Let's Be Honest

Let's Be Honest

Margaret Russell isn't holding anything back.


Let's be honest: This week's challenge is insanely demanding. But it's a perfect project for anyone who wants to be a designer because it focuses on the least glamorous aspect of the profession personal service. None of the contestants seem eager to work on the Bells' garage, and with good reason; it was beyond scary. A "before" picture was flashed in front of Jonathan, Kelly, guest judge Mark Rios, and me for only a second, so it wasn't until I saw the show that I realized how much had to be accomplished in so short a time frame. With all due respect, the Bells didn't need the "Top Design" team, they need a HazMat house call. The family lives in a lovely Paul Revere Williams-designed house on a treelined street; such homes are prized in the L.A. real estate market because of their classic details and gracious scale. Isaac Bell said that their house had been renovated a few times since it was built in the '20s, but the garage remained untouched. The family didn't even use it as a garage; it was a backyard dumping ground. (In truth, this is not an uncommon phenomenon, and we applaud the Bells' courage in unmasking their secret eyesore before Bravo's audience.)

Because the Bells hadn't used the space as it was intended, they had remarkably ambitious expectations of what it could accommodate: a home office, a theater, room to play and do homework, a storage depot, and a place to park a brand-new Acadia SUV. In truth, I think the "Top Design" team did a superb job in meeting many of the demands set so charmingly before them. (By the way, I thought it was absurd when I first heard that the challenge was a garage that needed to house a children's theater, but after seeing Dora, Bea, and Avery on the show, I swear I would have personally built them an Eiffel Tower in there if they wanted it. Those children are so precious; I melted when I saw them.) Although the finished garage won't win an architecture award, it provided the Bell family with much of what they wanted and more. For instance, I don't recall them asking for a swing (they have a lawn and trees, not sure why this was added indoors, suspended above a hard concrete floor?), although the children seemed thrilled by it.

The basics are now all there, but the contestants ran out of time to truly make the space attractive, inventive, and inspiring. And they added odd details, such as the pale-yellow rectangles applied to theade over the garage door (Ryan was shown racing to hammer these on as the challenge ended). The roof ornaments took time away from other priorities, they didn't fit the classic style of the house, they weren't part of the challenge, and they looked better-suited to a Taco Bell. However, Andrea won immunity for her design, and she was a terrific team leader, taking the care to assign each contestant tasks which would take advantage of their individual skills and interests.

A message to the pet patrol: please don't even think of busting me for my question to Andrea about Goil's dog bed. He said he was unhappy to be a "top follower," and although he was invaluable to Andrea as she drew the plans, it was apparent that he got caught up with his own rolling dog bed design instead of helping to finish the overall project. It clearly took time to build, time he should have spent helping his teammates (as each one revealed to us in the White Room). Matt had the thankless job of organizing all the STUFF, which he did with minimal complaint. Not only did he stow everything you saw in the clear bins, but I believe that he spent part of the day up in the loft, putting away rarely used seasonal items. Also, the storage space was limited by the garage-door spring mechanisms that were an unforeseen obstacle and are not very apparent in the show (but were a major issue to overcome in the challenge, as the storage plan was rejiggered on location).

I greatly admire the work of Mark Rios, but he was a little tough on Matt regarding the storage, observing that it was "organized but not composed." Personally, I think Matt did the best he could given a small budget and so little time, and he wisely kept his opinions about the Bells' junk mostly to himself. Erik quietly created the stage set and benches as Michael masterminded the curtains. Erik worked without whining and managed to fashion the most stylish aspect of the space, the small canvas roman shade at the window. It was simple and chic, a terrific detail.

It was rumored that Michael was flirting with one of the tailors, which is perhaps why he took such great interest in creating the perfect curtains for Dora and Bea. And he was unfairly blamed for the somber eggplant fabric color Dora clearly requested it and Andrea sent him off with a color swatch but that material was really too fancy for a children's theater in a garage. That being said, he worked hard he swept and acted as a team player, albeit a snarky one. (He was surprisingly confrontational in the Stew Room while we were speaking with Andrea.)

But we stand corrected: he didn't pick that grape color. We almost sent Carisa packing because she failed in the teamwork department. The home office space she styled for Patty was neat and pretty, but obsessively so, while the main room was in desperate need of her flourishes. It was Goil who installed the colorful plastic wall bins on the left side of the garage (though they clashed with the purple curtains), and there were huge expanses of empty wall space that could have displayed hooks, bins, and other smart storage solutions. When questioned, Carisa admitted that she bought lots of accessories at the Container Store but didn't have time to put them to use. Which was a mistake.

Then there's our renegade Ryan. I thought his heartfelt, contrite apology to us was both surprising and rather silly. Truth be told, it was hogwash. Andrea said that he worked diligently but was scattered, and he admitted that he had no sense of the "big picture" of the project. Furthermore, he failed miserably in the personal-service aspect of the challenge when he blithely told the Bells to throw out most of their possessions in yet another "socio-political" statement regarding consumerism. Ryan said that he would have turned down this project and "passed on the money," but he took a pass on a lot more than $5,100.

His chance to showcase his artistic talent was a disappointment, resulting in wide floor stripes that lacked color, creativity, and imagination. Plus, the average person can park a car in their own garage without needing a diagram. Sadly, Ryan appears to be a very angry person, or at least that's what he decided to be on "Top Design." Now that he's been given the opportunity to share with us that all he needs is "a glass of agent orange and a shot of napalm" to make him happy, his short-lived interior design career has come to an end. Don't fret, even without Ryan, there are major fireworks ahead; stay tuned.

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