Apartment Therapy Interviews: Sarah Richardson

We’ve followed her from quick crafting to gut renovation, city home to country house, solo flight to team effort, through changes in hair length and family size. What else could Sarah Richardson possibly have up her sleeve? Sarah 101, her brand new series for HGTV!

Fear not, Sarah fans, Sarah 101 may be new, but it promises a lot of what you’ve come to expect from the on-camera career of this prolific and versatile designer who’s never shied away from the practical sides of designing, be they budget constraint, realistic timing, or moments that threaten to unravel the best laid plans, but never seem to, in the end. Design Inc. fans will enjoy the return to client projects. Devotees of Sarah’s House will enjoy the step-by-step room building plans that have always generously shared Sarah’s own design process, and variety of dwelling type and architectural style. You’ll still see her love of textiles and all things vintage. And Tommy Smythe fans will find the dapper sidekick (whose own home was featured here) still quipping it up and trying to inch budgets up whenever he finds his next true love in the tile aisle or fabric showroom.

Sarah’s career started with a television DIY segment painting floorcloths, a subject she recently rediscovered on Apartment Therapy (actually, TheKtchn) when she was researching her first piece for The Huffington Post, Canada. To her, it just proves that everything old is new again, in an internet-based society that brings trends back even faster. Sarah says, “Every creative idea comes from an old idea.” It’s also why she doesn’t seem to get too worked up about trend, and why even her older shows seem to be aging gracefully, no small feat in a made-for-TV decorating world where the “reveal” is king and needs to be drop-dead dramatic. “For me, it’s ‘current’ and ‘relevant’ as opposed to ‘disposable’ and ‘trendy’.”

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What does this confident Canadian feel about the state of design TV? “Design television is known for quick hit, quick transformation, low-budget no-staying-power solutions, right? Run out to some big showroom, pick it all up, deliver it all. Five minutes, five bucks, a glue gun and you’re done.” Says Sarah, about how Sarah 101 will differ, “We want it to have staying power, and longevity, and we want it to actually have some principles of good design.”

For Sarah, that staying power and authenticity comes from vintage sources, something sure to warm the heart of many ATers. She’s showcased her ability to spot a diamond in the rough at many a thrift shop and flea market, and expect to see more gems on Sarah 101. “A great space is a multi-layered space… deep and rich in texture that can’t be bought on a credit card, in a showroom, and delivered the day after tomorrow.”

How does she keep it fresh, after facing room after room of Befores, in a career that’s spanned 15 years, the birth of her daughter, and by her own count, at least ten different haircuts? “I walk in and have a vision,” admits Sarah, sounding a bit like a carnival mystic or Tarot card reader. But it’s more about visualization than mysticism. “It’s not about channeling some sort of psychic vibe. It’s really about thinking what the space could be, what the homeowner wants the space to be, who the homeowner is.” And to Sarah, that means a little roleplay to keep things interesting. “There’s nothing wrong with… make believe and character building as it relates to a home… where there is a character, or there is a theme or there’s a vibe you’re trying to channel. Because I think it helps people navigate the choices.” Adds, Sarah, “It’s not as simple as ‘Do I like this?.’ You have to know purpose, and place and context in order to make sure all the choices you are making are the right choice. You can’t just buy it because it’s good. Randomly ‘good’ is not good enough!”

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Those pieces on Sarah 101, like on Design, Inc., come in all at once, on load-in days. “Part of it is the way we do it for television, but we also do it for client projects. We sort of hold everything and then arrange to have all the stuff come at once.” That may seem like an invitation to chaos, but there’s a method to Sarah’s madness. “If you bring all the of furnishings in, in dribs and drabs, each piece has such a tremendous focus placed on it, where it’s sort of like you evaluate “Is this chair the right chair? How good is this chair” Well, that chair on its own may not be a scene stealer, but that chair beside the table, beside the couch, beside the lamp, with the footstool and the other table, in context, could be a winner.”

After context comes balance. “In order to reach the end goal, which is completion and a fully-realized living space, there is a balance.” And for Sarah, that’s balance of budget, not just design. “Not everything can be the best of the best of the best. And not everything can be inexpensive. There has to be a fluid line of splurge, of save and important and not –so-important items.” And Sarah, like the rest of us, likes a deal. “I don’t think you should ever apologize for finding something that is well-priced.” And for Sarah, that means thoughtfully chosen IKEA, vintage, and a careful scouring or retails sources when necessary to stretch a dollar.

A decades-worth of public interest in renovation yielded the Sarah’s House series. But Sarah 101 heralds new focus on solutions that don’t necessarily depend on patient contractors, drywall and rerouting plumbing lines. “I felt there was interest in ‘How can I make the most of what I’ve got?’ And if a renovation isn’t in the cards, what can you do?” says Sarah. So if you’ve ever been frustrated by not having the luxury of a full renovation to transform a space, or wondered where all the decorating went on HGTV, Sarah 101 will offer relevant inspiration. “We wanted to be able to focus on helping people realize dramatic changes in their spaces through the use of an interesting combination of materials, sources, furniture, fabrics, you name it. In my view, there’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned decorating project to make a huge change.”

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Will Sarah and company still show the sofas that don’t fit, the fabric on backorder, the downpurs on install days that we’ve lived through on Design, Inc. and beyond? Indeed. “Honesty and truth are really important core principles to the programming that we create. It doesn’t help the design community as a whole, or even the do it yourselfer, to be made to feel that everything is just perfect in my world. Because guess what? It’s far from it,” chuckles Sarah. “To me it’s more about how you solve those projects, how you navigate, how you conduct yourself that’s more informative. Nobody needs to see me jumping up and down and throwing a temper tantrum. That’s not going to help anyone stuck in the same situation. Plus, you know, my father watches the show, and he would not be happy to see me misbehaving!”

For those who thought Tommy riding a floating septic tank to Sarah’s Summer House like a Brooks Brothers-clad Tom Sawyer couldn’t be topped, Sarah promises more adventure, with more fun and more color. And the color might surprise some. “When people think ‘Sarah 101,’ they travel back to the first episode they ever saw.” But those cream and calm color palettes from not-so-long ago have gotten more daring over the years, and even more vibrant in the new series. Sarah’s color bravery has been driven in part by increased maturity but also the fact she has over 125 shows under her belt, and color is still one of her favorite tools of transformation, TV make-over or not.

There’ll be bedrooms and basements, nurseries and laundry rooms, dining and living rooms, and the new series promises to meld the best of series past, and include smaller spaces and even more relevant budgets. And each week will be something brand new. Says Sarah, about 101: “It’s a new adventure, something completely different from what we did the week before.” It’s a far cry from floorcloths. But in some ways, not at all.

The 13 episode run of Sarah 101 premieres tomorrow, July 9th on HGTV, and a second season is in production.

MORE INFO: Sarah 101

Images: Sarah 101/HGTV

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