Design & Remodeling

HGTV Star Joanna Gaines Talks Design

Joanna and Chip Gaines have made their Texas-based family business renovating and redecorating homes must-see television for fans of their HGTV series “Fixer Upper.”

But you don’t have to settle for watching them on the small screen. The couple is coming to KC for the Greater Kansas City Home Show and KC Lawn and Garden Show March 20-22 at Bartle Hall. We talked to Wichita native Joanna about how she found her passion for design, working on their hit show and easy ways to refresh your home.

Q. Chip has a background in construction and flipping homes, but how did you get into the home improvement business? What was the appeal?

A. I actually went to school for broadcast journalism and I wanted to do news. When I started dating Chip, I thought, “Hey, this is fun, to see these really ugly things turn into really pretty projects.” That just gets really addictive, and I think that’s what happened.

Our first year of marriage, we bought a building and we transformed it into a little shop. I called it Magnolia, but I always joke that we didn’t know what we were going to put in it, so I said, “Let’s just put stuff for the home in it.” I never designed and I had no business owning a design business, but we opened that shop up, and while I worked there Chip was still doing his construction projects. I always tell people in those two to three years of running my business, the first year I had no clue what I was doing and I would just have to make stuff up when clients came in.

It was a lot of trial and error, but I tell people when you put yourself in that position you learn because you have no choice. You’ve got to learn—that’s my livelihood. That’s when it started becoming a passion, beauty in the home, coupled with what Chip does, which was construction.

Q. As somebody without any background in design, how did you find your point of view? 

A. It’s the number one thing I tell my clients: It’s going with your gut. I would see these things in magazines and I tried to put them together, and even though it looked right, it just didn’t feel right because it wasn’t from me, it was from something else. The more you trust your gut, the more you see, hey, this is really working.

A home before and after the Gaineses tackled it on “Fixer Upper.”

Q. How do you approach a space for the first time?

A. If a client is involved—which is 90 percent of our business, we do renovations for clients and families—the process is picking their brains. A lot of clients come to us because they’re not really sure what their style is and say, “I just want you to do whatever.” I know they say it, but when they walk in I want it to feel like home for them.

So for me, it’s a process of picking their brains. What are the things they don’t like? How do they want their space to feel? It’s more the psychology of it. It’s just picking their brains and establishing the feel of the house or the mood and then giving them a timeless palette to work with, so over time as trends change what they’ve invested in from a financial standpoint can stand the test of time. I always tell people with curtains and pillows, that’s fine, you can do the trendy stuff there. But your home? Keep it timeless so you’re not sick of it in five years.

Q. How can clients make sure they’re getting the most out of working with a designer, especially if they aren’t sure what they want?

A. I think a lot of people know what they don’t want, but they just don’t know how to put what they like all together in one space or in one entire renovation.

I always tell my clients to give me 10 pictures from Pinterest or Houzz that speak to them and I don’t need to know why or what you like about the picture. That’s kind of everybody’s homework, and what I do is study 10 pictures and figure out what the similarities are between all 10. In real life, we walk you through every product that’s going to be put in. On the show, it’s really a surprise. I do not want them when they walk into a house to think, “We just spent $100,000 and this is not what we wanted.”

Q. What has your experience been working on “Fixer Upper” with HGTV? How does your design approach change?

A. What we’ve found is that when the client is not involved, the project goes a lot faster, mainly because a lot of times clients change their mind. I mean I change my mind, so I get how a client who’s paying for something is going to change their order and all those other things that slow projects down.

When you’re working with production and construction on a very tight timeline because production couldn’t afford to do a six-month renovation at a time, we now take these six-month renovations and skin them down to two-month renovations, so we’ve got to be highly efficient and very prepared. When we take on these jobs, we’re ready to go because we don’t have the luxury of six months anymore. That’s been very interesting, and we’ve finally figured out how production and construction can go simultaneously and we all be happy. From the client standpoint, it’s been very unique because they’re not involved until the end, so that’s the one thing that’s very different but exciting and fun, and I think it keeps things interesting.

Q. What has working on the show been like for you on a personal level?

A. We went into filming in the beginning thinking, “We’ll film a little bit and the show will air and then we’ll go back to our regular lives.” I don’t think we understood what it was going to bring. Now we’re going into our third season.

We’re always surprised when we go out in public and people recognize us. We’re still so naïve. It’s still hitting us, like “What just happened?” It’s been a really fun adventure we’ve been on. We’ve had to figure out how to structure our lives where our kids are still thriving, our business is thriving, but we’re also now filming the whole time. Figuring out how to balance all three of those and do all three well is challenging but something we’re trying to do our best at, and we’re having fun with it.

Q. What trends are you seeing take off?

A. When I think of trends, I think of patterns. Where I balance that is with texture. One of the trends I’m seeing with clients is the comeback of wallpaper, not wanting to do a big space but maybe a powder bath, somewhere where in five years if that wallpaper is something they can’t stand anymore, it’s just a powder bath. I think wallpaper is fun to incorporate back into houses. That’s something a lot of my clients haven’t asked for and now it’s something they’re seeing a lot of and wanting, so I’m having fun with that.

Q. How can people add fresh life to their homes without bringing in a whole team?

A. I always tell people to start with moving furniture around. In my store, I have a lot of clients who say, “I don’t have a budget. I have about $500, but I want to make an impact in my house. What can I do?” For me, it’s just the little things you can tweak.

First of all, getting rid of stuff that doesn’t need to be there anymore, things that are dated, that have just lived their shelf life and it’s time to let go. I always start with purging things, whether that be dated greenery or dated baskets, just things that people are holding onto and they don’t need to. Purge and then get some fresh pillows, get some fun unique things for the wall.

People always think it has to be an entire home renovation to make a difference and it really doesn’t, it’s just small things. I think it starts with purging and then whatever you put back in being very smart and functional, but also cute. —Kelsey Cipolla

Hear more from the Gaineses, including their design and renovation tips, during their appearances at Greater Kansas City Home Show and KC Lawn and Garden Show at Bartle Hall. Visit kchba.org/home-show for tickets and appearance times.

Photos courtesy of HGTV.