Q & A: Design on a Dime with Kristian Cunningham
Accessible design is something our industry tends to struggle with expecially during these trying times sans a few of our favorite retailers, and budget-friendly makeovers generally end up inspired by the pages of catalogs. Kristian Cunningham, HGTV’s Design on a Dime host and Rachel Ray show regular, lent some of her expertise to us about how design updates do not have to break the bank, and fresh ideas are easier thank you think.
LoftLife: Give us some background. How did you get into interior design? And more importantly, how did you become so handy?
Kristian Cunningham: I knew from the time I was a young girl that I wanted to be a designer- never wanted to do anything else. So after school, I moved to LA and started out assisting several designers and running showrooms- freelance drafting at night to make extra cash- until I landed my dream job at a small firm. And then the TV thing happened very accidentally.
On the day I found out that I had the Design on a Dime job, my new boss said, “and you sew, right?” I told her, “of course I do”, and headed to Sears that night to buy a sewing machine. A pillow for my debut DOD install was the first thing I’d sewn since high school Home Ec, (I was still trying to figure out how to thread the bobbin at 3 in the morning!) and after that it was sink or swim. I encourage people to learn as they go along because that’s exactly how I did it. First week on the job, I had the boys show me how to use a chop saw and by the next I was making projects that incorporated miter cuts. Same thing with the table saw, pneumatic nailer and so on. Four years later, I had a garage outfitted so well that the neighborhood fathers came to me to borrow tools! And I’m still learning…
LL: Design on a Dime has never been more relevant than it is right now. People are spending less money and more time at home. What are the easiest, budget friendly changes you can make on a dime?
KC: I’ve said it a million times, but the biggest bang for your buck will always be paint. It may take you a weekend, but a space can be entirely transformed for under $100. And don’t underestimate the power of rethinking and rearranging the things you already have. After we live with our spaces for awhile, we stop seeing the possibilities, so getting a fresh perspective from another set of eyes can do wonders. Ask a friend who’s taste jives with yours to come over and make some suggestions- I always call on my “partner in design”, Ruth. We go to brunch and then back to each other’s houses to “play”, as our guys like to call it. By the time the boys get back from the beach, the spaces look completely different and neither one of us had to spend a dime.
LL: What are some of the most common design dilemma’s you come across?
KC: I get a lot of emails and makeover requests from folks who are trying to figure out how to get the most use out of every square inch of their homes- whether it’s creating more storage or carving out a home office. Sourcing the right multifunctional pieces and creating a good space plan can be life changing for people who feel they’ve outgrown their spaces.
I also get a lot of cries for help from people who are fully aware that they’ve overdone it- whether it’s a theme or a color, or just room after room of the same wood tone. Sometimes, my job is to just be an editor, and to help people reign it all back in.
LL: DIY-K (Do It Yourself – Kinda) is our take on the DIY movement, as many of us are not as good with tools as we’d like to be. What are some tips and tricks to fake it till your skills make it?
I like the kinda part!, and it’s more relevant now than ever. I think that design enthusiasts have been inspired by the DIY movement over recent years (thanks to the plethora of super design shows ; ), shelter mags, and design websites!), and the current economic environment is forcing those who were hesitant to jump in, to be more proactive in getting things done themselves. Luckily, there’s info available online for everything from fixing a leaky toilet to building a table. For people who aren’t familiar enough with power tools to feel comfortable taking on projects that involve them, barter! Find a friend or coworker who’s got skills and figure out a service that you can trade-heck, they might even do it for pizza and a six pack! While you have someone with know-how right there in your home, take the opportunity to watch and learn- ask questions!
Most people don’t start out with a garage full of tools (and people who live in the city wouldn’t have a place to put ‘em anyhow!), but you can rent just about anything from Lowe’s or Home Depot for a small fee, and it’s a great way to kind of “test drive” different tools before taking the plunge and investing in them. Just be sure to have someone there with you ANYTIME you’re running power tools. You gotta respect those beasts! And take a breather when you’re frustrated.
LL: Now that you’re programmed to design on a budget, what do you consider the most well worth decorating splurges?
KC: Good white sheets. I still make every attempt to buy them on clearance, mind you, but I value my sleep time immensely and it’s worth every penny to wake up deliriously happy thanks to delicious bedding. The white part is important- it’s classic and bleachable, which is imperative if you make a habit of eating in bed and sleeping in mascara. I do both, thank you very much.
And good hardware. You can make a junky piece look bespoke, or a builder’s special kitchen look custom with the right hardware. When the details look high-end, the rest of the space seems to get elevated by association. Oh, and good lampshades! You can spend a jillion dollars getting everything just right, but a cheap white shade can ruin a room. It’s the details, I tell ya.
LL: What are your favorite projects you’ve had the opportunity to work on?
KC: Designing a pop-up restaurant for an event that President Bill Clinton co-hosted with Rachael Ray was incredibly exciting, and last year I made over center field at Minute Maid Stadium (home of the Houston Astros) into a wedding venue where 40 couples simultaneously married. Both of these projects were installed and broken down in less than 24 hrs! I also participated in Hollywood Life Magazine’s “Young Hollywood Home” at the PDC last year, and designed and installed the “Gibson Lounge”. I was loaned 3 Les Paul’s, a piano and these sick vintage amps to create a space where musicians could perform and an audience could get liquored up and relax. This space was one of my personal favorites, and was able to live for a whopping 3 weeks before being disassembled- new coffered, wallpapered ceiling and all
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have worked side by side with some of the most talented, committed and fun contractors and tradesmen on the planet. Every project, in every city, has brought me new friends- whether it’s a Habitat for Humanity build or a TV makeover. I love the comradery that forms on a jobsite so, after hundreds of ‘em, I still cry at the end of every single project. Picking a favorite would be like having to pick a favorite kid!
LL: Aside from your work on HGTV and Rachel Ray, any other exciting news we can share?
KC: I recently joined the team at Raymour & Flanigan as their resident designer, where I’ll be providing tips and advising customers about their product. I’ll also be appearing as a judge on HGTV’s $250,000 Challenge, a new design competition premiering May 31st, as well as a few more exciting projects in development ; )