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.
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.
WVL – You’ve lived in different styles of homes—do you recycle your furniture, and if so, how do you make it work? What pieces can you not live without?
KC – I put a loveseat in all my kitchens. It is so unexpected to walk into a kitchen and see a sofa. I sit on the loveseat and drink wine while Scott cooks. We also have an antique table that we purchased for $500. It was the most money we ever spent on any one thing. If Scott and I, God forbid, ever went separate ways, that’s what we’d fight over.
WVL – When you come back to West Virginia where is the first place you go?
KC – Scott’s mom lives in Beckley and we try to visit at least once a year. The first place I go is Tamarack. I love it!
WVL – What are some of your treasures you’ve purchased at Tamarack?
KC – I have several things. I have tons of Allegheny Treenware. I just love my wooden spoons and tongs, and I use them every day. I have Blenko—I love glass. I have a beautiful cutting board, a train made of coal that sits on the shelf above our television, and an exquisite box made by Thom Kellan. And I just purchased a beautiful bench handcrafted by Eddie Austin.
WVL – You have a new competition reality television show that launched on OWN on August 2, 2012. Tell us about it.
KC – The concept centers around two families who are struggling, but who have a need to throw a party in celebration of some milestone—maybe a graduation, a birthday, or an anniversary. These families are paired with a coupon-clipping bargain hunter—a Super Saver—who has to help them plan, purchase, and throw the most creative and effective party. During round one the Super Saver has only 20 minutes to plan a menu and gather all the things she needs. Whoever wins, wins a free week of groceries for the Super Saver and the family. You would have thought those groceries were made out of gold. These families lost their minds when they won that round. Then the families have to throw the party in 48 hours. The grand prize is $10,000. The goal is to teach people how to take a theme and handle it in an appropriate way using DIY techniques.
WVL – What career highlights stand out in your mind?
KC – The highlight of my life was a project for the Rachael Ray Show. We were in Alabama in a small Friday Night Lights-type town. Everything was about football and revolved around the high school. The town was hit by a tornado and seven kids from the high school were lost in the tornado, and the town was trying to pick itself up and move on, trying to have a prom on time. The venue was destroyed, so we took a place, like a Chuck E. Cheese, and we tented the entire inside like the Oscars, and Rachael Ray did the food and Mandy Moore performed. In the three weeks I worked with the town, I went to church with the families, I was invited to supper in their homes, and the local volunteers and parents who lost children came to help. It was the most important thing I’ve ever done in my career. It was also the thing that made me realize that the most important thing I can do moving forward, if I work in this business that sometimes can be so superfluous and frivolous, is to film in towns where real people live and get to know them in their own homes.
WVL – You champion DIY decorating—what do you splurge on?
KC – Spend money when you can on the items you are going to live with every day. I touch Sue and Stan Jennings’ Allegheny Treenware spoons every day. My mantra is “live a little lovelier.” We have the choice to make every day an experience. Sugar cubes and granulated sugar cost the same amount of money. I buy sugar cubes. I put them in a pretty bowl with a pair of tongs, and when someone comes over for a cup of coffee, they say, “Your coffee is so fancy-pants!” But it didn’t cost that much more. I just chose to make those items a little prettier because I want that experience to be pretty.
What do you invest in? The things you touch, the things you live with, things that are made by hand, and things made by artists. That’s when you spend money. When you are buying an iconic piece, you should pay tribute to that artist. Splurge on items that have inherent character because they’ve been handmade. I don’t spend my paycheck every time I come to Tamarack, but I do leave with an important piece every time I come home. Sometimes it costs $15; sometimes it costs $200.
WVL – Do you have a signature look?
KC – When I left the design firm to do Design on a Dime, I knew I wasn’t going to be the next Dorothy Draper or a Kelly Wearstler—a designer that reinvents a style or creates a style that goes down in design history. But I realized I’m good at taking other styles or taking a magazine photo and teaching people how we can adapt it and make it look as high-end and achieve the same look.
I hope I don’t have a signature look. Homes should be a reflection of the homeowner, not the designer. Again, I didn’t love all the rooms we did, I didn’t even like some of them, but I was proud of all of them because, for the most part, it was what the homeowner wanted.
WVL – What’s your personal style?
KC – I’ve been in a partnership my entire adult life with Scott. I’ve never lived anywhere except a dorm and with him. He is also interested in design. Nothing comes into our home that we both don’t love. He has fought me on a couple of things that to this day I’m still bitter about, but if he says, “I don’t love it,” then we don’t purchase it. Our home is a reflection of both of us. My personal style is very masculine. I’m not very flowery. I love industrial. I love leather, wood, and scratched-patina things. I’ve never met a chip, scratch, or stain I didn’t like.
WVL – HGTV launched reality design and you’ve been involved from the early stages. What impact has it had on the country?
KC – Scott calls me Grandma Design because I’ve been doing design television since the early days. I love that, as a nation, there is a better design vocabulary now. Your average boy in college still wants a hip modern couch instead of the plaid one his parents gave him.
But there’s also been a real focus on doing things fast and cheap. If something can be done quickly, that’s great. If it can be done inexpensively, that’s awesome. If it can be both, then hallelujah! But that shouldn’t be the focus of putting a home together. It is not a race. It is your home. It should take time. I think we’ve put too much of an emphasis on putting together a home fast. Our homes should be the truest reflection of who we are. Our homes are the biggest calling cards we have about our personalities and our family’s stories.
Photos courtesy of Kristan Cunningham.