If you follow Elle Decor editor in chief Whitney Robinson on Instagram (and if you don’t, why not?!), you already know he’s everywhere—a quick scroll reveals Marrakech, Portugal and Hong Kong as recent destinations. Now Robinson can add another stamp to his passport: your TV screen. Alongside designer Genevieve Gorder, he’s hosting a new Bravo design show, Best Room Wins, set to debut tonight at 10 p.m. EST.
Each episode pits two designers against each other to execute makeovers inspired by existing multimillion-dollar spaces—with a $25,000 budget. The pair will be joined by a rotating cast of celebrity judges including the likes of Jonathan Adler, Thom Filicia, Kathryn Ireland, Molly Sims and Jason Wu. Winners will receive placement in an ElleDecor.com feature.
“At the very core of what the TV show does … it’s good design journalism,” Robinson tells Business of Home. “The whole idea is to be able to get into spaces that nobody else can get into and then show them to the world.” Ahead, Robinson explains what else sets Best Room Wins apart, why there’s no blooper reel, and how up-and-coming designers can catch his eye.
How did the show get started?
I was approached by Bravo, and we filmed a pilot back when I first started at the magazine. As often happens in television, nothing happened for a while. And then during Legends last year, I was driving on Hollywood Boulevard and I got a call from the production company saying they were picking up the show. I was like, “I’m famous!” And my partner was like, “Um, you’re a judge on a reality show.” It was a perfect L.A. day.
I feel like I watch your Instagram more than I watch regular TV, so it’s no surprise that you ended up with a show. But was it weird to be on camera?
I used to get nervous when I was younger, but as you get older you get more comfortable in your skin. The camera doesn’t really faze me anymore. It’s probably also the proliferation of cameras everywhere in everyone’s face—no one’s so shy anymore.
How involved were you behind the scenes?
I got involved in the show from the very beginning. I was helping executives find houses and judges for the show that had appeared in Elle Decor. … I wanted to raise the bar for what we had seen for design on television before. So I got on the phone and called friends, and was like, “Please open your house to us!” You’ve seen the names: Jonathan Adler, Martyn Lawrence Bullard, Kathryn Ireland, and also Jason Wu and Molly Sims.
There are a lot of design shows out there—what makes this one stand out?
We don’t dumb it down for an audience. I wanted it to start with the most beautiful homes in the world and the best designers, but at the same time I wanted to go inside them. You don’t usually see that. It’s already hard enough to get permission to get into someone’s home. And then when you’re like, By the way, I’m bringing 54 people, the guest judges, a craft service crew, I need two days in your house, and we’re gonna park trucks down the street in Beverly Hills.” Everyone’s like, “Yeah I don’t think so.” But we made it happen for the show.
In the Jason Wu episode, we went to David Netto’s house and we used that as the inspiration. It’s this great [Richard] Neutra house, and David’s never opened his house to anything but a cocktail party before. He’s got Twomblys on the wall, and we can go in there and say, “This is the best design in the world” to a bigger audience. That, to me, is what distinguishes the show.
Tell me about the budget: $25,000 for a room. How did you arrive at that number?
The budget is actually what sold me on the show. What you’ve seen on TV a lot up until now is this “redecorate the room in five minutes for five dollars” idea. And yes, that’s part of design; maybe you have to get your house ready because your in-laws are coming for Thanksgiving in an hour. But $25,000 means you can do construction, you can do wallpaper, you can go deeper. $25,000 lets you start to dream.
How long do designers have to put the room together? I know that’s a common complaint, that design shows make it seem like projects should happen overnight.
They get about four days to do it. Four days was enough for designers to have their process. The truth is, there are so many times when the very affluent, the one percenters, will say, “I just bought this house in the Hamptons, I just bought this house in Miami, I want to be in there Memorial Day with my kids in the pool, make it happen.” Even if the budget is unlimited (which, by the way, it never is), they still have that constraint. Time is always a challenge.
The show is aspirational, but seen through an attainable lens—there are takeaways for any audience. Do you think that mix is in the culture right now?
It is the most beautiful spaces in the world, but at the same time, what is something if you can’t experience it? I don’t want to just do it in a bubble, that doesn’t seem very modern to me.
Does that philosophy apply to the magazine too?
Our Elle Decor maintains the integrity of the most exquisite A-List design, the most beautiful spaces and places around the world, that it has since its inception. I think my big difference is that our tone feels accessible. Looking at Jonathan Adler’s apartment and the one that Delphine Krakoff did at The Surf Club, which is on our May cover—those are expensive spaces and there’s no way around that. Having a custom Sol Lewitt installation in your living room is not a cheap prospect! But the takeaway from the cover definitely shouldn’t be: “You can’t afford this Sol Lewitt.”
If you compare that to the David Kaihoi cover from last year, ... it was his apartment in the East Village. One is a Sol Lewitt site-specific installation, one is an artist hand-painting Escher-esque cubes on his wall on nights and weekends. One cost $500, one cost $5 million. They’re exactly the same effect. I mean that. I don’t mean that just in terms of what something looks like or a value judgment. I mean they’re the same thing. What they have in common is they take an ethos and an intelligence and they take research and smarts and that’s really where you get the best alchemy of design.
Tell me about the designers themselves. What mistakes did they make? What were you most impressed by?
The biggest mistakes are the mistakes that everybody runs into. They mismeasured the wallpaper or they didn’t get enough paint or they had to deal with a time constraint. It’s what you would expect. But I’m really excited about the smart choices they made—what’s so exciting is that these are people, they love the A-List designers. Jonathan Adler is their hero, Martyn Lawrence Bullard is their hero. This is their Hollywood. They’re so well-read and so well-researched, they’ve done their homework. The choices they’re making are similar ones I see with A-listers, just on a different scale.
Is it weird for the A-list designers to be judging the work of their fellow designers? Did you have to coax them out of their shell to get real?
This is not an industry that minces words. This was such an amazing opportunity for our charismatic community, to say the least. We laughed so much on this show. I’ve always said that people take me way too seriously or not seriously enough, and I think that happens in the design industry a lot too. It’s a lot about surfaces and the external and what things look like, but this is the smartest and most well-traveled artistic community I know. I love being a part of it. And it’s all in the name of beauty. At the end of the day, everyone actually won. We would make jokes about whoever lost, like, “We’re taking your room down, go back to white walls, give all your furniture back!” But of course, that’s not what happened.
What’s on the blooper reel?
I don’t do a blooper reel. It’s all out there! This is a one hundred percent unscripted show. No one told us what to say, we let it roll. I’m not one at a loss for words, and neither were any of my co-judges. If anything was cut, it was because we were all laughing and talking at the same time, the mics were interfering with one another. It was a blast to do.
Do you think professional designers will enjoy the show, as well as the general public?
I hope so. I hope [we reach them] by not taking it to the bare bones or dumbing it down, where it’s tips we’ve heard a million times before. I don’t need to tell you that color looks good on a wall—this isn’t the show for that. I put a rainbow on my cover for god’s sake. I’m assuming this audience loves design, and I hope it encourages them to take risks as well.
Are you bringing anything you learned back to the magazine?
One thing it reinforced is the importance of design. We can often be in a bubble. Often on a shoot for Elle Decor, there’s only four or five people. When there’s 100 people on your set, if they’re listening intently and say, “I never thought to do a whole floor plan, or I never thought to put a rug that way. I never thought to make a rug that color,” then you realize that design can really change the way you feel about the world around you. It becomes design with a capital D. We’re not brain surgeons. No one thinks we’re curing cancer. But at the same time I think we don’t put enough value in the U.S. on aesthetics and how they really can change the way you feel fundamentally. Design is fundamental.
I think we can do a Season 2 if people tune in. I love where we’re positioned—we’re Wednesday night after The Real Housewives of New York City. I think it’s the highest-rated Bravo show at the moment. Right before Andy [Cohen]’s show, which I’ve been blessed to go on a few times already as a bartender. I hope people watch it and get excited.
How can designers put themselves in the shop window to be on the show?
It’s the same way you get in the magazine, which is point of view. It’s about having a unique perspective. It doesn’t matter if you’re painting your apartment yourself for $500 or you are collecting some of the world’s greatest, rarest contemporary art. It’s about what your perspective is. And that’s what distinguishes every project and every story that goes into the magazine. Everyone’s got a totally unique point of view.
Homepage photo courtesy of Bravo Media