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All About Carisa And Matt

Margaret Russell shares her thoughts on the final contestants.

This episode is all about Carisa and Matt -- literally.  Bravo gave them $12,500 cash, a furniture/accessory memo budget of $150K at the Pacific Design Center, the assistance and wisdom of their favorite carpenter plus the opportunity to hire more help, and two full months with which to design a loft for the client they should know best: themselves.

Kelly, Jonathan, our superchic guest judge Trudie Styler, and I were totally awestruck by what they created.

The Santa Fe Lofts are located in downtown LA, a place I've visited only while shopping the nearby wholesale flower market for a photo shoot. It's an urban neighborhood in transition, and the Santa Fe apartments are a terrific opportunity to live in a residential building that has a gutsy, industrial feel and walls of amazing windows.

The producers took us to an empty loft on another floor before we walked through Carisa and Matt's spaces, so we had a clear idea of what they started with. Even in its nearly gutted condition, the loft was seductive; I wanted one for myself!

We were thrilled by what the designers produced for their final challenge. Carisa's loft is seriously glam, with an airy floor plan and sleek, contemporary furnishings. The striking palette -- that fuchsia wall color has become her signature -- matches her dynamic personality and the round, sunken bed and its piles of pillows suit her youthful exuberance.

I was impressed by her design, and thrilled that she is so pleased by what she had produced. Carisa's loft is exactly what she wanted it to be: it's linear, crisp, and graphic. She divided the 1700-square-foot space well, carving out specific seating, dining, working, and sleeping areas, and she fashioned a terrific kitchen with the stylish GE Monogram appliances. (Trudie LOVED Carisa's kitchen and I was surprised that I was so crazy for that round bed, which would have made changing the bed linens pure misery. I'm usually far more pragmatic.)

It was a difficult choice, but, sadly, Carisa's design wasn't strong enough to win the Top Design title. The decision had nothing to do with behind-the-scenes drama, or not being upscale and luxurious, or not meeting the goals of this particular challenge. And I wasn't aware until I watched the episode that she didn't plan her space in advance to the degree that Matt had, although the difference was evident to all of us when we walked through.

Carisa has great talent -- and enormous potential. However, she made some bad decisions, including her floor (which had a value of $10K, cost another $8K to refinish -- poorly -- and when we queried her she still wasn't sure what kind of wood it was), choosing a set of very pricey floor speakers, balancing a ping-pong table surface atop a stunning and stunningly expensive dining table, and using chairs previously seen in rooms by Andrea and Michael.

But the most important issue was that although the space utilizes her signature color and style of furniture, it isn't personal in the least. Instead of fussing while Top Carl worked to finish, she needed to unpack the 76 books she collected for her shelves, remove the furry rug from the dining table, and arrange some flowers!

Carisa said she'd always fantasized about Tom Hanks's loft in the movie, Big. And perhaps therein lies the problem: Carisa is a star, but she needs to move beyond her set-decorating background in order to be a successful designer. I hope that she continues her design-school studies, and finds a strong mentor to guide her next steps. After that, I can't wait to see what she will achieve, for she has a bright and promising future.

In comparison, I'm not sure that Matt could have been better prepared.  Obviously, he had planned and plotted his layout in great detail while he was home in Chicago.

He spent his budget wisely; he painted the concrete floor and did minimal construction, investing instead in top-notch furnishings and neatly finished curtains. Matt created a space appropriate for his wife and daughter, with an elegant living/dining area, a step-up master bedroom that can be closed off by a wall-length curtain, and a small interior "princess" bedroom for his 4 1/2-year-old daughter Lily.

It still feels like a loft, but it has the private spaces that he and his family would require. And remember, the challenge wasn't to create a fabulous open loft -- it was to design a space to fit his personal needs.

Matt won because the home he produced is nearly flawless (we had issues with his too-low leather dining banquette— not just me this time! —although it was a marvelous pearl-gray and ultrachic).  Not only was his design scheme impeccable, but he took the time to frame family photos—including colorizing a series of circa-WWII Roman images taken by his grandfather which hang by the entrance to the apartment–and he dressed the rooms with exquisite flowers. His palette is subtle, as usual, but that's what he likes.

His furnishings are luxurious and elegant, and he even went for splashes of unexpected color with Chinese-red reproduction Arbus armchairs in the dining area, not to mention the bold console in the bathroom.   His bath is just plain sexy -- he paired deep aubergine walls with a glittery chandelier. We all thought his bedroom should be more sensual and luxe—his hotel suite design certainly was—and his kitchen could be amped up as well.

In truth, Matt's job wasn't to design a loft for cranky judges, it was to create one for himself. He did this beautifully— in fact, admirably—and I think his space is simply extraordinary. His efforts won him the highly coveted "Top Design" title.

I've been deeply inspired by the creativity I've seen throughout these past ten episodes, and I've learned so much from our contestants, Todd, my fellow judges, and the producers.

Without sounding overly dramatic, the entire reality-TV experience has been life-changing for most of us. (Biggest surprise? Those CRAZY people who write shockingly unkind things online that they would never say in person; of course, we all ignore them.) I applaud Carisa and Matt for their hard work, sleepless nights, and incredible achievements and I thank all of the designers—especially Lisa Turner, Heather Ashton, John Gray, and Elizabeth Moore, whom we wish we had a chance to get to know better—for what they brought to the show, and to us. I urge everyone to check out their websites and follow their work.

What's next for me? Our upcoming Elle Decor issues, of course. Look for an update on our Top Design contestants and Matt's special feature in our September magazine!

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