely could’ve executed better, but I don’t have any regrets.

Julie Khuu's ill-fated faux finish. © 2010, HGTV

Julie Khuu's ill-fated faux finish.

How did the carpenter help you with this challenge?

Gosh, it was one of those things where I felt in the first five minutes of meeting the carpenter that they were trying to sabotage me!  She kind of had the same skill set that I did, and I am no carpenter.  So I didn’t feel as though, construction-wise, it was an advantage to have her.  I didn’t.  I just relegated her to the sidelines and didn’t really get her involved in my space.  I couldn’t depend on her to paint since it was a faux finish, so I basically took on a major part of that room with no construction help.  I obviously knew that everything that got executed had to be done myself.  In the amount of time we were allotted, I was just trying to keep her busy.  I know that they didn’t show her in the show, and I think for good reason.  She didn’t really do much.  I also kind of knew that I was either going to get really lucky with the carpenter or I was not—and fully prepared to not.  I knew it was going to be me who kept myself there or me who sent myself home.  I couldn’t really blame anybody but myself, obviously.  But I think that if I had the help of a really great carpenter, I could’ve done a lot more things with the room.

Did you think you deserved to go home?

Absolutely not!  I didn’t think my room was the worst, by any means.  I definitely agreed with the judges as far as execution goes, but a lot of those rooms were not executed to the judges’ liking.  I think that my room was definitely complete.  They just didn’t like the elements in the room.  It was a very subjective call.  I don’t think it warranted a need to go home first, I’ll tell you that!  I wish that I’d had a lot more time to show them what I could do, but under the conditions, I just had to take it with a grain of salt—take this and move on.

Who do you think should have gone home?

I definitely think that Emily (Henderson) should have gone home.  I wasn’t excited about her room.  It lacked a certain design aesthetic and personality that should come from every designer.  I think that, to be a great designer, you kind of have to understand an aesthetic.  I didn’t get that from her room at all.  Her room lacked the personality that she has in real life.  The judges obviously liked her personality in her hosting presentation, so I definitely think that’s why they kept her around.  Design-wise, I think her room was far worse than mine.

Emily Henderson's white room.  © 2010, HGTV

Emily Henderson's white room. © 2010, HGTV

Did you think her room was worse than Dan Faires’?

Absolutely!  The things in Dan’s room at least captured somewhat the essence of Stacey (Cohen).  I could tell that a female lived in that room, though it was very plain.  I think it had those elements that spoke to the audience visually.  However, with Emily’s room, the color palette and the elements that she put in the room didn’t look like she spent a lot of time on the design.  I didn’t think it had any artistic value to it.  If you look at each of the individual rooms, you kind of had to step back and think, “could anybody do this, or did it take a design professional?”  I think with Emily’s, if you had given someone the tools to re-execute that room, I think it would be a really easy challenge.

Dan Faires' design for fellow contestant Stacey Cohen. © 2010, HGTV

Dan Faires' design for fellow contestant Stacey Cohen.

What did you really think about the room that Tom designed with you in mind?

Oh my gosh.  Robin, I loved that room!  I actually thought that he would win for that room.  I thought it was highly stylistic and editorial.  I thought it could be sold for an ad for Absolut Vodka or something.  It just felt really editorial to me, and I kind of thought that was what the challenge was.  I didn’t back him up to be polite or because we were friends.  I was just floored by his room and even more surprised that he was in the bottom six along with the rest of us.

Tom Vecchione's bedroom design, inspired by Julie.

Tom Vecchione's bedroom design, inspired by Julie.

So Tom’s room was your favorite?

Yes.  I thought Tera did an amazing job, too.  I thought that her room looked like it had a very staging-model-home-esque presence to it.  It was a really photogenic room.  I think for a functional room, I really loved Tera’s and for a purely conceptual and editorial one, I really loved Tom’s.

Tera Hampton's bedroom design, inspired by Trent.

Tera Hampton's bedroom design, inspired by Trent.

Do you think Nina (Ferrer) deliberately set Courtland (Bascon) up?

Absolutely, without a doubt!  I don’t know if it was something that was premeditated before the competition, but I definitely believe that in that moment, throwing him under the bus was deliberate.  I think she was definitely playing the game.

Nina Ferrer and Courtland Bascon face Design Star judges Candice Olson, Genevieve Gorder and Vern Yip.

Nina Ferrer and Courtland Bascon face Design Star judges Candice Olson, Genevieve Gorder and Vern Yip.

Trying to pack twelve rooms into one hour—it really went by so quickly.  I feel like we missed so much.  Was there anything that was left on the cutting room floor that you wished had been aired?

I would’ve liked to have seen a little bit more of the judges’ critique– I don’t think we got to see enough of how the judges came to their conclusions.  I definitely agree that those twelve rooms went by so quickly.  You got to see more of the bottom six than the top six.  I think everyone should’ve gotten equal share.  Design definitely came second in the show.  That was a surprise to me.

Then Julie turned the tables and asked me how I liked the new format—which I have already yammered on about—and brought up an interesting point about former Design Star host, Clive Pearse.

I definitely was missing Clive.  In the instant that you go into these challenges, having someone to talk to who’s kind of on your side would’ve been nice.  It was really somber the minute you stepped into the studio during elimination!

What are you working on now?

I have a couple of residential projects I’m working on that are in the concept stage.  I write a daily blog about fashion, design, and lifestyle.  It’s not necessarily design-heavy.  It’s more about my interests and my critiques of the show as well.  I just want to get my thoughts out there and see what the viewer response is.

Catch Design Star on HGTV, Sunday nights at 10 pm ET. All photos © 2010, HGTV.