Photos Of Your Cat Rooms

Why Margaret Russell thinks this week was 'juicy.'

Huge thanks to all who sent me photos of your cat rooms, but a few wildly passionate (and downright mean!) viewers need to take a deep breath and calm down! I happen to love cats and I'm devoted to dogs, although I'm not very fond of hamsters or snakes. And of course you can design a room around a cat - or a parakeet for that matter - but that really wasn't the point of last week's challenge. Ryan was asked to design for a client that he assumed to be a 50-year-old woman with a cat. It seems that he changed his scheme only slightly when he learned that Madison was a 10-year-old girl, and the judges agreed that he focused too much on the cat instead of the client. So please feel free to design a room around a cat, just don't expect to win a fancy SUV, a four-page feature in a national magazine, and $100,000 for doing it. Got that?
margarets_103_01_320x240.jpgNow then, the best thing about getting an advance DVD of the show is finding out what went on behind the scenes. (The worst is seeing how nearly every positive, constructive comment I make in the White Room never sees the light of day.) This week was juicy - who knew that Ryan and Carissa would get so ornery? Or that Michael would totally redeem himself with some serious manual labor? And I was surprised to see that Elizabeth, Matt, and Erik didn't heed Todd's color-palette advice the judges weren't aware that he'd specifically warned them. (In truth, we didn't even know that he shared our dismay.) One of our biggest surprises was the amazing fact that some of the contestants had no idea what a cabana was and a few were totally unfamiliar with their designated travel destination. Dictionaries and travel guides were verboten, so all the designers could go on was a postcard and their imagination.

Judgment day at the beach dawned sunny and beastly hot. Sun-savvy Kelly carried a parasol over her head every moment we weren't taping, and we had to beg the producers to let us wear sunglasses. Apparently Carissa was miserable at the shore, but fellow New Yorkers Jonathan and I were thrilled to be outside for the afternoon and it was clearly going to be the closest we got to a real surfboard. Jet-set designer/guest judge Kathryn Ireland was calling out to people she knew on the boardwalk (she lives nearby) and we kept reminding her, "SSSHHH, this is a reality competition! No one can know what we're doing here!" All of the cabanas were extraordinary; it's hard to believe what the contestants achieved and that they had been created in only 16 hours. The three concepts were varied, and though the huts had been constructed in the studio and rebuilt on site, they were structurally sound.

Each had a few standout design flaws, but the judges agreed that Team Tahiti was the most successful at this challenge. (The producers and crew, however, were shocked. Most of them were sure we'd nix Tahiti because the hut looked so spare and unfinished.) The space was sexy, the furnishings sophisticated, and those ethereal curtains were simply magical. We all thought it needed a roof or at least a scrim to shield the deck - they had the materials, why they didn't just finish it? Andrea said that it was a conscious decision, but a cabana should provide refuge and shade. Team Tahiti might have won the challenge, nevertheless their hut needed a hat.
margarets_103_05_320x240.jpg The architecture of the Team St. Tropez cabana was brilliant and it showcased Goil's ingenuity (a terrific detail that's difficult to see is how the supports were dug down into the sand). Unfortunately, St.-Tropez it was not. The trouble started when Carissa was thinking "elegant-sexy-chic-yachts" while Ryan conjured "topless women and motorboats." Goil was a team player and created the super framework, and Ryan threw himself into its assembly, but Carissa and Ryan bickered constantly. The result? Unimaginative furnishings and heavy colors - especially the muddy blue and brick-red hues that Carissa took straight from the boats pictured on their postcard. Ryan's furniture choices might have been generic because he was limited to one store, but the stacks of pillows he purchased showed seriously questionable taste, and Carissa wisely slipcovered all those that they used. We thought that it was terrific the team created something truly original, but the small fabric overhang wasn't substantial enough to shield the sun - it looked more like a beach towel flapping overhead (or as you might have heard at least 1,000 times, like a burger shack at the country club).

We expected more from Team Miami, as Erik and Elizabeth were previous winners, and Matt's projects so far show enormous promise. The basic idea of the hut was well-conceived - except that more space could have been allocated to the interior and less to the deck - and this was the only group to provide a proper respite from the sun. Sadly, we weren't enthralled by the car-wash flaps of their curtains (if they were a bit wider they would have made less noise snapping in the breeze), and the interior felt claustrophobic. And the acid green-and-eggplant color scheme was truly an enigma.

Elizabeth wanted to avoid a cliched color palette and show a new level of sophistication, and it's clear that the team was creating a space that wasn't "typically Miami," but that wasn't what the challenge called for, as Todd had reiterated. The goal was for us to be able to walk up without any clues and think, Wow, that's so Miami! On team challenges it's difficult to determine who did what - or not - and there was lengthy questioning of everyone in the White Room. We were loath to send Elizabeth packing, but it was made clear that she was responsible for the color decisions and overall theme of the Miami space. Elizabeth is an intelligent and talented designer, and even though she went home earlier than she'd hoped, she won the first challenge and truly showcased her creativity. At the end of the day, she didn't create the Top Design. Stay tuned to find out who will...

Simple Truths About Top Design

Nathan had the Top Design. Margaret Russell explains why.

I'm so thrilled about Barack Obama I no longer care that I was outvoted two weeks in a row on Top Design. It's so sad that bringing back Andrea, Eddie, and Natalie inspired the most energy and excitement we've seen so far. Eddie's slimy behavior towards Preston was beyond comprehension. And you're insane if you believe it's the result of selective editing by the producers.

The townhouse layouts were appalling (a kitchen larger than a living room?), yet the designers produced three distinctive visions with three vastly different approaches to design. It's a miracle the judges came to an agreement, as our deliberation was lengthy and heated (and not because of 100-degree weather and an annoying lack of A/C). We were wildly conflicted, but what truly matters is that Ondine Karady, Preston Lee, and Nathan Thomas are super talents and all deserved to win for different reasons.


Ondine created her best work yet, with rooms that showcased her lovable idiosyncrasies. Perhaps overly ambitious in her goals, her project was still finished on time despite slow-moving carpenters. The high points included the graphic artwork in her Danish Modern living room, her bold use of color in the den, the master bedroom's mirrored headboard (though clearly a knockoff of fashion designer Naeem Khan's bedroom; Ondine handed her carpenter the ELLE DECOR tear sheet), and her magical little girl's room.

Ondine has proved to be thoughtful and inventive throughout the challenges. In truth, her talent was hampered by the constraints of reality TV; she simply needs the freedom to let her creativity percolate. Ondine is surely self-aware, so it was a bold move to audition for such a high-pressure experience. But she did amazingly well, and should be so proud of what she achieved. By the way, Ondine just designed a terrific room for the Holiday House in New York, located at 2 East 63rd St., which is open through December 7th and benefits the Susan G Komen For the Cure foundation (for info go to

Preston was the most polished and professional of the 13 designers. Plus, he was unfailingly respectful of everyone--contestants and crew, even the judges. He kept his composure and showed great integrity and strength of character even after each relentless barrage of obnoxious questions from my colleagues and me. He's clearly private--and remains somewhat of an enigma--which really doesn't matter. What does matter is that Preston not only has great talent and taste, he understands the business of design. Throughout every challenge he was methodical, mindful, and managerial--key qualities that define a successful designer. However, the judges felt Preston lacked the Wow factor -- that special something that transforms a mundane room into magical.

Preston nearly nailed it, but his quiet, tailored approach to his work wasn't enough to earn Top Design. (It's immaterial, but the judges didn't know his able assistant Eddie was spending more time hanging out with his pal Natalie in Nathan's condo than completing his assigned duties.) Preston's townhouse design scheme could serve as the model apartment for the Buena Vista townhouse sales office because it is so smart and will no doubt sell real estate, but it fell short in personality and pizzazz. His best effort was in the guest room/study, where a minuscule space became magnificent (OK, perhaps more in person, not on TV) with the addition of simple monochromatic molding and sophisticated furnishings.

Preston's creativity can be seen in subtle touches: smart repurposing for furnishings from last week's challenges; the earthy, saturated, frog-green hue of the living room curtains; the attention to detail in the master bedroom; and the surprisingly whimsical office, with its patterned wallpaper, vibrant artwork, and bright orange bench. I hope Top Design brings Preston increased opportunities and great success, because he deserves the chance to showcase his creativity in environments that are far more relaxed. And I truly hope he outgrows his interest in boutique-hotel design. Real life is far more interesting.


Nathan won, as his endearing personality, eccentric sensibilities, and wildly inventive design aesthetic shone through. His entrance hall/living room was my favorite space in the house, with its bold rug, statement-size armoire, and kinetic sculpture (one of two in his place that I still wish I'd arranged to buy). For me, this room was his best effort in the house, but I was perplexed that this weirdly constructed area looked fabulous yet served no purpose whatsoever. Kelly didn't care, as she has ten living rooms and doesn't use any of them, and for the public record we are dear friends and I couldn't care less that she loved Nathan and wasn't moved by Preston's efforts.

Nathan's drip painting was also terrific, and we inexplicably went wild over his cloud light fixture, although now, honestly, it looks like chicken wire with paper plates and I swear I saw something similar in his apartment when photos of his home were shown. He described his wallpaper to Natalie as "Golden Girls Disco" and I respectfully and incredulously agree. I found his master bedroom suite to be less than enthralling, his little boy's room was reasonably charming, and I truly liked the salon-style arrangement of photos and art above the sofa in his study although maybe it's just me but I wouldn't want to display some random Car Salesman of the Week portrait in my guest room.

Seriously. And I still don't get the nails in the juice pitcher. The simple truth is Nathan won because it takes not only talent but confidence to make a top design. And though Nathan was one of the last to make the cut for the show, he did brilliantly well. We can all learn from his passion and perseverance. And I think I can speak for the entire Top Design team in wishing him extraordinary success. Be sure to look for Nathan's winning project plus a Q+A with Jonathan Adler in the March 09 issue of ELLE DECOR.

A million thanks to Bravo and the Magical Elves team, plus a salute to the crew at Blogging Top Design and the naughty but spot-on TLo at