NEW YORK — The hottest trend on cable TV right now isn’t necessarily Carrie Bradshaw’s latest round-toed shoes or black bra and muscle-T combo. It’s a tool belt.
With a shaky economy and world events seemingly in a constant state of turmoil — and many Americans staying home more — there’s an increased interest in redecorating their sanctuaries — and on the cheap. Thus, a cult-like popularity has quickly developed around The Learning Channel’s do-it-yourself show, "Trading Spaces," which is currently in production for its third season and is patterned off the long-running and top-rated BBC program, "Changing Rooms," which just celebrated its 100th episode.
What’s drawing American viewers to the program is the appeal of a real-life drama when program subjects hand over the design reigns of their home to a guest designer and a friend — the premise of each show is to have two couples redecorate one room in the other’s home. And there’s a twist: They’ve got a mere $1,000 (for the U.S. version) or 500 pounds (in Britain) and two days to get it done, leading to sometimes comical and unexpected results for the homeowners.
While capturing the shocked reactions has become more common in the U.K., Americans are still getting used to the idea, and that comes across in clear differences between the two versions. The Brits, for instance, are often over-the-top in their design creations, whipped up in fast-paced, 30-minute episodes, while most of the American participants seem to be playing it safe in "Trading Spaces," which fills an entire hour. With the extra time, the Americans watch the paint dry, literally.
The Poms often only have time to start the project, like changing a tired old crate into a fab new window seat, showing a few fun in-between shots and then the finished product.
The main characters differ, as well: Carol Smillie, the English host, rolls up her sleeves and fills in when needed, which, to her chagrin, is most often at the sewing machine. "I got so bored waiting around," she said. "I was quite happy to delve into the tool box." Meanwhile, host Paige Davis of "Trading Spaces" spends much of her time flitting between sites, catching all the behind-the-scenes action on her "Paige Cam."Smillie’s team of decorators and designers are often more instrumental in coming up with the wacky home concepts shown in England, despite stereotypes Americans have about their bland sensibilities.
"Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by the British — we are phenomenally complicated," said Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen, that show’s most flamboyant designer, who always works in black leather pants. "We have this fantastic ability to come across as being implacably gray and beige on the outside. But I can’t stress enough how multilayered and red and paisley the inside is."
Smillie thinks the craziest design concept occurred recently when rookie decorator Oliver Heath created an in-house ‘wormery’ — two framed sheets of glass with soil and worms in between — on a wall. "Live worms in the bedroom," she said. "Oliver called it ‘living art.’"
But most designs in the U.K. are geared toward the theatrical.
"I feel quite guilty, actually," Llewelyn-Bowen admitted. "Your lot seems to agonize over things. We tend to be a bit more gung-ho. A bit more, ‘hmm, let’s do it pink.’" True to form, on their recent 100th episode special, where he and regular designer Linda Barker were the guinea pigs in their own homes, Barker redid Llewelyn-Bowen’s kitchen in a pale eggy-blue and lots of florals, while he made a soft, swirly pink paint effect on the walls of her living room.
Meanwhile, the Americans seem incredibly sincere about their designs. There’s rarely a controversial paint choice or an unhappy couple. But that’s not to say that designers don’t come up with fantastical creations. When WWD went on the American set in July, in Rockville Centre, N.Y., star decorator Vern Yip whipped up a kid’s fantasy room, complete with a working train track suspended over a racing-car bed.
Where the shows do parallel is in their reliance on trusty carpenters. For the Brits, it’s "Handy" Andy Kane, a DIY dervish who creates intricate-yet-sturdy fretwork cabinets or sometimes even entire walls out of MDF — a paper product that doubles as wood. In the States, Amy Wynn Pastor and Ty Pennington split construction duty.Both sides say they love working with one another, and on the small screen, it shows. But the Brits, perhaps because they’ve worked longer together, aren’t afraid to get feisty with each other and their clients. And in the end, it makes for better television, since they’re not afraid to move beyond viewers’ homes, and tackle even ecclesiastical subjects:
"Changing Rooms" redesigned two churches, "and with Lawrence in a black leather jacket and shades painting out ‘God is love,’ he looked like the anti-Christ," laughed Smillie. "The arch deacon appeared in a royal purple robe and I said, ‘Right, we’re in. He loves purple.’"
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