Survival Instincts

Survival Instincts

Margaret Russell discusses the perils of working in pairs.

Now, don't fret: This week's locations might hint ever-so-slightly at last season's infamous white boxes, but they're clearly more intriguing. Lord only knows how the producers came up with the crazy idea to design bomb shelters, but it forced the contestants to create a multifunctional space out of a dismal, industrial-looking dungeon. Even better? It had to be produced in tandem with a relative stranger (ostensibly a roommate for the next 50 years, but no one--including the judges--could truly process this information).

The true task at hand was for each designer to showcase his or her individual style while creating a cohesive look within a shared space. Each empty 12' x 14' shell looked like a really, really bad dorm room at a college from hell, but with a $6,000 shopping budget and hours of hard work the two top-notch bunkers turned out to be pretty amazing. The Eddie/Andrea and Wisit/Nathan teams not only collaborated well, but they seemed to have loads of fun in the process. Plus, their spaces were packed with ideas that translate to any room, not just your everyday fallout shelter.

The most memorable aspect of Eddie and Andrea's winning bunker was the whimsical mural Eddie painted to create a sense of nature and real life. It looked fresh, and it added a touch of fantasy. The two designers seemed organized and efficient, their floor plan was functional and mindful, and the furniture and accessories they chose were a chic mix of classic and modern styles. The result didn't look at all like one- or two-stop shopping (such a common design pitfall and difficult to avoid in a competition with purposefully limited sources). And although their colleagues seemed flustered as the deadline loomed, Andrea and Eddie had enough free time to obsessively remove the labels from the case of the mineral-water bottles lined up on their shelves.

I think Eddie even yawned and said he was going to take a nap. He should consider getting a food-taster. Wisit and Nathan--the only team smart enough to shack up in one bed to make room for a sofa--seemed wildly rushed but their finished space was all about grace and serenity. It was definitely spare, but in a lovely organic way, and the pale wall color, painted floor, and tented ceiling almost made India, Jonathan, Kelly, and I forget we were touring a horrid closetlike box. They spent their allotted budget wisely (that sideboard costs less than $1,000, and the sleek sofa was worth every penny), and nearly every detail looked superchic and luxe. Like the two top teams, Teresa and Natalie also collaborated seamlessly. They created a "Zen Den" where they could "chill-ax"--it's safe to assume I will never, ever type those words again--which was cohesive but in desperate need of editing. They should have followed Todd's advice and packed up some of those accessories and votive candles.

By the way, Natalie is so endearing when she pontificates that we should perhaps blame her confusing Japan and China on extreme sleep deprivation. Shazia and Kerry worked together relatively smoothly but they squandered two days and a decent budget on a room that never got past boring. It wasn't totally lacking in imagination--one bright note was the wall covering they installed sideways--but I really don't get Shazia's affection for hundreds of tiny tea lights that generate as much light as a June bug.

Ondine and Preston seemed to have nothing in common but their shared budget. They crafted interesting solutions (wallpapering the ceiling) and were serious about functionality (storage baskets) but the only decorative flourish that was effective was their It Happened One Night privacy curtains. Even the personal things they brought in seemed a bit forlorn. We were all disappointed that they over-thought the exercise and didn't live up to their talent and creativity. And, finally, Jennifer and Robert's bunker proved that nothing positive came from their partnership; they were Team Toxic this week.

Even though the challenge allowed the option to create two individual spaces within one room, we hoped that they would be drop-dead gorgeous, not disparate and disjointed. Now that I've watched the behind-the-scenes discomfort they experienced I understand why their room failed, but I wish they had overcome their differences. The good news? Jennifer was married a few months ago and has resumed her brilliant career as an architect, and to all accounts Robert Reid's design firm is flourishing--he's rumored to be doing a house for Project Runway's Chloe Dao. By the way, if you're Project Runway fan, don't miss next week's Top Design.

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