Life Lessons from Trading Spaces: The New Season Begins!

by Grace Bonney

The first time I saw Genevieve Gorder on television, I knew I was seeing something special. It was 2000 and I was home on break from my freshman year of college. My mom and I tuned in to a new show called Trading Spaces, which paired designers and a carpenter with neighbors who would make over each other’s rooms for $1,000. I’d grown up in a home with parents that were interested about decorating and architecture, but I’d never seen a younger person approach interiors the way Genevieve did.

She walked into people’s homes — usually barefoot — and would proceed to use random objects or pieces of inspiration as the jumping-off point for totally creative, exciting, and one-of-a-kind room designs. I watched her turn colanders into light fixtures, choose paint colors inspired by artichokes, create walls covered in moss and rust, and, my favorite, turn simple sheets of plywood into celestial wall light installations.

I spent most of my college years recreating (okay, just completely copying) all of Genevieve’s design ideas for friends across our college campus. Those projects made me feel accomplished, unafraid of power tools and, most importantly, confident. Seeing someone like Genevieve (who was young and came from a background that mixed design with MTV) so proudly hold her own space in a world where design was so often determined by what wealthy older people thought completely changed the way I viewed my future. It was Genevieve, and Trading Spaces, that showed me that design was the place I wanted to be.

So you can imagine my delight when I heard that this Saturday, Trading Spaces will be back on the air with the original cast (Genevieve, Doug, Vern, Hildi, Laurie, Frank, Paige and Ty!) as well as new team designers, John Gidding, Kahi Lee and Sabrina Soto.

In the 10 years that Trading Spaces has been off the air, a lot has changed. Home shows have ballooned in terms of scope, budget, and speed. We’re used to seeing entire homes gutted and redone over the course of a few weeks with budgets that are higher than most people’s annual salaries. So I’m really excited to see a show with a lower budget (they now have $2,000 to spend), a smaller scope of change (one room only) and with more connection between the homeowners and the people coming up with the design. I’ve missed those connections, those DIY elements, and the way that the projects bring a community of people together (unless, of course, you’re talking about the infamous brown fireplace and hay walls).

So in honor of the new season starting this weekend, I’m sharing the most important lessons I learned from the show. And I’d love to hear what you learned from the original season, what was most memorable (Anyone else remember the basement room Doug did inspired by this Eames pattern?) for you and what you’re hoping to see in this new season. I’m just so excited to see the scale brought down to a single room — I hope more shows will see this as an option so we can make more room for projects that embrace DIY, smaller budgets, and makeovers that feel a bit more attainable and relatable. xo, Grace

  1. Make it yourself: I never really understood that I could make things in my house (from furniture to lighting) on my own if I wanted to, until I saw this show. I didn’t grow up in a home where we made a lot of things by hand, so watching Genevieve saw and nail things on her own was really powerful. It’s what inspired me to make most of the furniture I had in my college and post-college life and it gave me such a strong sense of confidence at a tough time in life.
  2. To each their own: It’s not a secret that designers had their own fan clubs on Trading Spaces and certain designers would get a lot of flak from other designers’ fans. At the height of the show’s popularity I was definitely on Team Genevieve and Team Vern, but looking back, I realize how great it was that they had designers with so many different styles and backgrounds. My 19-year-old self didn’t appreciate “country chicken” motif kitchens, but I recognize now that it was so important that the show embraced and supported a lot of different design styles and didn’t elevate one above the other.
  3. Inspiration is everywhere: I grew up thinking that design came from a big ol’ rule book. You opened up books from fancy older designers and that’s where you knew what was “good” and what was “out.” But watching designers like Genevieve find inspiration in everything from a shade of wood on an old trunk to the fuchsia interior of an artichoke really informed my way of viewing the design world. It taught me that I could design an entire room around my favorite movie poster or a colorful pattern on an old plate — anything that meant something to me was valid.
  4. Design doesn’t have to cost a lot: This one is something I’m constantly missing from current design TV because today’s design shows are all about huge budgets and shiny new things. While I recognize that spending $1,000 – $2,000 on a room is still a lot, it’s far less than what we’ve become accustomed to on TV. I miss the older era of shows like Clean House with Niecy Nash, where homeowners would have a yard sale to raise funds for a more modest makeover. Those were the days when design felt more accessible, DIY and relatable to me. I think I’ve lost touch with that some, and I’m excited to see what Trading Spaces can remind me about getting creative and crafty at home.
  5. Just be yourself: The designers on Trading Spaces were all from very different style backgrounds: country chic with Frank, traditional/preppy with Laurie, avant-garde with Hildi, architectural clean lines with Vern, classic city chic with Doug, and creative/DIY with Genevieve. Each of them fully embraced their style and never really tried to be anyone other than themselves. They all attempted to give homeowners something they actually wanted (with varying degrees of success and some with greater effort than others), but they stayed true to their points of view and I love that. I love that Genevieve never wavered from wanting to use nature as a point of inspiration and seeing up-cycled objects as valid pieces of art and design.

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  • Great read!

    I LOVED Clean House!! I don’t remember Trading Spaces as much–I do recall a family friend named their cat Vern Yip though and he is from Atlanta, so they mention that in the newspaper sometimes. But I definitely remember Clean House. I saw Matt Iseman hosting something else recently and was like “…that’s that guy off Clean House!” I’d love to find episodes of it somewhere (cable, Netflix or Amazon) and enjoy a bit of a nostalgia trip. Style Network doesn’t exist anymore and hasn’t for some time now, but surely (I know, don’t call me Shirley) someone has it somewhere.

  • I completely agree! I will so miss my Mom tho, she passed away some years back, but she NEVER missed Trading Spaces. Thanks!

  • Oh my gosh, my husband and I LOVED Clean House! We still sometimes randomly sing “who wants CLEEEAAAN HOUSE” out of nowhere. We actually ran into Niecy Nash in line at our favorite cheese steak place in Philadelphia a few years back…I was absolutely geeked!

    I love this post because you’ve captured exactly what I loved and what I miss about that previous generation of design and DIY shows. Spice Up My Kitchen (affectionately dubbed ‘Spicy Kitchen’ in our house) was another favorite :)

  • Dear lord, I thought I was an isolated geek secretly coveting these shows! I also loved these aspects! Today I am torn between loving good design and feeling weird by all the abundance of crap I see so many people hoarding into closets/spotlessly labelled bins with the help of professional organizers and rock-star-high-budget designers, because they just skip the part where you get rid of stuff and concentrate on the experience of creating spaces that work, that are true to you, and happen to look good. Thanks for the great read! XOXO

  • I loved Trading Spaces (the British version was fun, too)! Vern and Laurie were my favorites, but I loved seeing what crazy things Doug and Hildi would do (remember Doug’s PRISON ROOM?) I also loved While You Were Out and Clean Sweep. I miss decorating shows. Why all the emphasis on house hunting and renovating? Renovating a whole house, or even just a room, is so out of reach for most of us. I learned so much from watching those shows.

    • “Renovating a whole house, or even just a room, is so out of reach for most of us.”

      Yep. Owning one is out of most people’s reach, too. So anything that makes design and decoration feel more relatable and accessible is exciting for me.

      And OMG, wait, Doug did a prison-themed room? I don’t even know if I want to know more. To think that that’s an ok theme…good lord. No. No no no.


      • LOL, yes it was a master bedroom and he called it the Prison of Love. He made a bench out of a couple of toilets! I just found the episode on the TLC website. The title is Ohio: Shelby Avenue. The homeowner’s reaction is awesome. :-)

  • I totally agree with you! I loved Trading Spaces and especially Genevieve. I’m a graphic designer and saw her speak at a design conference several years ago. She is so creative and inspiring. She had a show on HGTV for awhile, but now they just show the same shows over and over and everything looks the same. I too wish they would show programs with more DIY, creativity and diverse styles. Maybe we should start a new home decor network! But, meantime, I’m glad Trading Spaces is back!!

  • I agree 100% about learning that you can make these things yourself, and how I’ve missed that. I’m looking forward to seeing how Trading Spaces steps back but in a totally different time, and hope it works as well as it has for Queer Eye. As a side note Grace, you might like Money for Nothing, a British series on Netflix. I’ve been enjoying it as the designer takes things people are discarding at the dump/recycling center (called The Tip) and refashions them with the help of innovative craftspeople into beautiful and functional pieces. I’ve found myself returning to “I could do that!” in response, a similar response I had when watching Trading Spaces. Also, the Brit sensibilities are super sweet.

  • I LOVED Trading Spaces! I was in middle school during its initial run, and it definitely inspired me to be crafty and to not be afraid of creating things for myself and dreaming big about how a space can be used. This is something I’ve carried with me into adulthood and my home. And my love of hardwood floors probably comes from Vern putting them everywhere he went!

  • I liked and disliked the original Trading Spaces. I loved the permission it granted me to try new things, to refashion and redesign using what I already owned, to stretch my creative design muscles and look for inspiration anywhere. I disliked the “way out there” designs which seemed to exist only to astonish and/or horrify for effect. Such a waste of money. I really miss the DIY and redesign shows of several years ago. They were more unique, more about the design and less about the host/designer. Watching those shows gave me ideas that felt achievable in a normal world. Today’s shows are so cookie cutter, so expensive, so neutral. They never offend, but they don’t challenge or excite either. Time for a new direction.

  • I am from the UK and haven’t heard of this but we do have a program called ‘fill your house for free’. They upcycle stuff and take things others have been giving away. Later they have a ‘professional’ (who in my opinion is a little delusional) come and value what the furniture would have cost on the high street / how much has been saved. It isn’t all realistic without the designers help but it is much more attainable and more interesting than I think a lot of people’s homes are.

  • I watched a ton of this show. It was always interesting, but didn’t necessarily make me want to participate. I felt Hildy didn’t listen to what the homeowners wanted… most memorable was a giant portrait of herself on a wall. #nothanks Looking forward to the new season. I think Vern was always my favorite.

  • Yay!! I love this post! And I felt the same way about Genevieve. Seeing her on the floor creating a unique art piece or whipping up some new cushion covers, design became play for me. Even her cute wardrobe wasn’t too precious to DIY in.

    Something else that always stood out — the way she’d give the neighbors their homework to do, usually finishing up painting over night. It brought in the reality with the playfulness. Joy + hard work = something beautiful.

    Also, I’m gonna need another cat just so I can name him Vern Yip. omg that’s the best.

  • Like a dream come true- Trading Spaces comes back….. I think Niecy Nash is well into her acting career, but I would love to see Clean House come back as well- all that foolishness and mayhem!!!
    For those who have been sucked up into the Netflix vortex, may I recommend the Great British Interior Design Challenge- very much like Trading Spaces only the contestants are amateur interior designers (no one has been formally trained). It really is fantastic- I am obsessed and will definitely have the post-binge finish blues after I plow through this one. If only there was a tv competition here in the states for us regular folks who take design seriously….. any tv producers out there? HVTV- I hope you see this!

  • I meant HGTV- but there are soooo many new channels out there. How about producing the “DesignSponge American Interiors Challenge” Grace?

  • I can’t wait!! Also – I feel old and how is it that they have barely aged?! They look amazing. Genevieve has been an inspiration for me as well…it’s been incredible to follow her career.

  • I used to love Trading Spaces, Splash of Color, and Feather Your Nest (might be getting that name wrong). Although I do recall being appalled when someone (Hildi?) painted over a family heirloom piano that the owners had expressly asked them not to touch. And the time she completely covered a bathroom wall in fake flowers 😬

    • OMG those fake flowers. I remember wondering which would be worse, trying to keep that room clean or trying to remove the zillion flowers – which were stapled on. But now I think that any “damage” they did is NOTHING compared to the thousands of dollars and removed walls, etc. that current design shows do. I learned from Vern that everything is more stylish in multiples. I definitely have to watch the new version.

  • The most important lesson I learned (and of course it was in retrospect) from TS is that there’s a crapload more work that goes into making something over than they showed on TV. I recall being inspired by the show to make over some thrift store dining chairs with paint. These were the days before I was a decor fanatic and my DIY adventures were limited to artwork. They made painting furniture look so easy on the show, so I bought some latex paint and went to town. Except the paint chipped right off, because how was I to know I needed to prime the chairs first? On the show they just go right at it, and I don’t even think the latex paint had the primer in it back then.

    I believe there’s so much more that goes into the TS process than they show on television. Carpenters we never hear of, designers visiting the rooms in advance to make out their plans. Knowing what I now know about design and makeovers, it just HAS to be this way.

    I’m still geeked about the reboot and look forward to recapping it. :) I’ve been watching all the reruns lately and love seeing how the designers have evolved. Gen was always my fave but her design is way more on point now than it was in some of those rooms.

  • My Mama and I loved watching this show together! We still say “magenta, taupe, magenta, taupe – all around the room” from Hildi’s circus room! Genevieve and Vern were always my favorite designers.

  • I’m close to your age and was right there with you with my love of Trading Spaces. I watched and re-watched so many episodes – I definitely saw them all.

    When I sold my first house we were close to losing money. It was listed June 2008, so the bubble was about to burst (unbeknownst to me) and we had only owned for 3 years; no doubt I wanted to save as much money as I could.

    So, took myself to Home Depot and learned how to do every single repair and touch up by myself, with the exception of electrical work (I wasn’t that advanced and I wanted to know the future owners would be safe).

    We ended up selling in September 2008, weeks before the bottom dropped out of the market. We broke even, but would have been in a major hole if I hadn’t learned how to replaced rotted siding and the subtle differences in paint sheen on doors vs walls, stuff I never really thought about before. And honestly, I really owe it to Trading Spaces for that boost of confidence I needed to pick-up my drill and paintbrush for the first time.

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