So Much More Than A Design Star!
By Shirley Craig
Even though Meg is about to give birth to her first child in a couple of weeks, she found time to talk to Reap about competing on Design Star, Meg's Great Rooms, her private design work and how it all began.
Meg, I read that you were going to become a lawyer, so how did you switch gears from law to design? It couldn’t be two more different occupations.
Exactly. You’re absolutely right. What happened for me was design and art and painting and anything creative was always a passion in my life. I always participated in it in my own personal life but when it came to education and a career, I never really thought I could have a successful career at doing something that you loved. Of course, I was wrong about that. I also had a passion for criminology. That was actually my degree. When I went to college and signed up for classes, I started picking all of these fun criminology classes and I really enjoyed it and I actually ended up working for Congress for about six months as an intern and helped them run a human rights caucus. And I thought this was a direction I want to go in; I want to go into law and government.
So when I graduated, I was going to go to law school. I sat down with my grandfather one day, who was a big influence in my life, and he lived across the street and he said, “Meg, you’ve always been creative and into art and design and interiors. Why are you going into law?” He really made me sit down and ask that question. He said, “One of the things I can do when I look back at my own life is realize that I did something I loved every day. It didn’t feel like work, for that reason, and I also gave back while I did what I loved for a living.” He said, “If you can find that combination where you’re passionate about it but you’re also contributing back to society, you will be successful.”
He said, “I want you to really take some time this summer and think about it because you need to really be sure that law is where you want to go.” And I thought he’s giving me a second chance to really look at this and that’s where I decided, that’s it. It took about two months and I’d always loved design and I applied to a bunch of art schools including the Art Institute of Chicago and that’s where I ended up going and my degree was in Interior Architecture. So I learned a little bit more in interior design. Not architecture, by any means, I’m not claiming to be an architect, but I dealt with a lot of structural stuff, which I loved as well. So that’s sort of a long roundabout way.
What did your grandfather do, by the way?
He was the CEO of Baxter which is a pharmaceutical medical supply company. He took it from a one office company and built it into an international company. He rented the dialysis machine, lots of life saving medical supplies.
Wow, he certainly had a passion and he certainly gave back, that’s for sure.
Exactly and he left a really great legacy for all of us. Yeah, he taught us to strive for more than what, I think, people expect from you, which is also something that my siblings and I are all trying to do.
So after you got your degree, you went and got a separate degree in design and architecture.
Where did you go to school?
The Art Institute of Chicago. It’s the school that’s part of the museum, so that was a fabulous classroom to have on a daily basis.
So you’ve always been in Chicago? You were born in Chicago?
I was born in Chicago and that’s where I went back to school the second time. And after I graduated, I went to work for Ralph Lauren in his home collection and that’s where I learned about designing for a lifestyle; I think Ralph Lauren is the master of helping people create a lifestyle that they want to live and selling that lifestyle. So I was able to not only sell amazing gorgeous furniture, but I was also able to learn about how to incorporate that full complete lifestyle for my clients. One of the things that did happen at Ralph Lauren though, was I very quickly learned that I couldn’t sell an entire house of Ralph Lauren furniture to anyone. The budget wouldn’t allow it for anyone’s project, no matter who you are.
So I started taking on clients on the side who I would meet there and they would say, “Can you come and help me finish the rest of my home?” and that’s what turned into me opening up my own design firm; and then I left and opened up my own store in Chicago. I had a home store in Chicago for many years in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Armitage at the boutique shopping area and that was a lot of fun because I was able to work with all kinds of clients, not just high end clients which are lovely, but I think having more diverse clients really pushes you as a designer to think in different ways and to be more creative and find affordable ways to create beautiful design. So the store allowed me to work with everyone from college students to people building brand new homes, so that was a lot of fun.
That must’ve been fun. So when you started with Ralph Lauren, you werer basically in the sales area in one of his stores?
And how long did you work for Ralph Lauren?
Several years. If I remember correctly, maybe four years, approximately. I’d have to go back and look but it felt like about four years.
Then you had your own design company and from the design company, you created the store. Do you still have the store?
When I went on to television, I kind of saw it as an omen. The same month that I was supposed to start shooting Design Star, my lease was up for my first home store. So I decided to close it to focus entirely on television and once I won, I came back to Chicago and opened up a design studio, which was still in a retail location but it didn’t have the inventory my first store had. It’s just almost impossible to run a store and film a television show. So I moved my store online to my website. So my shop is now accessible to people all over the country.
So tell me about Design Star. First of all, what made you decide to audition for Design Star?” How did that all come about?
Well, like I said, we were always sort of pushed to dream big as kids in our family and we were never told there was really anything you couldn’t do and I always wanted to be on television and I didn’t realize that I had been telling people this for quite some time, that I wanted my own television show. It wasn’t until later that a lot of people reminded me of that. I was talking to a client, we were in her home one night, and she said, “What’s next for you? You always have something going on” and I said, “Well, I really want to have my own TV show” and she said, “Well, how are you going to do that?” and I didn’t really know how. I said, “I think if I just put it out there, it’ll happen. I don’t know, a production company might hire me. I don’t know how it really works” and she said, “Maybe you should just try out for Design Star.” And I thought, “That’s a really great idea” because when you win, you win your own show. I thought, “Fantastic. That’s so easy.” Well, it was not easy whatsoever. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life, but the very next day I showed up in my store and I was going through my emails and there was an email from HGTV saying they were coming to Chicago for an open casting call for Design Star and that they want me to come try out.
Are you kidding?
The very next day.
The stars wer aligned for you.
Yes and I said, “That’s it. I have to do this.” So that night, my husband and I closed down the store and opened up a bottle of wine and we got my portfolio together and we worked through the night getting everything ready and went shopping and found an outfit and next day went to the audition and it just felt right. Of course, I was nervous and I didn’t know if I was going to make it. There was lots of different steps to the audition but it just sort of felt like everything was coming together.
So you auditioned. What did that involve? Obviously you have to show your portfolio but what do they ask you to do on the audition? I’m always very curious, as I’m sure our readers are, of how the mechanics of it all works.
Right. So the first audition, they just want to meet you and it takes two to three minutes. They just want to see if you have that spark and what your portfolio looks like at first glance. So I walked in with just myself and showed them the portfolio, told them about myself, told them an abbreviated version of what I just shared with you, how I got to where I was, and they looked at me and said, “Is your hair red?” and I said, “It sure is.” “Oh okay. Do you like what you’re doing? Is this where you really want to be, on television?” and I said, “I've always dreamed of doing it” and they said, “Okay, we’ll call you.” No, this is what they said, they gave me a piece of paper and they said, “We want you to come back on Monday,” because it was a Friday, “but we want you to leave from this room and don’t go back into the other room and don’t tell anyone.” So I left and I had already gotten my callback. They kind of told you in that moment you were called back and on the piece of paper was a list of ideas of what I could do to present a presentation to camera.
So the next step was a camera challenge, essentially. I came up with this idea to talk about drapery and different pleats and the best way to hang them and really it wasn’t necessarily about the content, it was about how you presented yourself on camera. So I went back Monday and that’s what I did and they asked me a ton of questions on camera and filmed it and it was about an hour long. Then I had to wait a month and a half and they called me and said they were flying me out to New York for the steps and that was an audition in front of the executives at Chelsea Market, a food network studio, and we had to do another type of presentation of a room that we had to design in like five minutes. They wanted to hear how we designed it, what we did, what we came up with, and of course, they were looking to see how you came across on camera. Then I had to wait another month and they called and said, “Get ready. You’re leaving in two weeks. You’ve made it.”
Wow, you didn’t have much time to prepare from the Friday to the Monday and then, I guess it’s all then about how are you on your feet performing.
Exactly, how do you speak off the cuff and are you entertaining and do you have that energy that comes through the camera? That’s part of what I got from it.
How was the actual show itself? Was it grueling, fun, difficult?
So grueling. We had, I think, one day off every eight days and every day, you woke up and you had to always be on because you have to think about this, you have a camera following you all the time. So in my mind, I saw this opportunity as a two month longer interview process and they’re watching everything you’re doing.
So for two months, you shot the entire season?
And where did they shoot it?
In New York, which was also very difficult from a design standpoint because it’s difficult to get around New York with traffic and vehicles and loading and unloading them and getting furniture. New York has a lot of limited space, so a lot of furniture companies don’t keep a lot in stock. So it was difficult on many different levels, physically, design-wise, and also they would give you a challenge that morning and say, “Okay, this is your challenge. This is what you’re going to do but before you go, we want you to pick your paint colors because we’re going to get everything painted while you’re gone.” Well, from a design standpoint, that’s totally backwards. You pick your paint once you have your fabrics and everything else together. So we were just hoping that you picked colors that you could then find pieces to go with. From that perspective, they really put a twist in it, more from a production standpoint, not to really mess with you as a designer. So that was difficult.
Right, they have to paint the walls of the set before they shoot.
Exactly. So the other thing is that every designer that made it to Design Star, the final show, they’re all great designers. So in addition to just competing, you’re competing against people that are already at a great caliber of skill when it comes to design. So you really have to think outside of the box and present something that people haven’t seen before with limited resources.
Was your husband able to go or you just went off for two months and did your thing?
I went off for two months. We were actually only dating at the time. That was one of the hardest parts, especially for the other designers. You could only talk to the outside world maybe once a week and it had to be through Skype. We had no television, no phone, no magazines.
You didn’t have your cellphone?
We had nothing, a cellphone, nothing, because they didn’t want you to be influenced by the outside as well. We didn’t have any magazines, nothing, no music, no television. I mean, you’re working on something nonstop too.
You’re in design jail, solitary confinement.
Did you all live together?
In a house or hotel rooms?
In a fabulous penthouse in Brooklyn that overlooked all of Manhattan at the very top of, I think it was called The Tower Building. It’s an old warehouse factory building at the end of, sort of right across from the end of Manhattan, the financial district. It was an absolutely beautiful view. That was our first challenge: we had to design our own living space because it was a blank slate.
So you lived there for basically two months with all the other designers essentially in the same house, right?
Well, very quickly, they all started to go away. The very first day someone was eliminated and then three days later, another person was eliminated, another three days, another person was eliminated. So before you know it, it got down to a group of like eight, then six, then four. It just sort of started to snowball. I have to say it was more like a month and a half, because if I’m correct, I left on March 13th and I was finished May 1st, so it was about a month and a half.
Did you at least have your own bedroom?
No, I shared a bedroom with two other people.
Oh god. That’s pretty brutal.
It is. You know what though I made friends that I’ll have for a very long time. Even though we’re competing against each other, we all had the same dream to win and I was fortunate enough to win. Our friendships are still pretty strong.
That’s great. Now, that must’ve been an amazing feeling at the end of the show when you find out you’re the design star. What were the first thoughts that came to your mind?
Totally overwhelmed. A feeling I don’t even think I could put into words because here I was in an environment where I was completely shut off from my entire support system and everyone that I love in life and I was so focused on winning that when they actually called my name, it was like this amazing euphoric feeling because not only had I accomplished what I was so focused on and dreamed so long for, but I was finished. I had completed this task that I was so wrapped up in. So it was a relief and it was also the best thing that ever happened to me. I won my life’s dream. I always wanted a show and now I've done it. So I was shaking, I couldn’t breathe, it was very overwhelming, I cried for like two days straight afterwards. [Laugh] I don’t know if it was a combination of post-traumatic stress disorder from going through a reality show competition or if it was really, you know, it was just a relief of emotions and I was so excited about the future.
How long after Design Star did you start your show, Meg’s Room?
Well, I started about four weeks later and I had to film entirely undercover because Design Star hadn’t aired yet. So now I had to go home and I couldn’t tell anyone that I won. My mom didn’t even know.
Oh, you couldn’t tell her?
No, you have to sign a confidentiality contract.
So you only knew, you and those other people there, but did you come home for that month?
Yes, I did. I just told them it was going to be a live event like Survivor and no one knew yet. That was the way I kept everyone from asking all the time.
That was smart. So then four weeks later, was that shot in New York too?
It was shot in Chicago. The best part about Meg’s Great Rooms, my show, is they followed me back to my real design world. I reopened up my studio in Old Town and I got to use all my vendors and contractors and it wasn’t just a show where I had to use whatever production wanted me to use. I was able to actually bring people into my world. The viewer was able to actually watch how a real designer does their job and that was really fun, I think, for everyone, including myself.
That must’ve been amazing, to be able to have had that experience. Talk about your dreams coming true. Have a TV show in your own backyard?
Yes, exactly. David Bromstad, when he won the first season, he had to move to San Francisco and I think that was very difficult. They eventually moved him back to Miami where he was from, but I think that was where they kind of learned a happy host is a happy show.
And that show ran for two seasons? Is it coming back or it was just the two seasons?
It was the two seasons. The ratings were excellent. Then I took about a year to film a bunch of specials for the network, like America’s Most Embarrassing Living Room and I launched the HGTV furniture line, through that special, the HGTV Home Makeover and that finished airing last March and then I've taken some time off for multiple reasons. One, I had a double mastectomy and reconstruction last January and that was a long recovery and that’s something I've been very vocal about.
Were you diagnosed with breast cancer or did you know you had the gene?
I have the gene. Before I started a family, I wanted to take care of it.
Wow, well that was incredibly brave.
How long ago was that?
That was a year ago January. That was about a three month recovery. Then I got pregnant this summer and I've just sort of been designing for private clients for the last several months.
Do you have a lot of breast cancer in your family?
Yes, my mom is a survivor and we lost my grandmother and my cousin to breast cancer. It was my cousin who died when she was 48, a year before my surgery, that really kind of prompted me to take action and do the surgery.
Well, you’re very brave. Good for you.
At least it’s one thing you don’t ever have to worry about.
Yep, I rewrote my future.
Now, I have to ask you a question, is your grandfather still alive?
No, he is not. He actually passed away, I have to think about it, but I think in 2006 or ‘07 maybe seven years ago.
Did he know about Design Star?
No, he passed away prior to Design Star.
Yes, but I felt him with me through the end of that whole challenge, I really did…I felt him kind of watching over me and I knew he was proud of me when I won and that I was doing what I wanted to do. Not only that, television is a way to give back to society. One of the best parts about having your own TV Show is truly the joy that you bring to people’s lives. I had no idea until fans started approaching me in airports, writing me letters, and saying “I was going through the hardest time in my life but I looked forward to your show every Saturday night. You brought me so much joy and you made me laugh” and other people say, one woman said, “You remind me so much of my daughter who passed away and watching you brings back so many memories.” And I have a few young fans who are battling through cancer who reached out to me and I was able to help them through therapy and through their treatment. I just, being who I am and being a designer was bringing joy to people’s lives, just by the fact that they were able to join me on my television show in watching it and kind of step away from their own lives a little bit. I feel like I’m accomplishing what my grandfather has given me the best advice to follow, “Do what you love. Give back while you’re doing it and you’ll be successful at it and have a happy life.”
Now, what are the plans for the future? Obviously baby is coming but are you going to hope to do more TV?
Yes. There is hopefully a new show very soon on the horizon. That’s about as much as I can share. [Laugh]
Yes, television is definitely still a part of my life.
Good and your studio is still doing well?
Yes. Well, actually, for this past year that I've been recovering and doing design work, I've also been living in North Carolina at the beach, where my husband’s from. So I go back and forth and I do design work in Chicago, I’m doing design work here. Right now, I’m actually doing a show house here in Wilmington, North Carolina and I share my studio now with a designer that I mentored for many years, just because I wasn’t there very often, but my design company is still very much thriving, almost to the point of that I need to hire more people to help me. [Laugh] It’s a lot of fun. I’m very fortunate that I have a lot of business, but for me to be in my studio every day, I’m not there all the time, if that’s what you’re asking.
So what advice do you have for young people who want to get into design and be successful in interior design? Is it all about education?
I think you brought up a really great question. It’s not all about the education…I think it comes from within, it comes from your gut, and it comes from what you already know. As you start designing, you obviously learn more about what to do and what not to do, but that’s the trial and error of design, but you can’t go to school to learn how to visually put things together. That’s something that, I think, is built into you when you’re born, that you’re creative and you understand the spatial relation of either colors to each other or patterns. And so to people who are in a position right now where they’re not happy in the job that they have or they’re thinking about going into design, I say they need to start somewhere and even if that means they do it for free for friends and they help them, that’s what you do. And you just start building upon that and you tell the next person that you want to help their friends and to give you referrals and then you start building a foundation and you don’t even have to build a portfolio to really even feel like you’re able to go out and look for clients.
Of course you want that and that’s why you can help friends for free, so you can photograph it and show some of your work, but I think referrals from people who you’ve made happy in their home is the best recommendation that you can get. And also I think that any young designer, they need to team up with an older designer as a mentor. I've helped a lot of younger designers get to where they are now through just guidance, things that I wish I knew early on that would’ve saved me a lot of time and money and mistakes. So learn from the people who’ve come before you, is another bit of advice.
And never give up on your dream, right?
Never give up on your dream and dream big. The bigger you dream, the better.
Okay and so ten years from now, Meg, where do you see yourself?
I see myself with my own television show, preferably a daily television show, and still doing what I love, design, but continuing to give back in an ever bigger way.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Just that I think if you follow your dreams, stick to it, even when you feel like you’re failing or about to fail, success is right around the corner. You just can’t give up and that makes for a happy life. I think I’m fortunate that I had someone like my grandfather share that advice with me early on versus learning that so much later in life and I think that’s why I've gotten to where I am today at the age of 36.
You are obviously going down a path that you really understand where it’s leading you…I think that's amazing.
Well, thank you so much. I loved meeting you.
You too! Good luck with the baby.
To learn more about Meg Caswell, visit her website here.