A potent cocktail: optimism, elbow grease and audacity. Anyone who doubts that need only look to the career of Mikel Welch, whose journey from giving out free room designs on Craigslist to burgeoning design star has followed a long and windy path, full of twists, setbacks, light bulb moments, and blind leaps of faith.
“I haven’t been a money-driven person; for me it was all about the experience,” Welch tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of the Business of Home podcast. “Experience really cannot be purchased. Experience and exposure—those are invaluable. If you can get those, jump on them, and don’t be driven by money. The money will come.”
Welch has had plenty of experience getting experience, and true to his word, certainly not all of it has been for money. He started in Atlanta, working in retail and apprenticing for a designer while giving out the aforementioned free room designs to any and all takers. Eventually, looking to level up, Welch decided to move to a more cosmopolitan city, making the choice in an unconventional way: He would post ads for free room designs in multiple cities, and wherever he got the most responses, he would move. New York won the contest.
In the city, Welch was introduced to the world of high-end design, styling for upscale designer showrooms as a side hustle to jobs at The Container Store and CB2. By chance, he met a set designer for Dexter, who offered to give him work if he ever ended up in Los Angeles. So Welch flew to L.A. That the set designer never returned his call didn’t matter. Welch soon found work as a set designer, discovering that his scrappy resourcefulness was a perfect fit for the frantic pace of TV.
“In television, no is not an option,” says Welch. “You figure it out. Everything is life or death in television. You better have those cocktail napkins, and they better be the right shade of red, even if you have to get out there and spray-paint those napkins. If the producer asks for something, you just figure it out. And I was really good at being resourceful—that’s just how I’ve always operated.”
Soon, Welch went from behind the camera to in front of it—though it took a little boldness. After landing a project reworking Steve Harvey’s office, he told the comedian that he didn’t see himself working for him long-term and that he wanted his own show. “He said, ‘You’re crazy,’” recounts Welch with a laugh.
Or not: Welch ended up appearing as a regular guest on Harvey’s talk show, and made a splash by organizing lavish green-room redesigns for visiting celebrity guests (he was able to get around a tight budget by getting various brands to loan pieces in exchange for professionally taken photos). The attendant buzz landed him a publicist, and soon he was fielding offers from other shows, including TLC’s Trading Spaces.
He was always careful, however, not to immerse himself entirely in the world of home makeover shows. Welch has intentionally kept working as a designer for private clients and regularly designs rooms at high-end showhouses, making him the rare designer to break through on both sides of the invisible wall separating “real” design from TV design.
“I love my untraditional route into design. I love that I come from a television background. And I can do high-end. What I’ve learned to do is merge those two worlds,” says Welch. “There’s always been this unspoken feud between television designers versus high-end designers, and I feel like [the two are] different worlds.”
Playing both sides of the field isn’t only a personal goal, it’s good business. Welch is quick to point out that “unless you’re the Property Brothers,” appearances on shows are only going to make up a relatively modest portion of a designer’s income. The rest comes from endorsements, product lines and individual projects. “You have to really want it,” he says. “You sacrifice a lot.”
Welch is certainly enjoying a golden period, with a new show on digital platform Quibi (the high-concept home makeover show Murder House Flip), a new furniture line, and national media attention. Yet he has experienced, and continues to experience, the ugly specter of discrimination in design—mostly in the form of microaggressions, like showhouse patrons confusing him with hired help, or patronizing comments about his work (“Oh, my gosh, you designed this room all by yourself?”).
“When you stack all of these things together, it’s a lot. You have to smile and be gracious—you don’t want to come off as the angry Black man,” says Welch. “Because of the Black Lives Matter movement and people being more cognizant, I am allowed to speak on [this subject now]. Had I spoken like this a year ago, I’m sure half the things I’ve gotten right now would not have happened. But I’m in a place where I can speak out, so now, when I have an opportunity, I do speak out.”
This podcast was sponsored by The Urban Electric Company. Listen to the episode below, and if you like what you heard, subscribe to the podcast (free of charge!) to get a new episode every week.
Homepage photo: Courtesy of Mikel Welch