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

Nathan: Having The Top Design!

What's it like to have the Top Design? Nathan gets candid. Was it hard to keep your win a secret?

It was so difficult. People were asking me and I was like, "Do not mess with me." I was like, "Do not trick me." It was hard to keep the secret. I devised my plan well. Last night at the live reveal nobody knew. What did your friends and family say?

They were thrilled. My mother watched last night and we had a huge party at bar. She sat right there crying. It was fun. She's a major part of my life What was your inspiration for your house?

The inspiration came from the idea of a young, hip couple that had a child. They were art collectors and they were edgy and it was drawing from the fact that they were provocateurs. Maybe with a lot of that I was channeling my life. When you created the first room, did you have direction for the entire house or did you change your idea after that room?

I had the idea of this couple and the client and I don't think that first room translated. I don't think it represented at all. I think I dropped the ball on that one. It didn't speak to the rest of the house. I think there were elements of it that did and I think there was an edginess to it. In retrospect, I wish I had gone back and done something a little more Nathan. I don't feel that first room translated to the rest of the house. Jonathan Adler had some criticism about your bed. Were you nervous that would hurt you in the end?

To be honest, I felt there was so much more to do in the house that I couldn't focus on a room that was already done. I had already put my energy and time but the other rooms were more important. Had I gone back and listened to their criticisms, other parts of the house would have failed. The other room had that sarcophagus piece which the judges had some criticism of. You loved the piece. Would you go back and not use it if you could?

If the room was double the size. When I found the piece I thought it was brilliant and it would be such a statement but when I got it in there, after the heave-ho of every mover putting it in the space, I was like "Oh, sh*t." What did you think of Ondine and Preston's designs?

I think Preston's was really well done. I think it was totally expected. I think he's got an incredible taste and eye and he can do that kind of work. I would never be able to do that. Not because I like it or dislike it, I just wouldn't know how to pull that off. I think Ondine's charisma and her quirkiness and personality really shows through in her space. Again, I wouldn't know how to do that. I think that's why they are designers and they do the work that they do. One of the judges blogged that your foyer won it for you. Was that your favorite part of the house?

It wasn't. I think it was a good move on my end to turn it into a foyer and have it be an entry vestibule idea versus a living space, which the other two competitors did. It gave it a different life. My favorite space was the dining room. I put a lot into that. The table was designed and even though it was a very classic design, a Parsons style table, I over-scaled it and made the legs thicker and the top thicker. And with the painting and the chandelier, I felt it was a solid room. Do you create a lot of artwork normally?

I do. I wouldn't call myself a painter. It's not something that's in my repertoire. Every interviewer asks me if I do artwork for clients and the answer is no. No way. Let's talk about Eddie. He was a pretty polarizing contestant this season but you guys got along. What don't people understand about Eddie?

Eddie's got a vision and Eddie's about Eddie and he knows what he's doing. He doesn't want to waste time. He's vibrant and he's strong and if you can't match up to that then you're a dead man. Do you still speak? Absolutely. Eddie and I are close. I talk to him still. Did you think he should have been in the finals?

Yeah. I felt he would be in the final for sure. I thought his room was really well done and his entire work the whole season was really well done. In retrospect, I wonder if the judges felt it was expected and what they would see in the final house would be everything they already knew it would be. People speculated about your relationship with Wisit. Was there something going on there?

(Laughs.) There was no love. No love. Oh, my little Wizzy. I just really liked him and he was great guy. Do you keep in touch with the other contestants?

The strongest friendships that I will keep are with Eddie and Andrea. Ondine and I are in contact. Wisit and I are in contact. Preston and I are in contact. I don't have bad feelings towards him and it might appear that way on TV. I think he's a really great guy. I think he's young and doesn't have a lot of life experience yet but he's a great guy and he has a great future ahead of him Who was the hardest judge?

Margaret. I think she's so well trained in this and she runs one of the No. 1 shelter magazines and so she's seen the best and the worst. I think some of her judgments are very hard and her blogs are difficult to read sometimes. I think her commentary is well heard though. What was the best piece of advice you got on the show?

To edit, edit, edit. I think that will be forever known. It will be in the work I do now and the work I do next year and so on. What does it mean for you to be published?

That's major. That's a huge deal. I've said before that there are designers and decorators who work for years and never see their work published. I feel so fortunate to accomplish that. That's a huge thing and that will be a major push for me. What about the money? Any big plans?

Well, I'll pay my rent. I've just recently launched my own firm and you'd be surprised, the taxing and expenses take up a lot. I used a lot of that for that. Where can people find your designs now? Also, I'm finishing up some work in Manhattan. As well as a public space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Can people hire you?

Absolutely. Please do.