It all began with a simple concept: Take two daring families, two rooms, two out-there decorators, two carpenters, and two $1,000 budgets. Then let the families loose in each other's homes and give them 48 hours to do a full-scale room redo with the help of the professionals. Anything in the room is fair game, and the designer has the final say.
The result: TLC's "Trading Spaces," which draws more than 6 million viewers a week and consistently rates as one of cable TV's top programs. But this home decorating show with the wild twists and palpable tension is also doing something else - it's giving the home decorating industry a whole new look.
"The first time I saw the show - I guess it was 2-1/2 years ago - I thought: 'What are they doing?' " says Denise Caringer, executive editor for home decorating and design at Meredith Books. "At first I was appalled." But her initial horror turned into excitement. "Then I couldn't turn it off. Then I couldn't wait for the next episode. I was a fan...." A fan among many fans.
Part of the draw, she says, is the inherent drama of the show, which comes from watching two rooms undergo a radical face-lift while the owners haven't a clue about what's going on. Viewers see mistakes being made and mistakes being compensated for. The results are stunning. "They see crying homeowners - usually because they like the results, but not always," says Ms. Caringer.
The climax of the show - called "the reveal" - is where the owners see for the first time what has been done to their homes. It's here that the very mettle of neighborliness can be tested - when participants learn if they're the victims of a design conspiracy or the beneficiaries of a room they'll never want to redo again.
"I think what's made the show so popular is that it's just so freeing to people," says Caringer. "It relaxes you. It makes decorating fun. It encourages you to just get out there and do it.... It's empowering."
The show created such a buzz in her New York office that Caringer and her colleagues concluded the "Trading Spaces" brand was strong enough for a lucrative book venture. And their hunch didn't disappoint. "Trading Spaces: Behind the Scenes," a book written for fans, hit book stores March 15 and demand required four additional print runs in its first two weeks.
This behind-the-scenes look at the show is filled with oodles of trivia about host Paige Davis and the eight designers with the power to transform any room in a home.
For instance, Hildi Santo Thomas - the show's "most fearless designer" - lives in a castle in France. And "Trading Spaces' " "smallest designer," Vern Yip, confesses he was "that annoying kid in school who was always asking the teacher for extra credit."
The flair of these personalities, with their many tips and designs, is part of what draws audiences. But only part.
Interior designer Mary Caroline Cruse, who works for Butternut Hill Home Furnishings in St. Louis, admits she gets inspiration for some of her designs from "Trading Spaces" and other decorating shows. She was thrilled when the large TLC trucks pulled into her suburban neighborhood last year to film an episode, but says she didn't get to see much of what was going on, thanks to the police lines keeping crowds out.
Ms. Cruse, who has been designing for three years, says she's noticing a change in her clients' attitudes toward decorating. "People are doing a lot more on their own," she says.
It's not uncommon for her to walk into people's homes, discuss possibilities, and then have them tell her they'll try doing the work themselves because they've seen it done before, says Cruse.
That's exactly what Anne Robello, of AR Home Decorating in Winchester, Mass., loves to hear. "The best thing that's ever happened to my business, and I've been in business for 27 years, is do-it-yourself home TV and programs like 'Trading Spaces.' "
"It gets people thinking about what they can do, what they can't do, how they can go about doing it themselves."
She notes that until fairly recently most "ordinary people" would go decades without redecorating their apartments, houses, or rooms. "Now, just about every couple you know, even [older people], are doing one room a year, or two rooms a year."
That's one of the greatest contributions "Trading Spaces" has made to home decorating, says Caringer. "It encourages you to just get out there and do it. People want to decorate their homes.... But they get hung up in the early stages of 'Oh, how will it look? Will it be OK? What if something goes wrong?' "
Shows like "Trading Spaces" help people overcome their fear of the unknown, Cruse adds, and give them the confidence to try something new and bold.
What's more, says Ms. Robello, the $1,000 budget is not unrealistic. "It's very frugal of them. I like it because it lets the common person know that for $1,000 they can get a whole new look."
However, Caringer cautions that while $1,000 can go a long way in changing the look, feel, and function of a room, the average American won't be able to stretch it as far as the folks on "Trading Spaces." Designers on the show have professionals on hand to take care of the carpentry work and reupholstering.
"Trading Spaces: Behind the Scenes" suggests a way to get around this: Learn some of the necessary skills and then team up with neighbors and friends who have different skills, bartering your way through room decorating.
Then there's the time question. Few people will be able to do in 48 hours what the "Trading Spaces" teams do. That's why Caringer suggests approaching a design in small pieces, doing it bit by bit over a period of time. She adds a note of caution: "At the end of a weekend make sure your room is livable and attractive for the rest of the week; otherwise it just gets too stressful."
"Trading Spaces" and similar shows are also nudging greater numbers of students toward interior design programs, says John Marsden of the College of Design, Construction, and Planning at the University of Florida, Tampa. But the shows can perpetuate myths about what interior design is.
"Shows like 'Trading Spaces' ... are really more about decorating, but the public can misinterpret that and think that's all interior designers do," he says.
Decorators are concerned with the aesthetics of a space and adorn it with window treatments, artwork, and furnishings. Interior designers, says Dr. Marsden, do that and much more. They're trained to consider user needs and ways to integrate them into planning. Designers understand the relationships between different spaces and work within building and safety codes to ensure the welfare and safety of occupants.
Many states require interior designers (but not decorators) to be licensed, says Marsden.
Cruse, the St. Louis designer, notes that while the "Trading Spaces" designers are excellent at what they do, many of their design ideas amount to instant fixes and wouldn't be livable.
Ultimately, though, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and "Trading Spaces" is something Cruse says she definitely would be willing to try - both as a designer and a homeowner.
"I think it would be fun," she says. And judging from the statistics, she's not the only one. The show's producers say they receive between 75 to 100 applications a day from homeowners hoping to be the ones to trade spaces.