From Istanbul to Your Living Room: An Interview with Designer John Gidding
By, Justin Ayars, JD
If you want to learn a thing or two about how art, science, math, music and design all intersect, look no further than fascinating life and career of John Gidding. John is a well-travelled, highly-educated master architect, designer, entrepreneur and television star… not to mention a former fashion model and music lover. He’s appeared on numerous television shows including Knock First (where he did makeovers of teenagers’ bedrooms), Designed to Sell (where he and helped homeowners make their homes more attractive to potential buyers), Curb Appeal: The Block (where his team spent $20,000 on improvements to homeowners exterior and landscaping) and, most notably, the reboot of Trading Spaces. John is also a co-host on LOGO’s Secret Guide to Fabulous, a judge on FOX’s Home Free and a regular guest on The Rachael Ray Show.
I had the pleasure of speaking with John about his life and career. As a recovering lawyer turned entrepreneur who was raised in a Las Vegas showbusiness family, our exchange took some interesting detours that most interviews don’t traverse. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
Justin: You grew up in Istanbul, and you moved to the United States to go to college. Are there any aspects of your childhood or early life in Turkey that stay with you today? For example, any cultural traditions involving food, music, fashion or color preferences?
John: Turkish influences have revealed themselves to me throughout the years as never having left me. For example, food. In Turkey, we tend to put everything on a big plate and let all the sauces combine. We sop up those sauces with bread and it's kind of a beautiful thing. In America, it took a while before I started demanding that I wanted all my food on the same plate.
When it comes to design, I studied a pedagogy that embraced minimalism, function over form and a kind of pared down aesthetic. But there was always this inclination of mine to push towards something more decorative and ornamented, even though I got a lot of pushback from my professors. Once I got into design—especially interior design—and started having real clients, all of those old inclinations for the decorative arts came back. I found that people need to live in spaces that are not just functional, but pretty and comfortable. And so, over time, my design aesthetic has bounced back to something a bit more ornamental. I still strongly embrace the tenants of minimalism, but I think my Turkish background informs how I decorate once I've designed a space.
Justin: Did your experience with color in Turkey influence your design work today? For example, the way light bounced off of buildings at sunrise or sunset.
John: I've never really connected with nature in Istanbul. When I think of the pantheon of cities with green spaces, I think Istanbul is in the bottom five, maybe even bottom three. It is a very special place, obviously, but it's very much a megalopolis sort of city. I would say my first real sort of sunrise and sunset awakening was in high school in Switzerland when I realized that there's this star that we're hurtling around. Speaking of color and light, I was just in Marrakesh for Genevieve Gorder's wedding. Genevieve is a colleague and a very good friend of mine. The light quality there was incredible. The horizontal light at the end of the day was bouncing off the air in between the buildings to create the color of the city. Every city has its own color. Marrakesh is kind of pink and blue. It's amazing how the pervasive color of a city can inform design decisions. If I were to pick a color for Istanbul, it would be gray.
Justin: Speaking of gray, you’ve often said your favorite paint color is porpoise, which is a gray, neutral color. Do you think that that porpoise is your favorite color because the color of Istanbul, as you just described, is gray?
John: I love that you brought it back to that. Because yes, porpoise remains one of my favorite colors. I've always thought of gray as one of the richest colorways that you can go with because of the incredible the amount of variation there is. It's all about the undertones. Especially when you're designing spaces for people that don't like to live in bright, primary colors, the power of gray is in how you control those undertones to create the feel of a space. Even gray walls can make a space feel warm and inviting. I love that even though I was being critical of Istanbul when I mentioned that the color of the city is gray, people to this day make fun of me for having a love affair with the color gray. I guess there’s a connection after all!
Justin: You studied architecture at Yale and Harvard. What drew you to that field of study?
John: As a kid, I was good at art and math. Eventually when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I just started saying that I wanted to be an architect. When I showed up at college, I wasn't allowed to take architecture courses first year because they were too specialized. So, I twiddled around, and I did my English and my math courses, and I took art, which was a close second. In my second year, I took my first architecture course, Architecture 101, with Alec Purvis. And as with many of the people in that class, everybody fell in love with the curriculum, and I stuck with it.
Justin: Have the principles of architecture shaped your practice and understanding of design?
John: I struggle with trying to put the decorative details before the functional and the sort of space sliding motions when I'm designing for interior space. My first inclination is to think of the space in three dimensions. I think about it in terms of circulation and function because that’s what we were taught in school. When it came to picking colors and fabrics, cushions and faucets, I typically have an assistant who's extremely well versed in what the trends are, what the colors coming up are, what fashion is doing. That kind of stuff is not what I live and breathe. My inspiration is fabrication techniques, rapid prototyping and the cool ways that architects are doing mind-blowing things around the world… not what Pantone has decided this week's color is. Though, I do recognize the importance of trends. I focus on what I'm interested in and outsource those things where someone needs to have a finger on the pulse of society.
Justin: That’s a great way to balance your personal talents with what the public wants. So, here's a left field question. What do you think about Liberace? He was a brilliant, technical concert pianist. Yet, he had an understanding about popular music him that drew audiences in. Do you see any kind of similarity between what you do with design and what Mr. Showmanship did with music?
John: The fact that he took a concert piano level virtuosity into a kind of pop realm is something that I feel a certain kinship with. Of course, his level is at a genius level, and I wouldn't call myself a genius. Because I'm at the strange intersection of kind of high design and pop culture, where even the language that we were taught in school doesn't really fly, especially on television. I've had a really good time shoe-horning my kind of formal education into something that I can bring to a mass audience and have fun with.
Justin: It seems that you and he have a lot in common. Basically, you're Liberace without the piano.
John: You know, I wasn't going to say it myself. But I do play the piano.
Justin: Speaking of music, you were an a cappella singer in school, and you play the piano. How has music influenced your work?
John: If it has, it's been a subtle influence. I'm a true amateur, in the sense that it's a hobby and it brings me great joy, but I don't practice enough. There was a gap in my musical life. Right as I started television, I kind of left music by the wayside. Thinking about it now with you, in a way, those were dark times. I was reconnected with the piano about eight years later. I bought one for myself as a birthday present. And suddenly, my life became so much richer. Something I'm doing right now is, I'm trying to learn the Goldberg Variations by Bach. They're very difficult, but just within my grasp. I'm on variation 7 of 30. And who knows how this will influence my design, because now I get to see what a variation on a theme truly is.
Justin: Returning of architecture, I understand that you really like to draw. What is it about the act of drawing that helps you when you do your work?
John: I am good at visualizing on paper. For me, everything begins with a plan and an elevation. How to think of something in 3D in ways that are 2D. So, the paper is really my friend when I design. Doing things on paper is also a great record of my design process because I'll have seen all the different ways that my mind was trying to think about a problem before I solved it.
Justin: Earlier in your career, you were a runway model for some major labels, and you even graced the cover of a few romance novels. Did your work in the fashion industry influence how you see the world and how you apply the notions of beauty and fashion to your design work?
John: Absolutely. It's uncanny how the design world follows lock step with the fashion world. It's incredible how hand-in-hand the two are.
Justin: Did your marriage Australian born ballet dancer Damian Smith affect your work? Specifically, ballet is all about movement. How do you deal with movement in your work?
John: For Damian, the connection between the body and the built environment around him was very visceral. Often, he was asked to come into spaces and assess them for if they'd be appropriate for a performance. We tried to collaborate on a couple projects but, as you can imagine, we often clashed. I respect him and we're still friends. The broader dance community never fails to amaze me. I've got two left feet when it comes to dancing, so yeah, what they do, it's just mind-blowing to me.
Justin: I couldn't agree more. Sammy Davis Jr. used to say that if you can count to three, you can swing dance. I can count to three, but I’m no dancer! Moving back to color, if porpoise is your favorite paint color, what color would you say describes your personality?
John: I’d say trade wind, which, of course, is a version of gray, but it's a blue/silver version of gray. It's light, it's airy and it feels comfortable. There's nothing heavy about it. These are the ways that I feel kinship with that color.
Justin: Do you have a favorite medium to work with?
John: When it comes to sculpture, plywood is my go-to. And that's a sort of catchall phrase for things that I can stack, whether it's plywood, or cardboard or hardwoods. It's all sort of flat cut material that I can craft with from a stack perspective. I go back to this time and time again. When I paint, I actually like using house paints. I'm not a huge fan of watercolors. I can do okay with acrylics. But I have such a familiarity with house paints at this point that when I do fine art, I buy my paints from Sherwin Williams!
Justin: You’ve worked in the television industry for quite some time. If you could change one aspect about working within that industry, what would that be?
John: We have a tendency to repeat ourselves and the viewing population has a short memory. I got caught up in doing similar shows, one right after the other, and it was a little frustrating. However, looking back, I now I see that I have a nice body of work, an interesting voice and the ability to perennially keep a job in a very fickle industry. I think, if I would change anything, it would be the credit that we give our viewers for being able to wrap their minds around more complex and more intellectual approaches to design.
Justin: Returning to design, In the past, you’ve said that when you started your career, you were a very hard lined minimalist. More recently, you’ve said that your inspiration is solving problems. As a designer, what do you find are the most challenging problems you encounter?
John: I like to approach design from a problem-solving perspective because it takes having to be inspired out of the equation. I can walk in and start identifying the issues of the space, fixing these issues and suddenly the whole design comes together. I find it hard to decorate for a homeowner without really knowing them. I actually can get a quick read on people, especially on television, and kind of force my own design sensibility on them and hope for the best. For homeowners, special issues are often the most difficult thing when it comes to design. For me, solving special problems is easy. What I find difficult is translating a brief understanding of the homeowner's personality into a fully-fledged decorative design.
Justin: Do you have a favorite thing about the work that you do in design?
John: I love furniture design. It's a whole world in and of itself and I'm just dabbling in it. But whenever there's an opportunity, I like to design a custom piece of furniture for a client. Something that is artistic and unique, and encapsulated within a small space so you can wrap your entire mind around it quickly and understand it.
Justin: That's interesting because that goes back to your balancing of aesthetics with function.
John: Yes, for sure. With a heavier sort of emphasis on having passed the function bar on the aesthetics. It’s also nice to think of furniture as the lifestyle component of an interior. Having designed that piece of furniture, you're really involved in crafting the lifestyle.
Justin: I know that, as a designer, you're not big into trends. But from your perspective, do you see any trends popularizing themselves in the next year or two?
John: Well, as design is now on everyone's televisions and lips, and everyone kind of knows what they're talking about, the trend conversation becomes ever faster. It used to be a yearlong trend, and now it's a three-month long trend, as people consume design online and on media. The fashion industry has a quarter system and the design world is quickly going to that model as well. One thing I am seeing is an inclination towards precious and semi-precious materials as now being okay to put vertically within spaces. Materials that would've been too expensive, or still are too expensive, but now design is seen as worth it, even in more pedestrian settings. You’re seeing semi-precious stones cut into countertops, leather wallpapers and other things that are bringing luxury back in unexpected ways. And with the economy the way it is fluctuating all the time, the built environment becomes a stalwart against everything outside that's changing so quickly. It also gives people an opportunity to craft their homes as an art project that expresses their own individual character. It's not just an interior design project, it's really an artistic expression of one's self.
Justin: Can you define yourself in just three words?
John: I would say I'm quirky, that's always come up. I'm unique, these both mean the same thing. Um...
Justin: Use your words, John.
John: Quirky, tall, tired.
Justin: Tall and tired? Based on our conversation thus far, I would say you’re balanced. So, quirky, tall and balanced. There it is.
John: Thank you. I like that!
Justin: Final question: There are a lot of young, aspiring designers out there. What message do you think they should take to heart as they begin to embark upon their careers?
John: Well, live it and breathe it. The most successful colleagues of mine are the ones who don't really see a threshold between the different forms of design, be it fashion or interiors, or even automotive design or street art. It's all one big continuum of expression and it's how, I think, the wheat separates itself from the chaff. The people that live and breathe their work are the ones that inevitably end up understanding how to create spaces for the future that will resonate with people. This is a lesson that I'm still learning. I'm so conditioned to think of different kinds of design as being completely separate, and it's almost daily that I see examples to the contrary.
Justin: John, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today.
John: Thanks, Justin. It’s been fun!