TV Preview

Furnishing Drama on Bravo's 'Top Design'

By Belle Elving
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The low point in tonight's debut of "Top Design," Bravo's latest reality competition show, comes less than four minutes in, when contestant John Gray recoils from the five men he'll be bunking with for the duration.

"I didn't think this was going to be a positive experience when I walked in and saw who I was going to be living with," sneers Gray, who's a bit of a brute. "They were all so . . . queenie."

Oooo. Did he really say that? Yet as often is the case with reality shows, such a low point can also be a deliciously guilty highlight. For why else would we watch in horrid fascination as a group of strangers -- here, a dozen aspiring interior decorators -- compete for 15 minutes of fame and $100,000, whining and backbiting all the way?

Bravo has mastered this formula, having found remarkable success with "Project Runway," which pushes fashion designers till they split at the emotional seams, and "Top Chef," that competitive food fight. This time, the formula is neatly slipcovered over decor -- mostly to good effect.

In the first of 10 episodes, contestants are randomly (and painfully) paired and given two days and $50,000 to scour Los Angeles's ultra-high-end Pacific Design Center to furnish a room for a mystery client. While the designers pick among antique recliners and Tibetan carpets and down-filled sofas, viewers get to peek at the kind of luxury goods most of us will never touch.

Getting to ogle such items, in fact, will appeal to one of the show's two ready-made audiences: those whose home is their hobby, who can't get enough of talking paint colors and floor plans. And the size of that potential viewership is tough to overestimate. There were plenty of skeptics 12 years ago when Home & Garden Television launched a cable network devoted to watching paint dry and closets get cleaned; today, that network claims 89 million viewers worldwide. (How do you say "Design on a Dime" in Turkish?)

The other ready-made audience? Those viewers who just like the high-stakes thrill of witnessing window treatments gone tragically wrong -- after which some pitiable soul gets sent home in tears.

And for the competitors, those high stakes are very real. In their bios, nearly all of them claim to have "wanted to be a designer since I was a child." Most have bona fide credentials in interior design and architecture, and a few have their own firms. And for any of them, the exposure from this show really could be life-changing, with the winner getting a spread in Elle Decor magazine and the prize money for their design career.

For viewers, though, the deepest part of the hook is caring which competitors make it through each round. The designers range from a 23-year-old who's too fresh to fathom what he's up against -- and who at one point is driven to near-tears by John the Brute -- to a couple of 48-year-olds who might never see such an opportunity again. Unfortunately, at least in the first episode, the mystery client turns out to be much more interesting than any of these competitors.

That client is even more intriguing than the show's host and ringmaster, Todd Oldham. He's the dorky boy-genius whose line of furniture turned the image of La-Z-Boy from wide-load recliners to hipster acclaim. He doesn't have the smooth guiding hand of "Project Runway's" Tim Gunn so much as a youthful detachment expressed in bed-head and argyle-sweater irony. But between Oldham and the show's three judges -- designers Jonathan Adler and Kelly Wearstler and Elle Decor Editor Margaret Russell -- the contestants on this show will be appraised by professionals who know their business.

The big question, though, is clear: Has this formula worn out its welcome? Eventually, one more show grimly intoning "One of You Will Be Going Home Today" surely will be one too many. But Bravo is gambling that there's at least as much interest in the rooms we live in as the food we eat and the clothes we buy. And judging by this show's high points, that's one safe bet.

Top Design (one hour) premieres tonight at 11 on Bravo and moves to its regular 10 p.m. time slot next Wednesday.

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