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Among the recent spate of television programs applying a design spin to the familiar format of the reality TV show was Channel Nine’s program, Top Design. Pitched as a competition celebrating the “unique skills of those who enjoy designing,” the show saw thirteen contestants compete in a series of challenges to win a prize of $100,000. Eventual winner and sole architect among the contestants, Robert Davidov, talks to Australian Design Review about his experience on Top Design.
Rob, what compelled you to sign up for Top Design?
RD I wasn’t looking to do anything like this, but I saw the call out for contestants and I’d seen a couple of episodes of the American show a few years ago, and I thought: why not try out and go through the application process. I thought it could be an interesting way to have some fun working with interiors – and try something new. I never thought I’d make it through.
Were you hesitant that this might be ‘just another DIY show’?
RD Yeah, I was. They reassured me and a few of the other interior designers who had similar concerns that we’d be taken seriously and that it would be different to your typical DIY show. But it was, I guess, a learning curve for everyone involved. You’ve got a group of designers working in the extremely tight time constraints that TV demands… There were good intentions on the part of the producers, but when designers who are used to taking anywhere from 6 months to 5 years to deliver are put into a situation where you’ve got between 8 and 36 hours to deliver a product, things have to change.
Do you feel they put those constraints on you to draw out strong reactions from individuals?
RD Yes, and I think I was one of the biggest victims of that on the show. They tried to play off the drama, and see how we would react or snap. Which was a shame, because I think the audience for this sort of show has more interest in the design intent rather than the spats between contestants. They focused a little too much on the personalities, rather than the designs.
That’s the beast of reality TV! Among the other contestants – interior designers, furniture designers, graphic artists and visual merchandisers – you were the only architect among them. Were you surprised?
RD I was relieved! When we all met at the start of the show, I thought: at least I’m the only architect and I won’t be directly compared to someone else in exactly the same profession. At least I had a bit of individuality in that. But I was most wary of the interior designers – it was probably their skill set that was most closely suited to the challenges. I tried to make my spaces more architectural, to build rooms within rooms, and that was my strategy. But by and large, I think the interior designers – more than the stylists – were the ones holding the aces.
A number of the challenges involved working in teams. How did you find working with designers with a different skill set?
RD I loved it. Though it was hard under the pressure, and with the format of the judging – where the judges were constantly asking teams to identify which elements of a design came from which contestant – which was frustrating, because we tried to work in teams and support others’ ideas. But you know when elimination comes, you have to take ownership of the ideas that were yours so… It was a strategy to create drama and conflict between groups. But despite that, most of the time it worked well – it was a really positive opportunity to work with other very passionate designers who came from different areas of the design profession.
Did you have much of a design background before the show?
RD I’d been working as an architect at FMSA, and had done a little bit of industrial design, but I hadn’t done any interiors or styling, and I think that appealed to the casting directors because I brought in more purely architectural skills. I’d been working on residential work with FMSA, which is my main interest. But interior design is not something I’ve had much exposure to – [in the show] I was going off instinct most of the time.
Did the judges act as mentors during the show?
RD Well we didn’t know who the judges were going to be. We knew Jamie Durie was going to be the host, then we were told he would be a judge too. Then we found out the other judges were Amanda Talbot, who was associate editor of Elle Decoration in the UK, and Nick Tobias, director of Tobias Partners. I was really excited to hear Nick was a judge – to have an architect as a judge was great, and to have an architect whose work I really admire was better. I thought if I could try and do what I liked, having him judging would stand me in good stead. It also added some credibility to the show, having these esteemed judges. But in terms of how much contact they had with us, it was all pretty hands-off. I guess the producers don’t want the contestants’ personalities affecting the judges.
Now that you’ve won, what’s next?
RD I’m hopefully starting up my own practice pretty soon, I’m just looking for some projects to keep me busy but I’d love to start on residential architecture and interiors and branch out from there. It’s exciting, and daunting, but I figure now’s as good a time as any to give it a shot. I’ve also got the design tour, which is part of the prize, which I’m looking forward to next year.
And you’ve won an internship with Contemporary Hotels?
RD Yeah, one of the challenges had a prize which was an internship working with Terry Kaljo, the owner of Contemporary Hotels. I spent two weeks up at a villa she runs in Bedarra Island, which got severely damaged in Cyclone Yasi. Hopefully, I’ll be returning to see how work is progressing later in the year. Terry’s been a terrific mentor, and I’m learning a lot about designing for a tropical climate and for high-end hospitality interiors.
Looking back on the show, would you recommend it to others?
RD You’d have to think about it long and hard. Reality TV is definitely not for everybody, and I guess you lose a bit of yourself when you do it. You see another side of yourself, which for better or worse, you’re sharing with up to a million other people. When you’re being recorded from three angles for up to 18 hours a day, under those stressful situations, something’s got to give. And if it does, you’re not the one that’s smiling at the end of the day. So that’s the downside. But if you think you’re all fairy floss and rainbows, go for it! I don’t know at this stage how much I might gain from the experience, but as an isolated event I had a lot of fun, I met great people but…would I go back and do it again? If I didn’t, I don’t know if I’d be missing out on much.
Since Top Design, Robert Davidov has founded his practice Davidov Partners Architects – read about the LSD Residence.