Linda O'keeffe: "Interpretation Or Inspiration"

Linda O'keeffe: "Interpretation Or Inspiration"

Linda O'Keefe discusses her guest judge stint.


Let me say that I have tremendous respect for all the people involved in "Top Design". All of the judges are friends or colleagues and they are all talented, consummate professionals, all tremendously respected in their fields. And how brave are the contestants for putting themselves in the line of fire where they had to conceptualize, design and execute room settings in the blink of an eye? That's a daunting challenge for a seasoned pro let alone a novice. I've produced, styled and art directed interior design stories for magazines and books for more years than I can remember and I know that a still photograph of a room can be easily achieved with smoke and mirrors.

A still photograph portrays and isolates a moment that may not be truly representative of an overall project. A moving camera is more brutal - it can't deceive in the same way so all of the spaces needed to be able to stand the scrutiny of a camera peering into drawers and under beds. Talk about pressure! When I arrived on the set all I knew was that the contest was down to the wire. I would be meeting the final 4 contestants, the ones who had made it through the other grueling episodes. These were the stars whether they made it to the final episode or not. I knew that people at home would be rooting for their favorites and that they would be household names at this point. For Linda O'Keeffe's bio, click here.

I've done my fair share of TV but I was never on a reality show so I was intrigued by the process but I was concerned about the quality of the show and I had a revolving list of worst-case-scenarios in my head. The prize for this episode's challenged was to be published in Met Home - what if none of the contestants' designs were up to Met Home standards? What if the winner of this challenge had great style but his/her style wasn't compatible with Met Home's aesthetics? We are modern, well-edited and edgy - what if the winning room was traditional, cluttered and granny-like? What if I felt inhibited about being honest in my criticism?

I am paid, after all for being critical and spend a large portion of my time rejecting projects that are configured by the world's top designers and architects. Would I have to lower my standards tremendously and end up patronizing the contestants? What if I hated all of the rooms and didn't want to cite anyone as the winner? Could I be critical, compassionate and constructive - a tall order in the TV world of sound bytes? Could I come up with a sound byte that trumped Johnnie Adler's "see ya later, decorator" which would arguably become the water cooler catchphrase of the moment? Yes, before filming began, I sat in the green room and tortured myself with these and many other such thoughts.

More pressure came from my awareness that being published in Metropolitan Home, the challenge prize, would legitimize the winning designer and I took that aspect very seriously. Met Home has been around for 25 years so a significant portion of the design community, at this point, got their big break in the pages of the magazine. I can't tell you how many times designers have said to me things like, "my very first project was published in Met Home and that's what put me on the map" or "after you guys published me I got a furniture contract and...." or "that one story you did on me enabled m e to set up my business and the rest is history." For Linda O'Keeffe's bio, click here.

I've been doing what I do for such a long time that I tend to get blase about the power of being published so I had to check in to the reality of what it would mean to be an unknown designer who was at the beginning of their career. On the other hand, I was there as a judge and I needed to evaluate the work from a realistic standpoint and respect the professionalism of the contestants because the last thing they needed was for me to be patronizing. I also felt that it was somewhat appropriate for me to be brutal if I felt the work was under par. After all, these contestants were ambitiously pursuing a career in interior design and their talents needed to be developed enough to stand the scrutiny of a bit of criticism. When I introduced the challenge with Todd at the Viceroy I noticed that all four contestants were taken aback at the idea to theme their room according to the element card they picked.

Based on a few of their comments I could tell that they were going to interpret their element literally and I feared the worst. A literal interpretation could potentially limit their creativity. When I saw the final rooms my first take was that the literal renderings were not so successful. Given its broadest definition, for example, the fire element could have translated into an all red room or a room that exemplified passion of any kind. But how easy is it for me to say that? The contestants had to go with their gut reaction - they didn't have time to deliberate and second guess themselves. The final rooms were all very accomplished however, the assignment was to create a 'luxury suite" and that concept was missing from most of the designs.

I liked a lot of individual elements - how impressive was it that Andrea designed and sewed her bedding? And how great was it that Matt actually created his own art work? I wondered whether the contestants had stayed in many hotel rooms because basic essentials weren't addressed in a few of the design The judges, by contrast were all seasoned travelers and three of them had designed hotel rooms so the review process was realistically harsh. Luxury, it occurred to me, was not necessarily about cashmere, champagne and oodles of cash. In the context of a hotel room, luxury is about feeling pampered, about feeling that all of your needs are being met in the most practical, most beautiful way and that can be achieved simply. For Linda O'Keeffe's bio, click here.

A few things in the rooms were unresolved like Goil's statue. I envisioned people doing obscene things with that torso or at least hanging their clothes or jewelry on it. It wasn't a wise choice. And then there was Matt's painting - while I admired his enterprise, it didn't feel finished to me so it didn't work. But Kelly loved it so much that she coveted it so that was great - I liked it when us judges had that kind of disagreement, Overall, I think we all realized the seriousness of our roles so there was a shared gravitas in the room, eliminating someone meant we were shattering someone's dreams and that's not an easy thing to do.

I hope the contestants had a good experience even if they didn't finally, win the coveted Top Designer title. All 4 of them made it this far and they should derive a strong sense of accomplishment from that. Whenever an up-and-coming designer asks me for advise I always tell them to nurture their individuality and to uncover their own aesthetics. None of the great, successful designers have cookie-cutter style - each of them is unique. So I guess the advice is to be brave enough to not be liked. If you want universal acceptance from everyone you meet you are trying to please everyone and that's a formula for disaster. For Linda O'Keeffe's bio, click here.

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