Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bedraggled Victory

Last night, I got absorbed by a late-night show called "The White Room Challenge". Four young interior designers were each given a stage set-like space (three walls and a ceiling, open to the front) and a few basic pieces of furniture, all white. They had 15 hours, a warehouse full of accessories and paint, a field trip to a candy store, the services of a crew of carpenters, and $2000 to spend. Their assignment was to create a child's room based on a theme of candy. Whatever else they did, they would be judged on two things: did it look like a child's room, and how cleverly could they incorporate actual candy into their design.

The four designers must have been chosen very intentionally, because each embodied a specific mindset almost to perfection. One designer, a young woman whose specialty was art installations, set to work almost immediately. She decided to keep the walls and furniture white, to set off the bright colors of the candy. She nailed the furniture to the wall -- chairs and tables all jumbled up into the air as if they had been swept up by a tornado. Strips of wallpaper, sheets of candy dots, candy strewn on the floor, giant puffy white flowers -- the room was a riot of whimsy. The judges said that it looked as if a birthday cake had exploded. The whole room radiated the chaotic joy of childhood, but it wasn't a room that a child might play in, it was an avant-garde art installation. All execution, no planning, nowhere for the eye to rest. That designer was the first one eliminated from the competition.

One designer, a young man, had a much more specific, detailed vision for his white room. He wanted to make a fantasy land where a young girl could retreat from the rest of her family and indulge her imagination. Red theater curtains allowed just a glimpse into the space within. An orange candy sun shone in a deep blue sky. A white couch sported giant red painted ladybugs with chocolate-kiss spots. A giant tree with green candy leaves sunk its plywood roots into chocolate-candy soil. The designer was absolutely confident that his room would win the competition. You couldn't fault the guy's planning and the detail of his execution, but the room looked weighty and claustrophobic. The colors were too intense, the elements were too large, there was no playfulness. The room was trying too hard, the concept was too heavy. That designer was the second one eliminated.

A third designer, a young woman, immediately latched onto the concept of a giant friendly robot. She painted the tables and chairs in bright colors and stacked them on the back wall to make the body. Colorful geometric patterns painted on the side walls became a pair of arms, reaching all the way to the front of the room in a gigantic "hug". The robot was big and friendly and you couldn't help but smile, but there was no candy. As time grew short, the designer crafted gears and pulleys from pieces of candy -- a very clever idea, but clearly an afterthought. In her enthusiasm for her own idea, she had lost sight of what her client (the judges) had specified as the main theme. She came in second.

The winner was a young man who set out to make a young boy's room. His theme idea was to make candy rain from the sky. He asked his carpenter to make 100 strings of hard candy to attach to the ceiling, creating a candy deluge. The carpenter set to work, but he warned that he might not be able to finish that many strings in the time allotted. Meanwhile, the designer painted his space in bright greens and blues, and he carefully crafted a candy sign that said "Yummy".

At the end of the first day, the designers were escorted off the set -- time to rest and recharge imaginations and allow glue and paint to dry. The following morning, the designers came back to complete their projects.

The "candy rain" designer saw that the carpenter had only been able to make a few candy strings -- a slight spotty drizzle rather than the glorious deluge he had envisioned. His "Yummy" sign was ruined -- the glue had foamed up and spread all over the place. He had spent too much time on his main pieces, which were now unusable, and he had only made a bare start on the rest of his room. The young man burst into tears, convinced that he had failed utterly.

After a while, he pulled himself together and began a modified, simplified version of his original plan. There would not be hundreds of tiny pieces of candy hanging from the ceiling, but rather, a dozen or so giant jawbreakers hung like colorful planets in one corner. Giant lollipops formed asterisks along the back wall. Giant rainbow-colored sticks of candy formed a thicket near the floor.

By the time the 15 hours were up, he had created a simple, cheerful, aesthetically pleasing space. The candy was fully integrated into the design, and it looked like candy rather than mechanical parts, trees, or chaotic clutter. The judges' only criticism was that the room looked a little too adult, but they praised him for staying focused on his assignment and for his ability to recover quickly and adapt his design after his initial failure. Out of the four designers, he was the one who "got it" -- not only the idea that the judges had asked him to convey, but the prize as well.

I have heard that some of these reality shows and contests are scripted -- real life is either too boring or too complicated to package neatly into a one-hour time slot with time out for commercials. Was "The White Room Challenge" scripted to make it turn out so neatly? I don't know, and I don't care. Watching these four designers and their four different approaches has gotten me thinking about the way I tackle challenges and problems -- and recover from my own messes. The edgy-arty people, the supremely confident people, the grand strategizers, the one-brilliant-idea people -- these people are sometimes celebrated by business theorists and self-help gurus. Sometimes, though, it's enough to just roll with the punches, pick yourself up, and muddle on through.


  1. I like watching those shows (except for the time limit stress -- which I relate to so much that it sometimes puts a shadow over the entertainment value for me!) -- I like seeing how different people attack a problem. I'm also befuddled about the solutions some offer, especially for something that's meant for a practical use. Specifically I remember a promotional piece for a symphony orchestra ... was beautiful and fun to look at, certainly, but the text was small and yellow and printed on a sort of medium-dark lavender background. This for an audience of people probably 40-plus. Come ON now; it may win design awards but as a piece of communication? Total fail.

    I've also worked with someone who was kept accepting all sorts of projects without considering whether there was actually time to complete them. Part of the ability to make something is having sufficient time -- no amount of skill will make up for making too many commitments on limited time. That's part of the planning process: this is a GREAT idea, but is it possible with the time & resources available? No? Not the right solution then!

    Thinking outside the box is great. But at some point, most projects have a box that they need to fit into.

  2. Yeah, I think that's a lot of what determines who wins those contests. Can you come up with an idea that's fun, fits the budget, and you have some hope of getting it done by the deadline? That applies in so many different situations. I was just moved by that one guy whose project completely fell apart on him -- partly because he was thinking way too big for his resources. He just sat there and cried while the clock ticked away. Then he pulled himself together, got busy, and did what he needed to do. I actually liked what he finished with better than the way he started. None of the other three had to start all over like that, but they all went off the rails in different ways.

  3. In case anyone is curious, here are some photos. They look a little different than what I saw on TV, but I think that's just the lighting.


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