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written 2002

Note from the present: I've left this up because I really really miss those old decorating shows. I don't watch much of anything on HGTV anymore; I usually retreat to DIY network to watch Rehab Addict with Nicole Curtis or the Mike Holmes shows. You can still find some seasons of Room by Room, Decorating Cents, and Design on a Dime on the new streaming channel, Discovery+. Meanwhile, travel back, back to 2002...

Somehow, I, the book-fixated, became hooked on decorating shows when we first got a cable service that carried Home and Garden Television. (My first reaction to HGTV: "Who wants to watch that stuff?" Ah, but I changed, at least somewhat—I still refer to most of their outdoor shows as "that gardening crap.") It may be that when I saw some of the series, I realized there was more to decorating a house than my mother's philosophy of "paint everything beige, so any accessories you buy match."

And now here I am, over ten years later, with a "country style" spare bedroom and a garden-theme master bathroom [this was at the old house] that was definitely inspired by Matt Fox and Shari Hiller... (Now I have a country-inspired dining room and a fall-inspired everything else.)

Here's a bunch of the favorites (plus also rans, short takes, and some unfavorable comments about a couple more).

Changing Rooms
This was our favorite decorating show for a long time—but it's broadcast on BBC America, not HGTV. Even "the Mister" enjoyed watching this decorating show from England, the inspiration for TLC's much overrated Trading Spaces. (The format of both series: two households "swap rooms" and one couple decorates the other's bedroom/living room/kitchen/whatever and vice versa.) We tried watching Trading Spaces and gave up after two episodes: the one-hour format is too long and the hosts/decorators have about as much personality as soggy beans on toast. The early Changing Rooms episodes were a lively half hour with delightful hostess Carol Smilie, a perky Scots lass, indispensable and adorable carpenter "Handy" Andy Kane, and a rotating series of decorators including Linda Barker, who used to do a regular color-themed feature for the British Your Home magazine, and flamboyant Lawrence Llewellen-Bowen, a.k.a. "the Lord Byron of decorating," who eventually made the changeover to host. Other decorators included Anna Ryder Richardson (who now also does articles for Your Home) and minimalist Graham Wynne (puh-lease never send Graham to redecorate my house, okay?). The homeowner reactions were anywhere from joyously happy to hideously disappointed (the BBC website has carried some hysterical clips from the best of the worst), and we enjoyed the background music as well. After a while we just got tired of it, though, and the shows with Lawrence as host just lacked something. We still occasionally stop by to see what's going on.
Ground Force
One of the few gardening series we liked, this is BBC America's outdoors partner to Changing Rooms, although, in this case, no house swapping required. The first few seasons, with consummate gardener Alan Titchmarsh and his friendly assistants, big and brawny Tommy Walsh, and buxom and muscular "Charlie" Dimmock (with help from Will, "the Ground Force crew," and often the homeowners or friends and family themselves), were a delight as they transformed people's front and back "gardens" from untidy grass/dirt/concrete areas to places of beauty. I confess one of the reasons we loved this series was that Titchmarsh seemed to hate lawns as much as we do—if there's a patch of grass in a Ground Force garden, it's usually small enough to be mown with a weedeater! They prefer gravel-spread flowerbeds, shrubs, potted plants, gazebos, creative brick and stone sidewalks, Charlie's beloved "water features," and decks, lots of decks. We think the show's not as much fun since Alan left, however. Big plus was the delightful brass soundtrack by an old colliery band.
Room by Room
This was always my "guilty pleasure," especially after having heard tirades against Matt and Shari on newsgroups. I still watch the show when I remember it's on—HGTV has relegated the new episodes to 10 a.m. on Friday mornings—but I don't like it as much now that they've dragged in the same convention as the other decorating shows: talking to the homeowner first and at the end. It's the palette they have to work with and what they do with it that I enjoy. I also miss the funny things they did on the earlier shows: remember the kitchen redo where Matt spent the entire show eating? They seem to be doing fewer and fewer innovative things and just going for the straight and boring lush rooms. However, there's always food for thought: I've gotten a lot of creative ideas from these two (hence our "Italian garden" themed master bathroom), even if Shari's predilection for pillows and time-consuming wall treatments drive me crazy (the woman must have Dutch Boy stocks or half interest in a foam rubber factory). Who wouldn't have fallen for their basement rec-room, the wonderful nautical-theme kitchen, the Cape Cod bedroom, the retro kitchen with the cookbook wallpaper, and so many more. And always...the unexpected! Quibble: sometimes their budget is wayyyyyyy over mine, sooo…
Decorating Cents
...on to Joan Steffend, who decorates a room for under $500, mostly with liberal applications of the sponsor's paint. Seriously, the Cents rooms are often creative and utterly gorgeous, like the 1950s-style rustic porch, the 1920s living room, the hunting lodge themed bedroom, etc. Not that Joan can't pull a boner—I don't even want to talk about the yellow and purple bedroom! [Shudder] Even the "Trash to Treasure" segment is often cute, although you wonder where they find the cut-rate antique shops that provide the inexpective items used—all the antique places I've ever wandered want $$$ for the smallest thing. One episode had a fountain (look, it's a water feature from Ground Force!) made out of a dishpan and old dishes. (The four poster dog bed made out of an old bureau drawer was a bit over the top, though.) Quibble with both Room by Room and Decorating Cents: they assume you have all sorts of neat shop equipment in your workroom. Neat shop equipment? We don't even have a workroom. Oh, and guys—I hate, hate, hate the new theme song.
Design on a Dime
James and I really enjoy this budget decorating series; these folks have a bit larger budget ($1000), but often tackle multiple rooms, like a combination living room/den. The designers have a nice eye for decoration, too—although the style is not often one we'd have in our own home, neither of us has seen Design on a Dime room we haven't liked—they always seem to work for the family—you won't find hay on the wall or Grandmother's old oak dresser painted when you come home—and achieve their goal. Practical, neat, not flashy, and some creative ideas on what to do with odd pieces of furniture. Good stuff.
Divine Design
Hostess Candace Olsen reworks various rooms around the house, usually living rooms, dens, attic workspaces, and bedrooms, and occasionally wandering into kitchen environs. This is probably because these living areas take advantage of Olsen's most beloved decorating feature, pot lighting. Sometimes I think we watch the series just to see how many pot lights Candace's resident electrician, the bemused Chico, will install this week. Her sense of style, however, is usually spot on; another show we can't remember seeing a bad room in. They may not always suit our taste, but they're always well done.
If Walls Could Talk
Think the History Channel meets HGTV: hosts Phillip Palmer, Grant Goodeve (yes, Grant Goodeve from Eight is Enough), and new guy on the block Mike Siegel takes you to remodeled homes (and sometimes barns, churches, and old schools) in which the owners have found historical remains, whether in the building materials themselves or in objects left in the house. Most gorgeous house: the owner pulled down drop ceilings all over an old Victorian home to find hand-painted embellishments all over the real ceilings. Another Victorian home had gorgeous paintings hidden under years of dirt at the top of an old staircase. Yet a third family discovered an authentic log cabin under the hideous aluminum sidings of their new home. Artifacts discovered in the house have included old children's books, newspapers of the time, shoes and other clothing, artwork and photographs. Great stuff.
Mission: Organization
While this isn't supposed to be a decorating show per se, it usually contains decorating elements. A family with major clutter problems, like the mother and daughter whose closets were about to explode and the so-called family room full of toys and office supplies, is visited by hostess Gail O'Neill (Al Ducharme in the newest episodes) who looks around with wide eyes, asks the family what they want it to look like, and then hurries away while a professional organizer tackles the problem. The family is given "homework" like sorting out photos and with judicious use of plastic trash bags, donations, and storage units, presto-chango, the folks have room again! Fun to watch.
Clean Sweep
Another organization series, this time on The Learning Channel. Again, a couple with a clutter problem is helped by a professional organizer and a crew of designers and decorators that get the house into shape after it's decluttered, and the couple have to do "homework" in sorting personal items during the evening. The Clean Sweep crew takes all their stuff out and puts it on the lawn and then the couple must sort it into save, yard sale, and junk. Each person gets to pick out a "keep" item of the other's that they think should be thrown out, then the yard sale is held. The person who sells the most stuff gets to keep his or her special item. (James and I really hated this gimmick, and we found out later that is just a gimmick for the television series: if she really wants to keep her stuffed animal or he really must have his train, they do get to keep it.) What doesn't sell in the yard sale is donated. Interesting to watch, but I wouldn't have the Clean Sweep folks near my house: I don't want my things infested with fire ants when they toss them out on the lawn!
While You Were Out
Interesting Learning Channel twist on Changing Rooms--a spouse, usually a husband, is sent away with a friend or family for a weekend for one pretense or the other. While one spouse is away, the other plays...plays that is with a team of decorators who transform a room in the family home. The gimmick in this one is kinda silly: friend or family who is spiriting the spouse away is given a video camera and asks him or her questions about likes and dislikes. The homebound spouse has to guess what the correct answer is. If he or she is correct, they get a "goodie" for the new room (maybe a portable refrigerator, a custom drinks holder or remote tidy, etc.); if incorrect they get a joke gift. The rooms are usually neat--wish the same could be said about the original blonde hostess' hair style, which looked like she combed it in front of a jet engine exhaust... Haven't watched this one in a while.
House Invaders
Another BBC America offering, this outing has Linda Barker and her assistants fixing up two or three rooms in a house: perhaps a kitchen, a sitting room and a bath, or a dining room and two bedrooms. The gimmick on this one is that they only use paint or other items that the homeowners have stored on the property. Liberal applications of bright paint and innovative storage solutions are common. Not as charming as Changing Rooms, but always fun to watch. I love the pseudo-James Bond logo as well.
Home Front
If this was the only British decorating show I'd ever seen I would be convinced the English were color-blind. Good natured series with a strongly-accented hostess and lots of brightly-colored projects. I knew British winters were cold and dark and dreary, but honestly...
Designing for the Sexes
James always hated this show, and I must admit Michael Payne was a bit "twee." The real fun was watching him to get the disagreeing couple to agree about the design of a room they wish to redecorate. Usually the man and woman are poles apart: he likes contemporary, she likes country; he likes simplicity, she likes ruffles; he likes monochrome, she likes color. How they ever agreed to be married in the first place is usually a mystery. Again, another of those shows where the budget is more than my bite, but the design is usually harmonious.
Curb Appeal
Neither of us is fond of yard work or outside improvements, so it's odd that we like to watch this show that's about improving the street appeal of your house. The hosts and the work crew use massive amounts of paint, brick, dis- and re-assembling of porches and doorways, plants, landscaping, and stone to replace lots of concrete to make the change. Like Design on a Dime, the exterior isn't always to our taste, but the improvement always leaves the home looking splendid.
This Small Space
Making do with what space you've got was the theme of this series, which aimed for solutions for small homes/apartments/condos. Again, hefty budgets were a plus for people who decorated using this show's recommendations: these folks used storage solutions that are gorgeous and pricey. However, their DIY guy showed you how to do simple storage projects that were usually pretty cool. Although I don't drink, I really loved his portable bar that was actually two dual-shelved bookcases hinged front to front, with wine racks and goblet hangers inside; it folded up when not in use to be a table. Keen.
Designer's Challenge
Three designers are invited in to submit a design for redecorating a homeowner's room. You see all the presentations, then find out which designer "won" and see the finished product. We watch this show with our mouths ajar: these folks have spent $35,000 to redecorate a teenager's room and even more to redo a combination family room/dining room…in short, interesting to watch but the prices will give you heart failure. The Christmas redecoration, a confection of evergreens, baubles, and garlands, was particularly gorgeous. (There's a yard version of this one, Landscaper's Challenge, in which they spend equally insane amounts of money on fountains, pools, huge cookout areas, and other jaw-dropping expenses.)
Sensible Chic
This one's interesting: Ever seen those massively expensive "theme" rooms in these fancy magazines and decided you'd love to have one like it--until you find out the makeover cost $30-$50,000 due to $4000 and $5000 pieces of furniture and expensive draperies and rugs? Chic shows you how to make the same change on a budget 90 percent cheaper, and then for those of us who could only afford $500 for a makeover, gives even more tips. Always interesting to see how they duplicate a look without the $$$$.
Weekend Warriors
Homeowner(s) change a room in their homes over a weekend. These usually are just ordinary joes who want something better for their living space and want to do the jobs themselves. Sometimes a door won't fit or an idea won't work, or they're painting, sanding, polishing, and hammering into the night so it's a long weekend indeed. And since there's nothing in the rules that say they have to be finished in one weekend, you usually find out at the end that they spent several weeks with tiles piled near the kitchen door, sanding to do, and mortar that wouldn't stick.
Dream House
Dreams? This one could give you nightmares. A man, woman, or couple is followed as they complete major renovations on a home. Of course for interest purposes, the course of true renovation never runs smooth. One family's estimated 3-month renovation (adding an extra story to their home) turned into their living in condos and apartments for nearly a year. The fellow to catch in reruns is Bruno the perfectionist; when he wasn't looking for something outlandish for the home, the picky homeowner's committee in his historical neighborhood were finding fault with one of his designs. In the meantime, his housemate had to wade through construction materials for months and for many weeks had to go outside to get to a shower!
The Carol Duvall Show
Crafts, painting techniques, and lots of quilts. You see the most interesting things emerge from a few pieces of paper, some paste, and Sharpie pens, or clay and some decals. Perfect for watching on a cold day with a hot cup of cocoa. Definitely not for the guys, though.
TIPical Mary Ellen
One wants to give the woman a tranquilizer. She bounces from project to project with a smile and energy. Some projects and tips are keen, others ho-hum, but Mary Ellen will at least keep the screen humming.
Smart Solutions
Half craft show, half decorating show, this isn't bad to watch when you're home sick, although cute and perky hostess Maty Montford (remember the syndicated talk show Mike and Maty?) may make you ill. They've shown some dandy wall stenciling techniques.
Surprise Gardener
The first time I saw the title I told "the Mister," "Ah, that would be me. If I ever did any gardening it would be a surprise!" Actually, this is an American version of Ground Force, but done matter-of-factly as compared to the British sense of humor. Nice looking gardens--but still too much grass.
Room for Change
Series that used to be passable until Joanne Leibler quit hosting it. My comment was usually "Let's watch and see what room Joanne ruins this week." It was a mis-statement in more ways than one: Joanne was only the host, not the designer, and we both loved the Scottish hunting lodge remake they did. Others weren't that bad, either. Mostly same complaint as Interiors by Design, expensive remakes into too formal interiors.

Last and definitely least:

Interiors by Design
World's most boring decorating show. Carefully manicured hostess redecorates formal ooms most of the time, with a budget that could rival the Rockefellers. Some of the most uncomfortable living spaces I've ever seen; all they need is the plastic covers our grandmas and aunties used to put over their parlor furniture. HGTV dropped it some time ago; I'm not surprised.
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