transformation month

We Challenged 5 Designers to a Game of Telephone—Here’s What Happened

published Sep 29, 2020
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Credit: From top left to right: Max Humphrey headshot by Matt Sartain; Angela Belt headshot courtesy of Angela Belt; Maegan Blau headshot courtesy of Nicole Bishop of Movement Photo Project; Mikel Welch headshot courtesy of Mikel Welch, Jessica Brigham headshot courtesy of Jessica Brigham

Design is about more than just pretty stuff. It’s a way to evoke emotion, to express your personality and individual style—and it’s also a way to connect. In a year of social distancing, we wanted to lean into the collaborative nature of design with the help of five of our favorite pros.

We gave these five designers a special challenge: Take a bare living room, and together, turn it into something gorgeous. The twist? They’d each work consecutively to make their additions to the design, so each could only see what came before them but with no context or indication of what should come next. We call it “telephone design” because it’s reminiscent of the old schoolyard game, where one kid would whisper a phrase into the next one’s ear, and so on and so on until you got to the very end of the chain and “I like pizza” became “try my scooter.” Although the end result hardly ever comes out the way the first kid intended, the personal twists added along the way make it a surprise and delight.

Surprise and delight is exactly what we hoped to achieve in creating our living room, which is the collective brainchild of designers Mikel Welch, Maegan Blau, Angela Belt, Max Humphrey, and Jessica Brigham. Each brought their own spin to pull the room in a different direction at every stop—and this living room is all the better for it.

Credit: Apartment Therapy
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We started by mapping out our living room floor plan. It’s 10 feet by 13 feet, with two windows and a doorway. Once we drafted up a sketch of the empty space, we sent it out to our first designer.

Credit: Headshot courtesy of Mikel Welch

First Designer: Mikel Welch

Mikel Welch of Mikel Welch Designs—who also hosts the Quibi show “Murder House Flip”—kicked off the project, and he took his role seriously. “My first thought was, I’m going first, so I can’t mess this up,” Welch says. “Initially I was excited to have the first swing but quickly realized the pressure of starting something that could potentially throw another designer for a loop.”

But, Welch says, “after a heavy glass of wine, I calmed my nerves and took the bull by the horns.” He’s no stranger to working in collaboration with other designers, and he wanted to create a solid base for the rest of the team to work with. “The room was a basic box, so I felt it was important to incorporate some serious visual impact,” Welch says. “Most importantly, the space needed character. I wanted to ensure that the room had some custom elements.”

Since Welch is a fan of rustic, reclaimed woods and weathered materials, he leaned on those in designing the space. The starting point he made for the rest of the designers was created with these three elements:

  • Faux wood ceiling beams and door frame casings, which Welch says instantly made the blah, boring room feel custom. “The ceiling is often a missed opportunity and I wanted to create an unexpected focal point that would give this builder basic room some character,” he says. The ones Welch picked out, from Lowe’s, have a weathered finish that makes them look like they’ve been there forever.
  • White oak floors, which play off the wood beams without making the room feel too matchy-matchy. The matte finish and 5-inch-wide plank size make Welch’s pick feel versatile enough to accomodate a range of decor styles, from traditional to Scandi to eclectic modern.
  • A creamy white paint color (Benjamin Moore’s Swiss Coffee) for ultimate flexibility. “Choosing white walls allowed the opportunity for me to be respectful of the next designers without pigeonholing them into a color scheme that they might not care to work around,” Welch says.

With the first selections in place, the design plans moved on to the next designer in the list.

Credit: Headshot courtesy of Maegan Blau

Second Designer: Maegan Blau

Maegan Blau, of Blue Copper Design, was up next. While she’d never had to build on another designer’s work before, Blau is a fan of collaboration. “I have always subscribed to the idea of ‘the more minds the better,’ and I think some really amazing things come when designers collaborate,” she says. “Of course, everyone has a different creative process, but if we as creatives can find a way to blend our ideas, really cool things can happen.”

Here’s what happened in Blau’s case: She spotted the wood beams Welch had added and had an immediate feel for the room. “When I first saw the space it felt like a great place to gather with friends and family,” she says. “The previous designer put in the beams which I love and that instantly brought the level of coziness up. I wanted to add some deep colors to the space to invigorate conversation and add personality.” The pieces she reached for:

  • A deep green sofa with a mid-century style to bring in some color. “I wanted to accentuate the beams in the room, and play with colors that complemented the wood tones,” Blau says. “I chose this particular sofa because the clean modern lines contrasted the rustic beams at a great price point.” At just under 7 feet long, this forest green Article sofa is long enough to comfortably seat three, but not so long that it takes up the whole living room wall.
  • A gray-and-ivory Persian rug underneath the couch. “I wanted to bring in a feminine element with a vintage-inspired rug,” Blau says. “The curved lines and light fringe really add a layer of softness to the room.” Plus, the rug’s subdued palette gives the following designers a lot of freedom.
  • A leather-and-brass floor lamp to bring some soft lighting to the right of the couch. “Lighting is a great place to emphasize personality, so I chose a brass and leather floor lamp in an unexpected silhouette,” Blau says. The lamp, from CB2, helps bring two more materials into play in the living room for some extra depth and coziness.
Credit: Headshot by Leon Belt

Third Designer: Angela Belt

In a wild coincidence, Angela Belt of Angela Belt, Art & Style was currently in the process of a collaborative project when we passed this sketch to her for round three. For that project, one designer chose the furniture while she was tasked with styling the space to feel move-in ready. “I find it fun because for me it’s like adding the secret sauce to a space,” Belt says. “I feel like I get to pick out all of the pieces that have personality, while the initial designer laid down a strong foundation for me to work with.”

Here, she had a strong foundation as well, with plenty of personality starting to bubble up already. “When I first saw the space, I felt like the foundational elements with the light wood floors and the beams on the ceiling was a modern farmhouse feel,” Belt says. “But then I saw the green mid-century sofa and I realized this was going to be an eclectic space, which is my favorite to work with. So I chose pieces with personality and curves.” On Belt’s list:

  • A round coffee table in a black ash finish placed in front of the couch. “I felt like the room needed a black piece of furniture to ground the space,” Belt says. And while the Grayson Living table is sizable at 47 inches across, its slender legs keep it from feeling visually bulky.
  • A swivel chair with a mod punch. “When it comes to a room I always want something vintage, so I went for the swivel chair for that reason,” Belt says. The pink velvet upholstery adds a touch of whimsy that plays off the tones in the rug that Blau chose.
  • A batik throw pillow for another pop of pattern that ties into the pink tones of the chair and rug. “If the design works, I always want to support a creative of color,” Belt says, so she brought in this black-and-pink artisan pillow from xN Studio by Nasozi Kakembo. “It’s one of my favorite shops to share with clients,” Belt says.

Fourth Designer: Max Humphrey

Designer Max Humphrey was next up. While he doesn’t typically have a starting point when he designs a room, he says, for this space he zeroed in on the sofa. “My first thought when I saw the space was it needed some pattern and something to tie in the awesome olive green sofa,” he says. Here’s how he did it:

  • Gridded wallpaper, which Humphrey added over cream-colored wainscoting (painted in Welch’s pick, Benjamin Moore’s Swiss Coffee). “I wanted to create a funky vibe,” Humphrey says. “I chose the wallpaper because it was pattern without being overly busy. The scale is right for a living room since anything too-small scale could be overwhelming and compete with the furniture.” The Chasing Paper wallpaper has a brushstroke-y pattern that keeps it from feeling too rigid. Wainscoting below offers up yet another high-end custom element that meshes perfectly with the other wood touches.
  • A pair of black chairs against the right wall. “I thought the furniture arrangement could use another seating piece or two that showed some leg,” Humphrey says. “The sofa and pink chair are fully upholstered so to balance that I brought in a pair of chairs that have exposed metal frames, which tie back in to the look of the coffee table.” The CB2 chairs are small and lightweight enough to move around easily, which is great for gatherings, Humphrey says. “These aren’t exactly movie-watching chairs but they’d be great for game night AND could be extra dining chairs in a pinch,” he says.
  • A globe light for ambiance. “The space also needed some more lighting so I added a flush mount overhead fixture,” Humphrey says. “It’s nicer than can lights and ideally would be on a dimmer so could just have an ambient glow at night to go along with the lamp light.” He liked adding a bit more roundness to the room, too: “The flush mount pendant was a round element which I thought was needed since the wallpaper, chairs, ceiling beams, and sofa are pretty square,” he says. The light’s simple shape doesn’t overpower the ceiling beams, either.

Fifth Designer: Jessica Brigham

Designer Jessica Brigham was tasked with bringing the project home with the final picks for the living room. “I enjoyed the challenge of creating cohesion among a variety of styles in the space,” says Brigham, who says when she looked at the plans she saw a “preppy cocktail parlor” vibe. “The room craved finishing touches to tie all of the furnishings together,” she says. These are the three elements she grabbed to pull it off:

  • A bird of paradise plant in a mid-century-inspired planter with just the right amount of quirk. It’s positioned to the left of the sofa. Brigham wanted to choose something tall to help call attention to the ceiling.
Credit: Apartment Therapy

Five designers later, here’s how the space turned out: cozy, inviting, infinitely lounge-worthy, and so far from the blank box that they started with. The key ingredients to making this space feel custom? Architectural details, lots of varied textures, and a concentrated color palette that moves through the space from floor to ceiling. But the “secret sauce,” to borrow from Belt, is the sense of camaraderie that comes with bouncing off each other’s ideas and the twists and turns that come with each round. Our five designers may have each stepped up to different rounds of the process, but they all created something great together.