In The White Room

In The White Room

Margaret Russell comments on behind-the-scenes drama.


When I watched Episode 2 on DVD, I was as surprised as you might have been by John's disclosure that he was HIV-positive and struggling with the after-effects of a massive dose of testosterone. It was clearly distressing for all of the contestants, however Jonathan, Kelly, and I didn't know what had taken place.

Every week, just like you, I'm learning what happened day-by-day. The judges see only what occurs in the White Room and as we walk through the finished product -- we are clueless as to snafus that take place during construction or any behind-the-scenes drama. (In the White Room, Michael tried to justify some snarky moments more than a few times by shouting "Just look at the footage!" But the backstory is irrelevant, what's key is who succeeds at each particular challenge.)


John's dismissal was not because of his cantankerous personality or constant excuse-making. I think that he has true talent -- he wouldn't have been offered a spot on the show if he didn't -- but this challenge proved to be his floor-to-ceiling downfall.

Although John was capable of far better work, he complained, "I did the best I could" (which usually wins me over). But in reality, he didn't. When we came to his space it was clear that he'd ignored deadlines and made a series of bad mistakes.

In addition to some major design issues, he was the only one without a proper floor, and only half of the existing cement was painted a mottled brown. Some of the room's elements were fine, but it was glaringly apparent to all of us -- including guest judge Liz Lange -- that John had truly failed the challenge. I sniped that I'm not keen on themed rooms last week, but rules are meant to be broken.

Erik won this challenge because he performed amazingly well. Who knows what his original concept was, but as soon as he found out that his client was a child he adeptly altered his plans to suit a pirate freak instead of a fly-fisherman. The results were clever, inventive, playful, and packed with good ideas (like the under-bed storage/hiding space).

It was a bit over-the-top (Kelly likened it to a theme park), and would probably grow tiresome after a while, but the bones were strong and the client is just ten years old. Why not let children be surrounded by magic and creativity and have fun as long as they possibly can?


Felicia's room was a quirky mix of sophisticated style and soccer-ball drawer pulls. We loved the bike she painted on the wall, and that she had the sense to flip the bed, but thought the room color (what's with all the green on this show???), desk, and framed photography were relics from her original scheme that ought to have been changed.

Andrea's Murphy bed was a brilliant touch in an otherwise unremarkable design, and Carissa's jungle room was well-thought-out and a fun space for a young boy.

Goil's room was fascinating; you can appreciate his architectural approach to space planning with the fold-down desk and hide-away bed (which was genius but unpractical). But his response as to where the bed would roll to in a real house -- "space doesn't go anywhere; it gets displaced" -- was obtuse. Um, displaced where?

We were confounded by Elizabeth's odd storage buckets, and thought it unwise to use a pokey little Astroturf rug instead of a larger one.


The wall of lights that Matt created was pure glam, and the paint color, applied molding, and furniture choice were spot-on.

However, his goth-black curtain headboard gave me the creeps -- more "Six Feet Under" than Barbie's Dream House. Michael's room looked like a "before" not an "after". He might have learned to paint but he sure chose the wrong color, and his styling decisions didn't span the generation gap.

By the way, did you know that you can't design a room around a cat? Although Ryan's attempt was imaginative and painterly -- the wave mural and easel were amazing -- the sculpted-wood bed was unsafe for a child, the cat-scratch tower was sweet but weird, and the catwalk was just plain silly.


A final point: Each episode lasts an hour, but we study the details of each project, question the designers, and deliberate in the White Room far longer (hence the excruciatingly late nights and major under-eye circles). Realizing the effect the show's outcome might have on a designer's career, we don't take our responsibilities lightly.

In truth, the majority of what we say and do is cut, which explains why some on-air queries or comments might seem arbitrary or impatient. Perhaps the judges can dissect a room for hours, but it's the tough job of "Top Design's" producers to condense the details of each challenge into a one-hour time frame, complete with raised brows and eye-rolling.

Stay tuned.

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