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Triple Threat

Who wowed Margaret Russell in the Triathlon?

Since interior decoration and athletic prowess are subsets that rarely intersect, the words "Design Triathlon" on the judges' call sheets seemed a bit curious. And though we quickly learned that this week's trio of challenges didn't involve any skills honed on a track or in a pool, stamina and spirit were most definitely required. India managed to introduce the first leg to the contestants with the line "I hope you're well-rested " with a straight face. Her delivery met glazed, nearly catatonic glares (Top Design and sleep being subsets that also apparently don't intersect.) But merry mayhem ruled as soon as the raw chair frames and materials were unveiled. The results were illuminating, as only eight out of the original 13 designers remain, and this was the first opportunity other than the two Pop Designs to showcase individual talent and style. Kelly and India judged on the basis of creative vision, styling ability, and versatility as a decorator.

Teresa chose a kicky fabric but failed to finesse the details. Andrea's perfectionism and unwarranted self-doubt relegated her to a quietly unassuming and somewhat rumpled result. Natalie's combination of purple upholstery and gilded frame looked more Sopranos than stately. Wizit's painted fabric treatment was magical but his little throw pillow (was it held together by pins?) was a morose misstep.

I loved Preston's chic, tailored armchair and excused his somber upholstery because he chose a distinctive frame, but Kelly and India were less keen. Ondine's fun, flirty chair--inspired by whimsical Betsy Johnson designs--boasted character and confidence. Eddie's mod take on Queen Anne showed ingenuity and flair. And Nathan's fashion-and-art-colliding chair was truly unique; his personal design aesthetic shone through and, thankfully, no broken glass was involved. The second leg of the triathlon required the designers to design and style table settings, and they were judged by Jonathan and India regarding composition, color, texture, scale, and taste. Teresa created an informal-Zen-relaxing-mod-Asian scheme (Zen is Teresa's key word, and I imagine she spends a decent amount of time in a yoga studio, don't you?) but we were all impressed that when she didn't find the tableware she wanted, she took the time to paint her plates. Her table wasn't over-the-top fabulous, but it was a happy surprise.

Natalie clearly has a thing for really tall flowers (not always great for a dinner table) but she was confident in her choice of tableware and placement. Eddie created an "Eddie Ross" table because that's what you do when your goal is to license your name and launch a brand. Andrea was missing her family this week and put together a sweet birthday party for a young girl. Rumor has it Preston's table looked like a flower shop (after last week, I can't torment Preston about flowers ever again) and Jonathan and India weren't loving it. Somehow, Ondine wasn't Ondine for this project and she channeled someone else which isn't a good thing to do. Wisit sang for his supper. And I was sort of surprised that Nathan's bold move in producing a deconstructed table setting placed him in the lead.

Alas, no hat trick for Nathan, as he dropped the ball during leg three. (Plus, the phrase "I diarrheaed in my mouth" is even more vile than "panty-dropping chic.") The final part of the triathlon involved shopping at a garden center with a tad too small a budget in my mind, but I'm not a producer and they clearly wanted a BIG challenge. We all expected quirky spaces with wildly innovative and inventive materials; all of the judges are gardeners and are well aware of what can be found at a garden center. In fact, I was so jazzed about this part of the triathlon, I promised to run the winning room in ELLE DECOR. Enough said. Nathan must have felt really safe because he put together a beachside Baja shack that was just blah. Preston's space was graphic, and a bit surreal, and it had a strong point of view. For someone whose work has not been published widely, he has a good grasp of how to create a strong photographic image; I loved his poetic chair and the jasmine he wound through its frame.

Andrea should have been in her element, as she's a devoted gardener and organic farmer, but the fountain was the best part of her "edible garden" vignette. Ondine created a cool chandelier that was lost in the edit because there was so much to cover, as well as a fire pit, which was a nice surprise. She made a sod shag rug that was sadly too small, but her graphic white trellises popped against the kelly-green color scheme. Wisit's space was on its way to being what we'd hoped for from all the designers. Although he fell short in execution he totally delivered in imagination and whimsy. We were curious about the pint-size plant-carpet, which seemed to be a mistake. Eddie was so peeved that we called his work "granny" again but with all due respect I did learn this episode that he declared on tape that "my grandmother would be the biggest influence in my life for decorating." Natalie had a clear design scheme in mind and she successfully created a pared-down sunroom/garden area using a chic gray color palette, potted plants in containers (a key issue this challenge), the graphic punch of white trelliswork against a painted wall, and a well-defined seating area.

Her room will appear on ELLE DECOR's Design Dossier page in the December issue on; nice job, Natalie -- I'm not sure I recall saying that Teresa's space looked like a valet-parking area but I'm quite sure it was at least 3 a.m when I did so. Truth be told, Teresa wouldn't have been cast on Top Design if her work weren't exemplary. She simply didn't compete as well as she is most likely able to decorate. Teresa loved her garden space, but we couldn't fathom how she couldn't address the bare concrete floor and why she thought it was enough to line plants up against the two walls in their original plastic pots; we wondered how a space could be considered decorated without a major accessory or key piece of furniture. Teresa never got a chance to shine on this show, but I hope she in inspired by the fact that nearly every designer from Top Design Season 1 told me that the show changed their careers and their lives. So stay tuned.

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