Taniya’s heirloom Wassily chairs.
You’ve transitioned from focusing on residential design to restaurant design—not only on Restaurant Impossible, but you’ve also teamed up with your husband by designing his Boston restaurants. What is it about restaurants that has piqued your interest?
I love the fast pace of it. One of the things that is really fabulous about designing on television is that we have these lightning speed turnarounds for makeovers, whereas in real life, residential design takes a lot longer. As a designer, you know it can take a while to get an answer from the client on a chandelier or whatever. With restaurant owners, there’s no mucking around. They need to open—every day gone is a dollar gone. They need to start making money. What I love about the challenge of doing restaurant design is you get to be over-creative. Not that you can’t do that with a house, but you can push the envelope that much further because it’s a restaurant. They’re looking for something unique. At the same time, there’s a balance to strike with money. I know this because my husband and I are in the restaurant business—we have nine restaurants in the Boston and Rhode Island area. I totally get it. You can’t spend millions and millions of dollars when you’re opening a restaurant because you won’t make that money back. As a designer, I understand how much money we need to put into a restaurant so that you can actually recover your return on investment. You can still make it look fabulous—there’s no reason why designing and saving a little bit of money while you’re doing it means it has to look any less amazing than if you’d spent millions.
You seem perpetually perky on TV. What upsets you on the job?
The only thing that is a kind of pet peeve of mine is when I have an idea for something and a contractor says, “No, it’s not possible.” Anything is possible—you just have to figure out how to get there. Just tell me another way to do it. If it’s not possible to do it the way I’m asking, what is possible? There’s got to be a way to do it that will bring me just as much happiness. I’m flexible—I’m not like, “It must be this way or no way.” Just help me achieve this look somehow. Even when it comes to the dollar value of something we design. Tell me if there’s a way we can tweak it a little bit so it doesn’t cost as much.
You grew up in the Boston area. Is there anything distinctive about Bostonian interior design?
I hate to generalize, because I think with any major city, you have such a variety of design personalities and types of styles and demographics. But one thing I know about Bostonians—being one, myself—we’re a no-frills group of people. I’ve seen that come through in design. I see a lot of raw elements with more luxurious layers on top of it. So you might see a natural, reclaimed wood paired up with lush carpet and a fancier chandelier. There’s a nice mix and a balance.
How did you get your start in television?
I was doing my master’s at the Boston Architectural College and they sent an email to all of the students encouraging us to audition for Knock First about ten years ago. I figured what the hell? I honestly went with zero expectations—and zero interest, for that matter—of being on television. I got a call back and was selected as one of four designers on the show. When the show ended, I was really bummed because I loved it so much, so when one of the producers sent me a Craigslist ad that said HGTV was looking for a young, urban designer for an edgy new series called Freestyle, I sent them a link to the show I’d done on ABC Family. HGTV called me 30 minutes later! They wanted me to do their pilot—isn’t that crazy? Now I’ve been with HGTV about eight years.
Now that you are starting to branch out into home décor products like lighting, how would you describe the Taniya Nayak brand?
My brand is all about affordability and achieving a look that is going to help bring a customer’s vision to life. I want every space I’m associated with to be livable. I call it “Livable Luxury.” I also have a few items that are really high end, because there’s a market for it—people who want one key splurge item that will really wow.
How do you balance your real-life design business and your television work? That seems like a lot to juggle.
When I’m not shooting, I feel like I’m having time off! The reality is that I’m running around doing four restaurant design projects in Boston right now—huge projects—but when I’m in my home or working in my office, it feels like time off to me because I’m not on the road, traveling. I have a couple of great people who work with me for my firm and they truly help keep the business going while I’m doing the show. I wouldn’t be able to do both if I didn’t have a great team.
As we’ve sort of touched on, you’ve designed several of your husband’s restaurants. What are some of the challenges of working with your mate in a situation like that, and how did you overcome them?
Let’s just say that the first one was a learning experience! The fact that we survived that first one confirmed that we are a force to be reckoned with in the restaurant world. I’m not even kidding! Since then, we’ve done so many projects together, I feel such a trust with him and his partners. We have a wonderful working relationship—we ’re that couple who goes to a restaurant and for the first ten minutes, we’re talking about what we would do differently as the restaurant owner. Maybe I would turn the music down a little bit or move the hostess booth over here…and he would ask, “What would you do with the design?” We’re both so passionate about good food, good design, great service—all of that stuff.