“I was on the first episode” of the Trading Spaces revival, Doug Wilson said, settling into a couch next to his fellow designer Laurie Smith. “And the veteran designers—legacy designers, as we are saying…”
“The old folks,” Laurie said.
“Veteran sounds old,” Doug said.
“We are old!”
“We’re legacy,” Doug decided. “Hey, don’t you say that because I’m older than you, and I like to think of myself as a young whippersnapper in my 20s.”
More than nine years have passed since the show went off the air, and almost 16 years since I spent three days with Doug Wilson, Laurie Smith, and the crew of Trading Spaces in a suburb north of Houston. But interviewing them in a hotel room this January, it was immediately clear to me—as the two teased each other about the temperature in the room and whether their responses to it were signs of menopause or manopause or both—that their chemistry and personality and comfort with each other, all of which helped make them stars and make the show a hit, is still there.
Will that be true on TV? While the TLC show is bringing back Paige Davis as host and all of the original designers, it’s also added former carpenters Ty Pennington and Carter Oosterhouse as designers, in addition to a new group of designers and carpenters (which include a Top Model alum).
This time, Doug told me, “the learning we had with this reboot was a new production company.”
That’s Authentic Entertainment, a subsidiary of Endemol Shine, which owns the rights to the original UK series, Changing Rooms.
(The original production company, Banyan Productions, was replaced later in the show’s life by A. Smith and Company, the producers of Hell’s Kitchen, which—along with TLC—brought the show to its end in a fiery crash-landing. Paige Davis was fired, Paige Davis was re-hired, the show cast for drama.)
While most of the production is now new, some behind-the-scenes crew returned, too, from a few producers to a camera crew in Philadelphia.
Laurie said, “The show has always been unique, if you think about it, from a television standpoint—all this production crew, producers, they come in and the only person who really knows what’s gonna go down is us. And it’s got to be disconcerting from a production standpoint. Not only are we having to be the creator executing it, but we’re having to keep production abreast so they can make a television show, because they don’t know what the next step is. They don’t know what the room’s going to look like finished.”
When I mentioned the episode that I wrote about back in 2002, Doug and Laurie remembered their rooms, but not everything. “Did I throw any diva fits or anything?” Doug asked. “That’s always been the challenge.”
I told him about a moment of tension with a producer, and both he and Laurie agreed that designers versus production is still a source of tension.
“We have a room to get done,” Laurie said, and Doug added, “If we don’t finish our room, you don’t have anything to tape.”
Producers “wanted to capture it authentically,” Laurie said. “What gets frustrating—we just did it, now let’s go back and reenact it, because then it just feels false, artificial.”
What is certainly not artificial on Trading Spaces is that the designers have less than two days to make over an entire room. But is one room in two days enough for a TV show in 2018, where average HGTV shows completely gut and renovate a space in a half-hour of TV?
How designing for TV has changed
“There were times when we didn’t know the room until we literally showed up,” Doug said of the old series. That’s not the case now. “We’re stepping back into getting the rooms a little ahead of time—not tremendously—so that we can pre-shop some things, fabrics, rather than have to show up and all of a sudden think, I need 300 yards of x fabric. Where the hell am I going to get them?”
It is easier now, though, than it was back in Trading Spaces early days—a time before iPhones and Google Maps.
“We are living in a world now where there are exponential resources,” Laurie said. “When Doug and I started this show, people didn’t even have cell phones. We were pulling out maps, we were going to pay phones, yellow pages, Target didn’t have a home division.”
Doug said, “I had a cell phone. You had a cell phone!”
“In 1999?” Laurie asked. “I think about six or seven months into the show I got a flip phone.”
“I remember this. You were so anti-progress when it came to anything electronic.”
“I really was,” Laurie said. “But still: there was no online, there was no ordering on Amazon. It made me make decisions more quickly. When I walked in, and these were my eight options, and I could go this direction or this direction—but now there are 800 options.”
The new series has raised the designers’ budget to $2,000, and there’s also a second on-camera carpenter, one for each designer. As with the old show, there’s also a behind-the-scenes carpenter and other assistants who help out. “We sometimes get a little flak for, Oh, they have all the back-up people,” Doug said. We do the show in a day and a half, really.”
He praised their behind-the-scenes carpenter, Jake: “We couldn’t have pulled this shit off if we didn’t have him.” Laurie agreed: “There’s no way.”
To pull it off, everyone does pitch in—I remember helping to carry things around when I was on set and trying to just observe. Laurie said that’s still common: “Cameramen still put painters tape up. You come on set, you’re going to be willing to work—whether you’re press or a gaffer.”
The time constraints are only one part of the difficulty. “To me, coming back in the reboot, it was a little more challenging knowing that there is all this [design] out there. And the American public is far more educated,” Laurie said. “We used to do something like take a lampshade and put ribbon around it and America was like, Oooh!”
Doug said, “You constantly have to up your game as the American public gets smarter and savvier.”
Of course, a large part about why the public got savvier about design was because of Trading Spaces, a show that empowered me to create a room divider made of carpet tubes and to paint canvases and hang them on my walls.
The show also spawned so many other shows, ones that sometimes took redecorating to an extreme.
What Trading Spaces does that’s different from the home design shows that followed it
Doug and Laurie said Trading Spaces will stand out from other home design shows because it’s offering something no other show does: accessible design produced by people who don’t stick to the same template each week.
“We taught the beauty of a real, true cosmetic change that is attainable for everyone,” Laurie said. “You don’t have to come in and knock down a wall, gut the whole place. I think people are anxious for that. All these other shows are great, but they’re bringing in crews. Things are just magically happening. Oh, that was only $65,000—well, we all know that when you try to do that it’s going to be more like $125,000. [Those shows are] fun to watch and inspiring,” she said, “but we’re going to bring it back.”
Doug agreed. “I think a lot of the programming out there tends to be flat and boring,” he said. “One particular look from one particular designer or pairing, and that’s all you get each and every episode. It might be beautiful, but for me, it’s like, Okay I’ve seen this. I’ll flip the channel. With our show, you do have a number of different designers, and we have our newbies, so you’ve got two different styles each episode. Then with certain designers, you never know what they’re going to do.”
Laurie said that she tried to never do the same thing twice, even if that was just re-using a paint color.
“In a hundred-something episodes, I never once did the same color on the wall. Because I didn’t want to repeat myself; I wanted to constantly push myself to do something different,” she said. “We were all constantly striving to do something totally different from city to city to city. Hopefully, that’s the energy we will bring back.”
They’ll bring it back into a television landscape and society that’s now fully saturated with reality TV and technology that allows people to broadcast themselves. And that’s evident in the homeowners themselves.
“I think there are much savvier about being mic’d,” Doug said. “I think they’re savvier about entertainment. Some people want to come in and have their five seconds of fame. We live in such a society that—ugh, is good and bad, with social media and everything being immediate, immediate, immediate. The homeowners, they want to be able to say they were on Trading Spaces.”
That means, for example, taking selfies with the designers to post to social media. “The world has changed in that regard,” Doug said.
But has he changed? Is he still the villain designer who gave Crying Pam her adjective?
The true origin of Doug Wilson’s villainy
“I have always used my theatricality to create…” Doug started, and Laurie chuckled and finished the sentence for him: “… a memorable show.”
“It is me. It is what people expect,” Doug said. “Trading Spaces is like Classic Coke. If we all changed, and all of a sudden I came out and I was…they would be so disappointed.”
Laurie compared it to reboots of other television shows. “It’s like these sitcoms that are all coming back,” she said. “The characters are still the same. And that’s nostalgic, and that’s comforting, and that makes you feel like you’re putting on your old favorite pair of jeans and a sweater.”
“It’s like Will & Grace: What if [Will] came back straight?” Doug asked.
But that may not be the best metaphor, because while the Trading Spaces designers are real people, they acknowledge that they’re performing roles.
“We were playing ourselves,” Laurie told me. “I probably went with more of the Southern thing.”
“We were playing ourselves, but over-embellishing. We all had something. I’m a farm boy from Illinois,” Doug said, proving that fact with his slight midwestern pronunciation of Illinois as ell-eh-noy. “I didn’t even grow up in a town. I moved out to New York in 1986, and was in the design industry, and I guess I had a bit of an air about me. I was pigeonholed into the New York, edgy designer with a bit of an attitude.”
The pigeonholing of Doug Wilson happened during the original series’ second episode, which was filmed in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Laurie and Frank were the designers on the very first episode.)
“The homeowner that I was working with actually auditioned to be a designer on the show,” Doug said.
“Oh really!” Laurie exclaimed. “I didn’t know that.”
“I haven’t talked about this that much. I didn’t want it to be sour grapes or anything—but it’s 20 years later. There was tension from the very beginning with this certain homeowner, because she, I guess, felt slighted. So that’s why there was pushback on everything. I was trying my best to do my job and get the room done—didn’t know what I was doing because it was my first episode. We saw some Changing Rooms tapes, but we knew we were going to be a little bit different.”
“And I had attitude with them. Of course, production and the network loved that,” Doug said. “They encouraged me: Go further! Go further! Go further! I was encouraged to be like what’s-his-name on Hell’s Kitchen, the chef.”
Gordon Ramsay, I said, realizing that Doug actually pre-dated Gordon as a reality TV villain.
“They really wanted me to be a Gordon Ramsay, with the cuss words and everything to bleep out,” he said. “I realized, when I saw the shows, the value of it. That it was interesting. It was just Frank and I; Frank was the exact opposite. I got it, I got the theater.”
Laurie said, “They cast us all so perfectly. We each have our own demographic.”
“There should have been an Emmy for casting on this show,” Doug added. There is such an Emmy category now, so perhaps that will happen this year.
Being burned out, and starting fresh
“It was beautiful timing when it ended,” Laurie told me of Trading Spaces’ cancellation. “I had a 1-year-old and an almost-4-year-old, and I was tired. I made the hard decision to not stay in television, because I wanted to be a full-time mother.”
“So did I,” Doug joked.
Laurie’s kids are now in high school and fourth grade, and she said, “The fact that this has come back around feels like really good timing to me.”
In Trading Spaces’ prime, they were filming 20 days a month and doing public appearances and working on side projects like books that capitalized on their popularity.
Doug had several shows: Moving Up, America’s Ugliest, Making it Home: Greensburg, and Real Estate Road Test. “At one point I was doing three shows at the same time,” Doug said. “I honestly have to say—and I’m looking at it in retrospect—I was burned out.”
“We all were to some degree,” Laurie said. “It was an intense schedule, and one that doesn’t exist today. This season was eight episodes.”
Doug returned to Illinois and opened a restaurant, and “just did my design work and re-touched base with family and friends,” he said. “My father passed away two years ago in March, so there was time to spend there. My mother’s getting on. I’m glad I had that respite to regroup. My nephew passed away in 2004 and I wasn’t able to go to the funeral.”
“You sort of put things in perspective about what’s important and what you’ve missed,” he added. “Things can take you along for the ride, and you don’t even realize you’re being taken until it stops for a moment.”