Design Maven: 2012 West Virginian Who Rocks

Former HGTV host and designer Kristan Cunningham is a 2012 West Virginian Who Rocks. She grew up in Boone County and is one of the most recognizable faces in interior design.


Photos courtesy Kristan Cunningham

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Kristan Cunningham was only 20 years old when she and fiancé Scott Jarrell packed their bags and left their respective small towns of Whitesville and Madison for the big city lights of Los Angeles. The young couple couldn’t have imagined the adventures that lay before them. Scott, a musician, began his career as an audio engineer working at one of Los Angeles’ top recording studios. While Kristan adjusted to her new surroundings, she worked in design showrooms and drafted for decorators in the evenings. After an appearance on HGTV’s Designer’s Challenge, she joined the HGTV team and served as the host and designer of Design on a Dime for 10 seasons, becoming the most recognizable face in design television.

But Kristan didn’t stop there. She joined the Rachael Ray Show as its design expert, and regularly appeared on a variety of talk shows like The Talk, TODAY Show, and The Early Show. Her houses have been featured in countless magazines, including Better Homes and Gardens, O at Home, Cosmopolitan, Ladies’ Home Journal, and People. On August 2, 2012, she launched a new show, Super Saver Showdown, on Oprah Winfrey’s network, OWN.

Kristan recently returned to West Virginia to speak at the inaugural Tamarack Foundation Ladies’ Luncheon. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation.

WV LIVING – You were 20 years old when you followed Scott from West Virginia to Los Angeles. Why Los Angeles?
Kristan Cunningham – We moved to Los Angeles after Scott graduated from West Virginia University for his career in music. To our parents’ credit, they didn’t discourage us. I think they all secretly believed we’d be home in a year. I had studied interior design at the University of Charleston (UC) and knew that’s what I wanted to do. I never had a backup plan, so thank God it worked.

WVL – That’s a pretty daring move. How did you acclimate to your new surroundings?
KC – When we first moved, I was so intimidated. The first place I’d venture out to was Kmart. If I knew how to get back and forth from Kmart, everything was OK. I eventually got a job working in showrooms. I was fortunate that UC believed in teaching traditional drafting first, because I worked in showrooms during the day and drafted at night for other decorators. In LA, most “designers” are wealthy and bored housewives who get a resale number and say, “I’m a designer now.” I found that many of these women were successful at decorating, but couldn’t read a blueprint and didn’t know how to draft. That is how I got into the community. I drafted in the evenings, charging top dollar.

WVL – How did you get your start on HGTV?
KC – A designer friend of mine, whom I’d helped by drafting designs, asked me to partner with her and compete on HGTV’s Designer’s Challenge. We did, and then later they contacted me about auditioning for Design on a Dime.

WVL – On HGTV, you wore a tool belt and operated a chop saw. Where did you learn to use these tools? Does HGTV have some kind of HGTV tool girl orientation?
KC – Ha! I wish. It was like training for the Olympics. We didn’t have design assistants. If something heavy got carried up a staircase, I carried it. If a piece of wood got chopped with a saw, I chopped it. If an item had to be picked up at 2 a.m., I picked it up. When I was hired, I was asked, “By the way, you sew, right?” I said, “Of course…” I got my first sewing machine the night before my first install. It was bad news. Lots and lots of tears were involved.

There is a misconception that actors were hired to be designers. I had never had any acting training. The point of the show was that the average person could do it all themselves. The week I started at HGTV, I bought a sewing machine. The second week, I learned how to run a chop saw and do a miter cut. Third week, I used a nail gun. Next, it was running a compressor. By the end of the first season—and this is the honest to God truth—I had a better tool kit than the boys on the show.

If I did it on television, I really learned how to do it. And generally I learned in the few days leading up to filming.

WVL – The show became hugely popular. Was it hard to adjust to the celebrity and all the criticism that comes with it?
KC – One thing is for sure—you should never Google yourself. It will wear your soul down. Scott has been wonderful at deflecting the yucks. When you don’t intend to work in television and it falls in your lap, it’s a big adjustment. People talk about your clothes, your weight, and your hair. And apparently my voice is like nails on a chalkboard to some people. 

I’m starting to do more hosting, but I’m glad when I began, it wasn’t about how I looked or dressed—there was a lot of freedom in that. I’ve always talked this way. I’ve always talked this much. I’ve always asked too many questions and over-shared, but it has worked out.

WVL – You’ve gone into small towns and worked with real people living within a budget. Has anything not gone as planned? Any disasters?
KC – At Design on a Dime, we did 150 episodes. Our show was a teaching show first and foremost, not a reality show. We didn’t want to make people cry. We wanted to make people happy. We weren’t there to give them a designed room; we were there to give them the room of their dreams. If someone wanted Tuscan orange walls, then they got them. I tried to pick out the most flattering shade, but they got their Tuscan orange walls, even if it wasn’t what I would suggest.

One time, we were doing a bathroom. We only did a couple of bathrooms, because on HGTV you weren’t allowed to show toilets. Go figure. So we were doing this woman’s bathroom in a newer home. Everything had ragged and textured walls. She wanted a peaceful and spa-like bathroom but asked for the colors burgundy and eggplant.  I thought, “She says she wants eggplant, but really she wants soothing aqua and blue.” I went with my gut, but I was wrong. The homeowner walked in and cried in misery. It was awful. This woman hated us and didn’t want to finish the reveal.

I didn’t love a lot of rooms that we worked on, but I was proud of them, because it was what the homeowners wanted.

WVL – How many homes have you lived in?
KC – Scott and I have lived 11 different places together. 


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