Everyone within a certain radius of me (and in the age of Facebook, that can stretch pretty far) has been hearing me talk talk about interviewing the judges from HGTV’s next season of Design Star. The first of these three phone chats was with Vern Yip yesterday. You can catch Vern on a myriad of HGTV shows, including Design Star and Deserving Design.

First, I Asked Vern About Design Star and Trading Spaces

What design trend could a Design Star finalist employ that would immediately make you cringe? I don’t really like to see trends from a Design Star finalist. Somebody who mimics trends in their designs–that’s not somebody I’m really going to be impressed by. I want to see somebody who really brings a lot of originality to the competition.

Sometimes Design Star finalists are required to incorporate some wacky stuff into their designs. What’s the craziest thing a client has asked you to leave in a room? I pride myself on trying to invest myself in what the homeowner wants. Sometimes that’s really divergent with what I would want for myself. On an episode of Trading Spaces, I was redoing a master bedroom for a couple and they wanted it to be romantic, but it had to incorporate their vast collections of bobbleheads and snow globes. Without question, it was a challenge…but that’s what separates a good designer from a bad designer.

Do you think creative reality shows put too much emphasis on having a zany personality versus impeccable design skills? (Thank you to Krista at Badder Homes and Gardens for posting this question on my site…especially funny considering she’s a friend of Michael Stribling’s—last season’s crying freakazoid.) I’m a huge fan of reality television where you’re asking people to mine their creative depths to produce something fantastic. On Design Star, we definitely put talent as number one, but at the end of the day, it’s not enough to have design talent. You’re dealing with a television show, so you have to have a personality. We’re also looking for people who can explain their designs, who are engaging, and who the American public are going to want to watch. That’s part of the requirement.

But yet you selected Michael Stribling and he got all bent out of shape about having to articulate his design view. (I think he actually cried and left in a huff, right?) People sometimes act in ways that they wouldn’t even act in their own real lives when they’re in a competitive setting. When you have a lot at stake and you put a bunch of really creative people together in one room, inevitably you’re including a bunch of really passionate people. Sometimes they transform in that kind of setting. It’s not always a positive thing. Sometimes it’s a negative thing. (Umm, something tells me this is just Michael’s “way,” and not just the stress of the show…but whatever.)

Do you think you would’ve tried out for Design Star back before Trading Spaces?
There’s no way! I never went looking for a television career, it was just something that landed in my lap. I’d won a design award and my face appeared in a magazine so they asked me to try out for Trading Spaces. The opportunity to design is amazing to me, I mean, it’s amazing that that’s my job. (I feel the same way, Vern.) And honestly, I would do it for free, because I love it so much. (Well, I still need the money.) I mean, I’m a really lucky guy. I get to do what I love for a living and I hope everybody at some point gets to feel what that feels like. I had zero desire to win my own television show. But, having said that, I love doing television. I love that it enables me to get a design message across to a much broader audience. Design over the past ten years has gone from just being relegated to the privileged few who had enough money to hire an interior designer and buy the best stuff that was out there. It’s been transformed by television shows and shelter publications and the media. Now design is about improving everybody’s life–at all levels–and that’s what it should be about.

That’s exactly why I got into this business. The public’s become educated on the value of design in their lives and “normal” people are seeing other “normal” people receive that on TV, and yet there’s not really a lot of resources for them. There’s really just the honchos who service the upper crust of society. (But that was then…now you have me, your Room Fu Design Guru!) I agree 100%. I love being a designer not because I have the opportunity to make a room “pretty,” it’s because I have the opportunity–every time I step into somebody’s house–to transform their lives by transforming their space. It’s about improving the quality of somebody’s life by creating a space that is reflective of them, what motivates them, what their desires are…but the best possible version of it. Like maybe they couldn’t have even imagined it for themselves—that it feels just like home.

(While we’re on the subject of Trading Spaces) I was not a big fan of Hildi Santo-Tomas’s or Kia Steave-Dickerson’s work. It seemed like Hildi did what she did for shock value but Kia just didn’t know any better. Where do you personally draw the line between what’s “crazy” and what’s “working?” For me, a great designer really needs to invest themselves in the homeowners. It’s incumbent upon you to figure out what they’re about so that their home becomes a physical manifestation of them. And sometimes, when you do that, you end up doing things that you may consider crazy for yourself but that is right for them. Ultimately, the room has to be a marriage of aesthetics and function. I guess that’s where I would probably draw the line. It has to—on some level—serve the function of what those folks really need it to do. (Which just has to mean nothing like this situation. Am I right?)

Have you ever regretted anything you’ve said during a Design Star critique? You will never hear me say on Design Star “that’s horrible” and that’s it. I’ll always explain where I’m coming from. And I think that allows me to never regret what I say because I don’t say stuff just to say it–just to elicit a reaction. If I had my way, I would constantly be blown away by great design. I don’t
derive any kind of pleasure from having to say to somebody, “this was a disappointment.”

And you also can’t improve if you don’t hear what you need to hear so you can adjust and get better. That’s absolutely true. It’s hard because you’re standing up there and it’s very difficult to not take criticism personally, especially when it’s your creative efforts that are being discussed. But it is a competition series, you have signed up to be judged and hopefully you’re the last person standing.

Last season (Season 3), I’d been such a fan of Matt Locke and his talent but then at the end it was such a struggle to decide between him and Jen Bertrand. I really loved that it was a challenge for me to pick a winner. Yeah, and it should always be that way, honestly. This season it is definitely that way. It was a big, big struggle all the way through this competition because there were a lot of really talented folks. (I’ll believe it when I see it…it appears there’s the usual two or three really great talents surrounded by a bunch of mediocre designers.)

I’ve already cherry-picked my favorites. (If you missed it, my cast critique is here and here.) Oh really? I wanna hear! Tell me who your favorites are!

Amy Sklar and Nate whatever-his-last-name-is. Nathan. I don’t know Nathan’s last name. Gil-lu-lee or something like that? Yeah, something like that.

(Uh-oh. Does that mean I’m wrong and Nathan got kicked off so early that Vern doesn’t know his last name?) They’re both examples of the depth of the field this year. Amy, Nathan, Lonni, Antonio, Jen, Jason…they’re all very talented.

I didn’t really get that about Antonio. He just looked like sort of a schmo in his video. (Vern laughs at this. And then he lectures me about the proverbial book cover.) Well you you can’t necessarily judge a book by its cover. (See?) I think he has a lot of personal style. We look for people with an original voice…which goes back to your first question about trends. I don’t need somebody to regurgitate the trends for me. I need someone who’s bringing something new to the table. This guy has worked with Annie Leibovitz, and David LaChapelle–some of the greats in fine art photography–and has honed his design eye accordingly.

Well, I look forward to having my mind changed. I do recognize the fact that sometimes when I look at the videos of the cast, I think, “gosh, how did they even see anything in that video, because I’m just not getting it,” but then the episodes start airing and you start to see a little bit more and it’s really interesting. Yeah, when we cast the show, we have the added advantage of being able to look at their portfolio, their interviews, see what they’re like in person. Even if you don’t like somebody’s appearance or they don’t come across in a particularly favorable way to you, I would wait to reserve judgement because you want to be able to see what that person can do from a design standpoint. (But that is one of my favorite things in the world, Vern. Don’t take that away from me.)

Well, when I said, “he just seemed like a schmo,” it wasn’t just his personal appearance. He didn’t really articulate much of a design view. He was just kind of like, “hey, I’m in my shed…” (Vern laughs again.) That’s funny!

Then I asked Vern some silly personal questions. Because hey, inquiring minds wanna know.

Describe the circumstances surrounding the first time you were recognized by a stranger. I think I was at a restaurant. Somebody said, “I love your work, I love what you do,” and it was confusing at first but then it becomes clear that they’re a fan of your television work, and it’s really exciting. People say, “oh, gosh, I hate to bother you, but…” or “I didn’t want to interrupt you, but…” To me, it’s never an unpleasant experience. People like what I’ve been doing as a designer…why wouldn’t I want to hear that? It’s something that I’m hugely grateful for. I’m just grateful that anybody watches and cares.

If you couldn’t design your own living space, who would you hire for the job? I’m a huge fan of a photographer named Vik Muniz, and I really love his work because he takes standard things and reinvents how you see it and then photographs it. So he doesn’t really consider himself a photographer, he considers himself more of an artist and the only way to capture what he does is through photography. That’s who I would want to handle my personal space. (Thank gawd you didn’t pick Kelly Wearstler. Because she is just thirteen kinds of wrong.)

Do you consider your current residence your dream home? Yes! I love coming home more than I love going anywhere else. Better than staying at the nicest resort or hotel, or the nicest—wherever–location. I love that it’s a real expression of who I am. It’s contemporary meets traditional meets Asian meets fine art. It’s warm, inviting, comfortable…and when I come through the door, there are four happy dogs to greet me. The house was built in 1925 and I love its imperfections. I love travel and everywhere I go, I bring back something significant. Everything has a story and the house is not filled with things just to be filled…it’s filled with things that have meaning. (Hear, hear!)

As you know, the print world is really hurting and shelter mags are folding left and right. Out of what’s remaining, what do you read on a regular basis? I read everything…House Beautiful, Elle DécorMet Home. Every now and then I pick up Veranda…Dwell. Like you, I was super bummed that Domino went out of business. It was one of the magazines that I really looked forward to getting every month. It approached design from an angle I could really appreciate–meaning, items that were accessible. I guess one of my pet peeves about what I see in magazines is that often they’re populated by things that most people can’t access. (And this is when I really started lovin’ Vern Yip.)

Oh my gawd, I feel the same way. To me, when it says “through your designer only,” I just think to myself, that’s not going to help anybody. There’s great design out there that’s accessible, that people can afford without giving up eating or sending their kids to college! Those are the kinds of things that I look for…really innovative, resourceful things.

My feeling is that anybody can make a $20,000 couch look good. Show me a few good ones that are between $1,500-2,000 or even $800. Right. I totally agree with you, because even if you were a multi-millionaire (your lips to gawd’s ears), I don’t always think that it’s necessary to spend $20,000 or $15,000 on a sofa. Whether you’re trying to transform a room for $100 or $100,000, you should still spend money responsibly. There are so many other things it could be spent on that could benefit the world. When I shoot Deserving Design episodes, I’m meeting the best of humanity–people who are selfless, trying to make the world a better place. I always think to myself, gosh, we could all be doing that. We don’t need to be spending $20,000 on a sofa. You could spend $2,000 and then use the other $18,000 to do something else with it.

That’s why I avoid posting things on my blog that I personally wouldn’t be able to afford, and I’m on a low budget just like many of my readers and clients. Every so often I’ll say, “here is a splurge item,” or I’ll talk about it being fodder for fantasy, but those are very few and far between. Well, I think you’ve made a good point. I’ve never spent $15,000-20,000 on any kind of furniture or accessories or whatever, but if it’s justifiable, it’s justifiable. Many more times than not—it’s not justifiable.

(Here’s where I try to throw Vern a bone and let him get back to business. And then he gifts me with this:) You’d asked something about a designer version of Celebrity Deathmatch.

(I’d asked, “who could you take in a designer version of Celebrity Deathmatch”—my proudest moment in my new Barbara Walters career…and here’s where I get all excited that he’s going to actually give me an answer.) Oh my gawd, are you going to answer that one? Well, not really. Sort of.

*Sound of air rushing out of balloon.*(Then cue the brilliant PR maneuver, where Vern brings up another HGTV show.) The finale of Showdown is happening before the premiere of Design Star this Sunday and that’s like Iron Chef meets the interior design world. So if you want to see me in a competitive situation, it’s myself going against Angelo Surmelis—we’re both undefeated. This is a big tie-breaker. (This is not the “I could whip Jonathan Adler’s ass!” kind of declaration I was gunning for.)


Then Vern found out I live in Austin. And he got all excited and gushy. Which I really liked.

What a great city! Lo-o-o-ve Austin, Texas! Do you love it? (Yes, Vern. I do.) Austin, to me, is like the jewel of Texas. I’m sure I’m gonna get killed by all the other Texans out there, but…if I had to move to Texas, I would move to Austin. I never have a chance to go just to go hang out. It’s always been work-related and I’ll try to squeeze in one or two extra days, but I always cherish those extra days.

What’s your favorite haunt in Austin? I remember there being this street, very pedestrian-oriented with lots of great restaurants where you could just hear live music playing and great original stores, no chain stores. (SoCo, for all of you out-of-towners)

Check back later in the week for my phone chat with Candice Olson!