Trading Spaces

by Michael Abernethy

18 June 2002


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Trading Spaces

Creator: Denise Cramsey
Regular airtime: Weekdays 4:00pm EST; Saturday 11am, 8pm; Sunday Noon


Martha Stewart, one of the richest women ever, made her fortune by making holidays more work than any rational person has time to accomplish and creating living spaces that the average family would destroy in less than a week. I know there are millions of Martha-philes, people who sit glued to the tv with construction paper, scissors, and glue at hand should she come up with a new way to repurpose Christmas lights for Halloween parties, but I can’t stand Martha Stewart. When she comes up with an idea that actually improves society or helps people who can barely afford any living space whatsoever, I might rethink, but I since she’s allegedly scamming on the stock market, that’s not likely.

I mention my opinion of Martha because it makes it logical that I would also hate Trading Spaces, TLC’s hit show that allows couples to have one room in their homes redecorated. Participants create elegant, fun, or funky rooms, depending on the owner’s taste, relying on clever tricks to work wonders on a limited budget of $1000. Need lighting? Take an old trashcan and make a hanging lamp out of it. No money to replace the linoleum in the kitchen? Paint a new stone floor on top of it. Want more privacy in the bedroom? Take some plywood and 2X2 planks, to create a starburst-themed partition. Just the kind of things that Martha might do if she didn’t have $700 million in the bank.

Yep, I should hate this show, as I have neither the inclination nor desire to do any of the stuff I’ve learned from it. And yet, I spent a whole Sunday in front of my tv, watching episode after episode of the series during the Memorial Day weekend Trading Spaces marathon.

The show’s hook is that it adds mystery and psychology to the usual redecorating process. You may trust your neighbors to watch your house while you’re on vacation or even babysit your kids, but how comfortable would you be if they spent the night in your house while you were gone? And what if, while they were there, they redecorated a room? This is precisely the premise of Trading Spaces: two couples trade houses for a period of 48 hours, and, under the guidance of one of the show’s six interior designers, do a complete overhaul of one of the rooms in the house where they are staying.

Compared to most reality shows, where contestants are dragged across the globe, covered in a variety of slimy earth-crawling creatures, or paraded through a marital sweepstakes, Trading Spaces is relatively simple, but the subtext makes it fascinating. That is, I would trust most of my neighbors to housesit for me, and I might even trust them to have my back in the wilds of Marquesas or on a race across Africa. But I would never trust them to redecorate my home, which is not to imply that my home doesn’t need it. You have to be extremely confident in a friendship to allow someone else to mess with your living space.

Trading Spaces puts that confidence to the test. Once two sets of neighbors are accepted for the program, they each pick one room in their respective homes to be redecorated. The neighbors can make general suggestions about what they want done with the room, such as the woman who requested more storage space in her bedroom, or lay down the law as to what can not be done, as one man did with regards to his free-standing fireplace, which was to remain untouched and unpainted. Then designers go to work on a concept for the room, assembling what they will need—fabrics, lights, wood, paint, and so on.

The actual work by the couples doesn’t begin until the Trading Spaces crew arrives on location, which is also when the show starts taping. In tow are the two designers who will be guiding their respective teams, one of the show’s two carpenters, and the show’s host, Paige Davis. After house keys are exchanged, the couples are off.

In addition to having a time limit, the couples must try to stay within their limited budgets. To make matters more stressful, they cannot know anything that is going on in their own homes, and they cannot sneak a peek until the 48 hours are over. There is no prize for doing the best job or finishing first; the reward the couple gets is their newly refurbished room.

With each new couple, two questions arise: what will the final design of their room look like and will the couple like it? The answer to the first question depends on which designer is assigned the project. Each of the show’s six designers has an area of expertise. Vern is a wiz with lighting and creating depth in a room, Frank can do wonders with paint, Gen creates funky, yet elegant rooms, and so on. All the designers clearly care about the rooms they are crafting and try to make the experience as enjoyable for the participants as possible. And each designer is ingenious, stretching the $1000 budget beyond belief.

Still, there were numerous times when I found myself thinking, “That’s gonna look awful,” and I was right. As I watched, I felt as though I were challenging the designers to prove me wrong, and frankly, I wanted to be wrong, usually rooting for the traded spaces to turn out well, so I could get to the Wow! moment when the finished room was revealed. The more often I scratched my head in doubt during the remodeling, the more satisfied I was when the result dazzled me.

If I have one complaint with the design team, it is that they too often ignore the homeowners’ wishes. The woman who wanted more storage space in her bedroom actually wound up with less. Doug, the show’s most visibly stubborn and argumentative designer, is also the most likely to disregard instructions. The man who wanted his fireplace untouched got his wish only after host Davis stopped Doug from ripping it out and throwing it away. Another participant who likewise wanted her fireplace untouched was not so fortunate. Doug had his team paint over it, and the woman was so upset at seeing the change, that she began to cry and had to leave the room. Since the couples have such little say in the final design of their room, it would seem only fair to honor the few requests they may make.

How people will react to the changes in their homes is actually the greatest of the show’s mysteries. Will they hate it, as the woman who cried did, or will they be overwhelmed, as one mother-daughter team was, squealing with joy for a good three minutes? Couples describe on camera at the first of the show what they hope the final design of their room will look like, so viewers know, as the project progresses, whether or not expectations are being met.

At each episode’s end, Davis leads participants with eyes closed into their new rooms, and only then are they allowed to look. Some couples are obviously pleased, while others clearly are not. The ambivalent couples are the most enjoyable to watch: standing there with dazed looks upon their faces, they seem to be thinking that this whole thing may have been a mistake. One woman loved her new living room, but was mortified that Doug had found a seductive picture of her in black bra and leather shorts, enlarged the picture, and hung it over the fireplace; “My mother is watching this!” she screamed at Davis. One man, when asked if he liked the extensive remodeling of his living room, told Davis to check back in a couple of weeks.

In fact, according to the show’s website, producers do check back, revisiting couples after a few months to see if they’re content or have changed the design. It might be more interesting if they also checked to see if the friends were still speaking to one another. What makes the ambivalent couples the most intriguing is the wonder of what will happen after the taping stops. Will they come to like their new space or will they change it completely? Perhaps they will just change a few things: I couldn’t help but think to myself, regarding a few more disconcerting choices: “I bet that painting ends up in the trash within a couple of weeks,” or “They’re going to recover that sofa.”

Watching Trading Spaces doesn’t create the same sort of voyeurism as watching Jerry Springer or Cops. Part of the thrill of this series is placing yourself in the shoes of the couples and imagining you were standing in your new den or kitchen; I’ve never had the desire to be in the shoes of anyone on Springer or Cops.

There is one other appeal that I have yet to mention, and that is watching the two hardest working people on television, the show’s carpenters, Amy Winn Pastor and Ty Pennington. Due to time limitations, there is no opportunity to train team members in carpentry, so those chores fall to the show’s carpenter, while the couples focus on painting, assembling furniture pieces the carpenter has completed, reupholstering, and creating art for the walls. Only one carpenter travels to a location and does all the carpentry for both houses outside, regardless of the weather. And the designers do heap the work on them: “I need a new headboard that looks like a fireplace mantle, a bookcase, new doors for the entertainment center, and 2X4 planks to go across the ceiling, and would you cut this plywood into a starburst? And could you have all this by this afternoon so we can start painting?” That Pastor and Pennington can get all the work done, as well as solving emergency carpentry, electrical, and plumbing problems, all the while maintaining cheery dispositions, is a credit to the positive work environment the show’s producers have created.

That environment and the teamwork the neighbors and TS crew display sets this show apart from most interior design shows and just about everything on the Home and Garden Network. The dynamic concept intrigued me from the start, but if the participants and crew weren’t enjoying themselves, well, it would be like watching Martha Stewart. And, frankly, that’s a bad thing.

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//Mixed media