The job of an interior designer, according to Brian Patrick Flynn, is to create something that is "50% my taste, and 50% of the clients' tastes," he says. Flynn has been the interior designer for HGTV Dream Home and its citified counterpart, HGTV Urban Oasis, since 2015. We caught up with him at the 2020 Dream Home in Hilton Head, South Carolina, where he gave the assembled media a walkthrough of the house.
Flynn is unassuming and candid. In addition to pointing out features he'd come up with--pops of bright color in unexpected but welcome places, or painting a sun-drenched room in a dark color to balance out the excessive lighting--he's just as quick to highlight the things that he didn't know going into the job, and had to learn about to satisfy local tastes.
After learning that families in this neighborhood are rabid sports fans, occasionally with competing interests and a strong desire to watch two simultaneous games at once, Flynn fitted out a living space in the Dream Home with two flatscreens that can be pivoted towards their respective watchers (above). And while he'd hoped to eschew ceiling fans--"I generally don't like them," he says--locals pointed out that no one can live without them in the hot 'n humid South. Flynn thus has them in every room, albeit modernized ones more in line with his aesthetic.
What struck me most about Flynn's job is that, like most design jobs, he designs for a client; but that client is not a singular person, couple or family, but the tens of millions of viewers HGTV courts for their giveaway sweepstakes (which you can enter here, by the way). How can one person possibly design something that network executives, sponsors and the ordinary TV-watching public can all agree upon?
To find out, I had Flynn's PR handler pull him away from a crowd of journalists for a quick Q&A. (Amusingly, we probably pleased sponsor Honda in the process--with no quiet place to record the interview on-site, we sat in the back of the Passport they're giving away with the house.)
Core77: You're an interior designer, and our publication targets industrial designers, but there's enough overlap for me to know: Working with a client can be difficult. Working with multiple clients that all have different inputs can be a nightmare. On top of that, you're in an entirely new setting each season of the show, and have to take account of local tastes. How do you reconcile all of these things?
Brian Patrick Flynn: I'm an interior designer, but I'm also a product designer too; I have my own lighting line and furniture line. So I understand CAD drawings, I understand form and shape and function--and that "design by committee" can be a nightmare. The camel instead of the horse, right?
The thing that works [with the show being in multiple locations] is, the architects are always locals, so they understand the vernacular. They know the architecture that fits the area, and they know all of the regional stuff from a practical standpoint--what materials can withstand salt water, for example--so I take direction from them on those matters, I follow their lead.
Then the builder knows exactly how much budget we have for all of the materials, so that's fixed.
Now when it comes to the part of the creative, everybody weighing in, there are a lot of factors. It's just as important for us to have this beautiful location, as it is to have our automobile sponsor, the pavers the automobile is on, the paint colors on the exterior of the house, the furniture inside, the flooring, the plumbing fixtures. And we have partners for all of those things, so what I do is start with finding out what everybody's priorities are.
So if it turns out that with Honda, it was going to be a midsize SUV that comes with the house, and we knew that it was going to be blue, I would make sure that the backdrop is something that would be beautiful alongside that shade of blue. So it comes down to the priorities of the products that are going into the house, but then also making sure that the decor and the design of the house feels like a place that people would really live, not just like a set. Because then otherwise it comes across as cold.
During the presentation, a couple of times you mentioned "I wasn't aware that this was a thing down here," but then you learned about them and made them integral. How did that information come to you, and how do you decide to integrate it?
Every time we're building an HGTV Dream Home, it's in a different city in a different part of the country. Typically when I have my initial meeting with the architect, they'll have all of these materials laid out that I've never heard of before. They'll explain why they're used, what their history is--usually it comes down to how things hold up in the local weather.
So I come without any ideas or opinions on the vernacular, and I learn from all of the people that work with us locally--the tradespeople, our realtor--or we even meet the neighbors, and I peek into their houses to see what they're buying. I also meet other interior designers that work in the area and see what else is around. For example, when you have a house in the mountains, and it's this cheesy cabin with all the yellow pine, you can see it's just cliché. In that case I'd go out of my way to make sure I don't do what everyone else in the area has done. Otherwise I haven't done my job.
During the walkthrough you'd also mentioned that your job is to create something that's 50% your taste, 50% the client's taste. That's tough enough with one client, but you're being asked to design one house for millions of clients. On top of that, it's not like you're working with the same architects and builders each time, where you know exactly what they're capable of. How do you handle these things?
Most of the time you'll find that when the houses in the area are published in a magazine, it's usually done by somebody with a very high level of taste, someone who is trusted with a large budget by these homeowners. And in this area it's usually second and third homes. So a lot of times I will look and see something that I found really inspiring and beautiful--then compare it with what the builder grade of the area is, and then I try to do something that's in between.
Because when it comes to HGTV, our audience is made up of people all over the country, we have people that are coastal and people that aren't. So the idea is if anything is so overly high end, or so conceptual, it kind of alienates the audience. But if everything is too pedestrian, then you also alienate the audience of people who are looking for something aspirational. For example, like I was saying before about a house in the mountains, I probably wouldn't have log furniture or anything that included a bear. If I did something that happened to be in the desert, I probably would follow the architecture of the desert, but I wouldn't necessarily have a bunch of coyotes on the wall. (Laughter.)
How do you start your part of the process for a typical Dream Home project?
The property is usually bought in December, and then I usually make my first trip to see the land and the lot with the rest of the team. Then the build starts January or February. In the beginning process, once the architects have done all the renderings and we have a paint sponsor, I start to look around, trying to decide what the palette's going to be that fits the vernacular.
After that we go into mood boards. Because we need a flexible tool--while we know the original idea for the house because it's a new build, we've got weather and climate things we need to learn about, which means the budgets can change. Because it may turn out that a lot of the stuff inside the walls, or climate-specific things the house needs, end up costing way more than we thought it would. In those cases the budget for aesthetics can get eaten up by things that are hidden, so I usually keep my design really flexible.
Can you give us an example of how that flexibility might play out?
Sure. So once we have a paint sponsor and I know what the colors are going to be, I know pretty much what rooms they're going to go into. But when it comes to furnishing the house, and coming up with lighting and plumbing, I like to choose things that could work well in multiple rooms. So if it turns out that I originally planned on using a chandelier in the entryway, but by the time we're installing the house, if it turns out that that fixture looks better over the dining room table, we'll swap it out.
I have a 70/30 rule. I keep 70% of the design locked down, and 30% a bit flexible. So when all is said and done, I come close to the original idea.
Okay. And the 70/30 rule is from personal experience?
I think it's 12 years of experience in interior design. I find the more I do really legit, tight drawings--regardless of the budget and even in "real life" aside from HGTV Dream Home--people end up [unexpectedly] spending more on X and less on Y. Meaning that if I lock myself into a drawing of a room exactly likethis with this exact furniture, I find that not having the ability to swap things out can paint you into a corner.
And I think that when it comes to interior design, most people live in a house that's "collected," and they like to mix things up. And if everything is hyper-conceptualized, it feels more like a set, or a showroom, rather than a house that you're supposed to live in. So that's why I keep the design pretty flexible.
And that is from experience. I have been in projects before where you end up spending way more money on pipes, and you end up having a really inexpensive sofa. So in my world I try to explore all of the inexpensive sofas, all the medium-grade sofas, all of the high-end sofas, and I don't make the decision until all of the walls are done.
With so many different people and factors and sponsors as part of the show, at the end of the day you still need to put your personal stamp on the house, because your name is on it too. How do you do that and still reconcile with all of these potentially dissenting voices?
As I am choosing every single thing for the house, the number one thing at the top of my list is level of taste. So if it turns out that I do happen to find an end table that's $60, as long as it's made out of a nice ceramic and it's of a level of taste that the designer who is being paid for that level of taste would choose, I'm good. It doesn't have to be a $500 table.
The other thing is metrics. When it comes to HGTV.com and all of our web traffic, and how things are shared on social media, I get a whole report on SEO. It'll be all the things that people are coming to the site and really looking for. So if it turns out that people are really looking for a lot of black and white rooms, I will consider doing a heavy use of black and white in the house.
Do you have wiggle room to operate within these metrics?
Absolutely. If there's metrics showing that people just absolutely hate purple, sometimes I go out of my way not to do purple, because it seems like people don't want to see it. However, on the flipside, if I do get metrics showing people have an aversion to something, that offers me an opportunity as a designer to change their mind. If I get something saying most people can't stand orange, I might try to create a room in a house using orange--but in a secondary space, to kind of change people's opinion.
Can you give us an example?
So I might take, say, a broom closet, and do it in an orange wallpaper. And show people who hate orange, "Hey, it actually looks good if it's in room that you're not in for 24 hours a day."
Got it. And how many different in-person voices and opinions do you have to deal with?
Every year on Dream Home, I probably have a dozen to 16 important opinions. Between executives, the heads of marketing for our partners--whether it's furnishing, paint, pavers, automobiles--all of those people weigh in, because they have priority. They have priority product that needs to launch this year, they have priority colors. As an example Wayfair, who is our home furnishings sponsor, let's say that in 2020 they're really trying to promote all of their home office furniture. I might have a lot of input from them saying "Hey, please fit at least three desks into the house."
So everybody comes with an opinion, but the reason that I don't mind it and it works for me, is that it's backed up with metrics. "We need you to design a house that is in these blue colors, because next year we have a whole campaign about our blues." Or "We need you to design a very rugged garage, because this midsize SUV is really what we want to sell."
So I always think about it from a marketing standpoint, and the psychology behind why people want certain things at HGTV Dream Home, and then make the house feel like a real livable house where a family could be. Then we happen to put products into it that make it really relatable, and the end result is a beautiful house that everyone wants to live in. But at the same time, all of our sponsors and partners have their beautiful products in it, and it just looks magazine ready.
Lastly, what advice would you give to an aspiring interior designer?
Never, ever compare your work to anybody else's. Because at the end of the day it's a service industry, and you're getting paid by a client. And the client has objectives you need to meet. Those objectives may be personal, they may be opinionated, they may be practical, but at the end of the day, your job is to bring your vision and their vision to life at the same time.
A lot of interior designers, when they're just starting out or if they haven't been published, or are not getting million-dollar budgets, and aren't able to use really crazy colors or wallpaper, they might start to compare themselves to others. That's not what it's about. It's a service industry, and I think the first mistake anybody can make is comparing themselves to someone else. So I don't. If anybody wants to critique my work, I'm happy to hear it, but at the end of the day, it's a job I'm getting paid for. And making the client happy is number one.
You can enter for a chance to win the HGTV Dream Home, $250,000 in cash and a Honda Passport Elite right here.