Q&A: An Interview with Design Star's Matt Locke
He's the kind of designer who can take mundane elements like kitchen soffits and turn them into something worth coveting.
Nothing in six seasons of HGTV's Design Star has ever topped Matt Locke's innovative five-person bedroom design for the reality show’s home base during season three. On top of his design talent, Matt's easygoing and drama-free attitude made him a favorite among HGTV viewers. Ever since he read the Design Star recaps I'd written for my blog Fu for Thought, Matt and I have been fast friends. It was fun to have an official reason to grill him about his design career.
What types of services do you provide at Matt Locke Design?
I have a full service design company, so that includes interior design, construction, permitting, and all of the little bits of interior design: paint selection, furniture, anything to do with general construction like plumbing and electrical. My firm can handle all of those things.
What is the quintessential Matt Locke look?
Warm modern. I like clean, simple shapes and love the modern design aesthetic, but I want my spaces to be inviting and livable. I do that by using the principles of modern design, but with warm finishes like wood and earthy colors.
What inspired you to try out for Design Star?
When I came to Los Angeles in 2005, I wanted to be a full-time designer, I wanted to get on Jeopardy! and I wanted to be on a design television show. I looked around and realized that Design Star was the best way to get my foot in the door, and I just applied.
I forgot about your smarty-pants Jeopardy! appearance!
Oh, it wasn't so smarty-pants. Thank God they don't keep those videos on YouTube! I went into Final Jeopardy with $600 and the returning champ had over $19,000. I missed the final question and ended the night with zero.
What are some of the challenges of designing for TV vs. reality?
The budgets are miniscule, the timing is too short to do something actually livable and professional, and colors and shapes look different on camera. So you have a knack for it or you have to learn it. I would say someone like David Bromstad (host of HGTV's ColorSplash and winner of the first season of Design Star) knew from the get-go how to make something look great on camera. I had to learn as I went. There's a way to fill the space, so as the camera pans the room, it all looks finished and complete. That is different from a livable environment, where all of the pieces would actually be functional. I think for some designers, it's a relief, because it's more of a gesture. You don't have to get every little thing right for it to last three years of use by a family. So if you're a quick thinker and just want to get your idea out, it's a great way to do that.
How did appearing on Design Star affect your business?
Appearing on Design Star got me a lot more media work. I was able to do an endorsement for SC Johnson, I did public appearances at home shows, I filmed several pilots, I appeared on HGTV's Showdown and very soon, I'll be co-hosting an online makeover show on SheKnows.com called HomeStretch. Appearing on Design Star doesn't translate to more design work, because people view a television designer as being out of their reach, unapproachable, or too busy. It definitely occurs to people who make TV shows and books and home shows to contact me for more work, but I don't think any of us designers got any more design work from being on the show.
A designer typically only receives feedback or criticism from a client, but when you design for TV, the entire viewing public is critiquing your work. How did that affect you?
I read everything. I felt like it was part of the boot camp experience of being on the show. I took a lot of the critiques to heart and realized my work could be improved. I didn't really take it personally or get too upset. The only thing that got under my skin was when I did the hometown challenge and (Design Star judge) Martha McCully was horrified that I bought these big, dark brown leather chairs for my parents' game room. I remember her saying many times, "How could he put those big, heavy chairs in there?" But those ended up being my parents' very favorite part of that room. Even though they've retired and moved to a different place, they took those chairs with them. Sometimes you have to take those critiques with a grain of salt and know you did the right thing for the client. But it was rare to read something that was completely off the mark. Usually, you know what's going right and wrong in your room. There were mean comments about all of us on the show that didn't have anything to do with design—that's just part of being on TV. One of the things I'll always remember was on those HGTV message boards, I was called "Stupid Hat Matt."
Before you moved to LA, you lived in the Denver area. How is that market different from the LA market?
Denver appreciates great design in a wide variety of styles, from antler lodge style and faux Tuscan to elegant classic and daringly modern. But you just don't see as much modern. In LA you see house after house of Eames and Barcelona chairs and even that can get a little monotonous. Here, people rely too much on the modern classics. In Colorado, I don't think people are as concerned with keeping up with the Joneses and spending that kind of money.
What did you do to help your business ride out the shaky economy?
I had to focus a lot on providing really exceptional customer service and making sure that the few clients I did have during the recession were happy. In my case, that meant responding to text messages and emails at midnight or on the weekends, and I was happy to do it. It meant going the extra distance because there just wasn't any work.
One thing I noticed during the recession was that here in LA, people did not want to risk their investment on a brand new design. It became a very safe environment where people would spend money on reproductions of the classics, but they would not buy interesting, fresh, new stuff. You can introduce a really fresh take on a lamp, but there's no guarantee that people are going to respond to it during that type of economy. I have designed my own furniture and lights and I've also curated a collection of designers whose work I thought was important and new and it was just surprising to see how safe everybody wanted to play it. One of my other clients, who runs this really fantastic shop selling true antiques, has done quite well during this economy. The stuff that he sells has a name and a pedigree. People really like that. I think it comes down to almost that cocktail party scenario. When your friends come over and say, "That's a pretty table," you can say, "That's a such-and-such!" Then there's that "Oh!" moment. You don't have that with a new designer's work. It's a curious thing.
Did you notice an increase in referrals as a result of that elevated level of service?
What I found out is that my clients definitely referred me out and had really nice things to say, but it was just a matter of people not hiring anybody. A client told me, "I talk about you all the time," which was great to hear, but it made me realize that people just did not want to spend money at that time.
How do you handle difficult clients?
I look at this in a different way than some designers. My life was a safe, corporate benefits kind of world, and I left that to pursue my dream. Now that I'm here and it worked out, I'm very thankful and I'm much more willing to tolerate crazy behavior or unusual requests. I know these people pay my bills. Doing these jobs is how I live. Which would I prefer? A little drama with a client, or being stuck in a cubicle doing a job that doesn’t satisfy me? Every time I get frustrated, I just remind myself that I would much rather be doing this. I also go to the gym. All of the frustration I have from whatever it is—family, job, money—I just take it out on the weights!
What is your greatest creative achievement to date?
I'm currently working on a project that really appeals to me in every possible way. A family is building their ultimate dream house in La Jolla and they've commissioned me to create an artistic wall sculpture interpretation of New York City's subway map in wood. They have a real love for the city and for the subway system and thought it would be cool to commission an original piece of art to represent that experience. The piece I'm doing will be going in their staircase and is two stories tall! The islands are machine-cut out of walnut plywood, based on a file I created in which I traced over every street and the boroughs by hand. I'm doing trials with the subway lines, to create them out of acrylic. The streets are channels that are cut into the wood that will be inlaid with aluminum or bronze. For the water, I found a textured metal and printed a collage of photographs I took in New York on it. I love design, I love my clients, I love the work that I do, but this project is different because it really is art. It's art expressed in a way that makes me extremely happy. It's very technical and has elements of woodworking, elements of modern architecture, there's engineering, there's lighting. It's a microcosm of all of the design work that I do, but in an environment in which I have far more control. As I'm doing it, it occurs to me how much I need to be doing this all the time, using other cities, maps and architecture for inspiration.
Do your clients know it's the best job you've ever had?
I have told them many times that they have made my dreams come true and how thankful I am. It's such a crazy thing, the chronology of events. I will say that Design Star played into this very directly. After I appeared on the show, I was invited to exhibit at Dwell Magazine's convention downtown and that's how I met these clients.
What is your guilty pleasure in terms of home decor?
My favorite thing in the world is iridescence. That peacock feather quality? I fall for it every time. If it looks like auto paint or a peacock feather, I like it—it doesn't matter what it is. You could spray paint a ceramic monkey head an iridescent color and I will want it!
Photos courtesy of Matt Locke, unless otherwise noted.
Robin Callan is the founder of Room Fu, a Best of Austin award-winning interior design firm and long-time defender of affordable design. Her blog, Fu for Thought, features steals and deals, design-related musings, and interviews with celebrity designers.