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I Saw it on HGTV

The most influential source of popular design education is not a school but a television network.

It started a few years ago: Residential architects noticed that clients were referring to products and design concepts that they had seen on a cable television show. HGTV is generally thought of as a “network about decorating,” but that might be too facile a way to describe this highly successful broadcast format. It’s all real estate, all the time at HGTV, formally known as Home & Garden Television. If we are a society obsessed with residential real estate, then HGTV is our virtual national campfire, a place to gather round and be voyeurs of other people’s private abodes. We are observers as they engage in the endless search for bigger, better, and more elaborate places to call home.

HGTV goes beyond mere decorating to expand the notion of what decorating and design are. In HGTV’s treatment, design becomes refracted and given completely new cultural grounding. The notion of interior design as a genteel, relatively upper-class pursuit is quickly blown out of the water. Here, design is democratized and diverse. Ladies who lunch in Chanel suits are replaced with machismo men with tattoos and women who are not afraid to get tough to get what they want.

Take one of HGTV’s shows, The Antonio Treatment. Based in LA, star Antonio Ballatore refers to himself as “not your average designer” — and he’s not kidding. He appears more like a repo man than the aristocratic image of the Back Bay or Upper East Side decorator.

“It’s about going slick or going home,” Ballatore says of his design approach. (In a recent episode, he took a client’s existing colorful bedroom and gave it a rustic-cave treatment, complete with thousands of small wooden blocks in various lengths that formed a headboard reminiscent of stalactite.) Ballatore is a design celebrity, not because he has been recognized through the awards and publications that usually anoint the design profession’s elite, but because he has won the network’s popular Design Star competition. Following a formula straight out of America’s Next Top Model and American Idol, a dozen or so designers compete for a chance of starring in their own show; divas and drama queens — male and female — abound. This is design as entertainment.

This is also design as media conglomerate. HGTV’s roots may go back to the venerable This Old House, started as a shoestring public television series 32 years ago on Boston’s WGBH and now something of a conglomerate of its own, having launched spin-off programs and a magazine and now owned by Time Inc.

HGTV formally launched in 1994 and is now owned by Scripps Networks Interactive. It reaches a staggering 99 million households in the United States and is one of cable’s top-rated networks; its website,, is the leading home-and-garden site, attracting an average of 4 million unique visitors per month. A new site,, was recently launched, and a new publication, HGTV Magazine, hit the newsstands in October. Scripps Networks Interactive’s lifestyle empire is also vast — it owns and operates Food Network, DIY Network, Great American Country, Travel Channel, and Cooking Channel (formerly Fine Living). Scripps Networks Interactive posted second-quarter 2011 revenues of $534 million, up 12 percent from the prior year. So much for suffering in the recession and housing bust.

The Design Star participants are in residence at a loft in Manhattan when their “mentor,” David Bromstad (winner of the first season), enters with great pomp and announces that the teams are headed to Spring Lake, New Jersey, to redesign a bed-and-breakfast.

“Let’s go, designers!” Bromstad commands, as they pile into a van and head west.

It’s at this point that a viewer of HGTV begins to realize the network’s creative modus operandi. It’s all about repetition. After a program breaks for a brief commercial, which is often, we are put back in the scene and given a recapitulation; the pacing is two steps forward and one step back, but it accommodates casual viewing and short attention spans.

We also realize how much “creative merchandising” is being done between the network and sponsors — Shaw Carpets and Sherwin Williams, for example, have their own HGTV brands. You can “shop” a program to buy featured products, and at least one of the stars, Candice Olson, has launched her own product line, including upholstered furniture, fabrics, wallpaper, lighting, and bedding. There’s an “HGTV Green Mattress” by Serta and even a proprietary line of software allowing viewers to design their spaces themselves.

But despite the repetition, despite the obvious commercialism, we stick with it all because the programs deploy an age-old storyteller’s technique — the narrative based on suspense: Which house will they choose? Who will get voted off the show? What will it look like? Will they sell the house?

HGTV succeeds because it is about people — perhaps more than it is about design and real estate. Programs are built around strong personalities who often challenge our assumptions, as in the case of Ballatore or Kimberly Lacy, a project manager on Curb Appeal: On the Block. Lacy is a sassy, self-confident African-American woman who is not afraid to take on contractors or clients. “There’s a lot of testosterone around here,” she intones, surrounded by male colleagues at a building site.

But it’s the client/participants who capture our voyeuristic interest as we peer into their personal lives and pass judgment on their choices. Just as HGTV draws from a wide pool of talent for Design Star — industrial designers, shop owners, and antiques dealers in addition to interior designers and the rare architect — featured couples and families represent a broad demographic mix-and-match (although they seem to age out in the mid-40s). Their circumstances and motivations are varied and sometimes comical — does a young couple really want to buy a vacation home in Barbados with in-laws from both sides?

House Hunters International feeds not just our curiosity about others but also our natural wanderlust. Who doesn’t dream of chucking it all and moving to some exotic locale? And HHI shows how people of relatively ordinary means can actually afford places like seaside villas in Nicaragua and elegant apartments in Buenos Aires. This is voyeurism to an extreme, as we follow the chosen couple through their rounds, contemplate the wisdom of their decision to move and bet on the probable longevity of their relationship, and then imagine ourselves making the choice along with them: “No, pick the stucco townhouse, not the brick stand-alone!”

For all the frivolous air of many of the programs, some of them do teach basic lessons in design. The comments of Design Star’s design panel are often wise and valid; the imperative of form and function working together is repeated constantly. Before-and-after shots underscore the transformative power of visual ideas.

But there are other assumptions that are unquestioned, namely that everything needs to be redesigned. Yes, that’s the point of the shows, but it would be refreshing — and environmentally responsible — to occasionally hear “we only need to do minimal intervention in these rooms.” It is as if the hegemony of granite countertops and stainlesssteel appliances is now almost universal. What’s actually wrong with the white appliances and Formica countertops? True design creativity could find ways to freshen up spaces without the cost and waste of completely gutting, as if updating Thoreau’s dictum of “simplify, simplify” into “reuse, reuse.”

For HGTV, design is more than design. The network seems intent on expanding the notion of the human habitat to virtually every sphere of our lives. This, of course, is a major theme in 20th-century design; Le Corbusier’s “machine to live in” was meant to fundamentally transform the way in which people of all classes lived. But what’s especially noticeable throughout HGTV is how rarely “high design” comes into play — there’s hardly a reference to Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, or any of the rest of the Modernist pantheon, let alone well-known current practitioners. Unsurprisingly absent are the well-known academics who talk about “edge conditions” and “aesthetics and design that transgress Middle American morality.”

But let’s not forget that TV is a fiction: Everything is accomplished quickly. Experts are unchallenged. Homeowners are always grateful. Collaboration is unknown and unnecessary. And architects are nearly invisible (which some might argue is not a fiction) — a fact that should draw the attention of the profession both as an opportunity and as an omen.

Is it a stretch to compare this frothy entertainment with the design profession’s international “starchitect” culture? Yes and no — the David Bromstads revel in their fame and fabulousness, while the Frank Gehrys and Zaha Hadids feign indifference at all the attention they receive. Both feed our endless desire for celebrity.

It all seems to highlight the primacy of design as an intensely personal human endeavor. Who better to do this than HGTV, which has embraced design with gusto — and in the process made it possible for us to observe and critique the redecoration of a Prague apartment while munching popcorn at 2 o’clock in the morning.