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The Appeal of John Gidding



From working the runway for Gucci to revamping neighborhoods on HGTV, John Gidding has seen the design world from a variety of unusual angles.

If John Gidding looks familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen him offer face-lifts to front yards on HGTV’s Curb Appeal: The Block. Then again, you may have just spotted him in an airport bookstore. “I pretend to be more mortified than I am,” Gidding says, with a laugh, of his brief stint playing beefcake on the covers of romance novels. “Even to this day I have many copies of these books, and I give them out as Christmas cards.”

“It was a really funny experience. They would literally give me blouses and swords, scabbards, quivers — whatever it took — and they would even give me a synopsis of the novel: so that I could really get into character for this one photograph,” Gidding remembers.“My favorite title is Bedding his Virgin Mistress.”

However, his modeling days also included much higher profile gigs, walking runways for houses such as Armani, Hugo Boss and Gucci. “The thrill was amazing, I was so blown away,” Gidding says. “I remember for my first casting for Gucci, I went out and bought Gucci — not that I could afford it, but I just wanted to impress them.”

Although modeling started off as a way to help pay his way through his graduate studies in architecture, it would also ultimately lead Gidding to his career in television. “They sent me on a random casting,” Gidding recalls. “At the time, nobody had heard of this production company, but wouldn’t you know it? They were looking for the culture guy for a show that came to be called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

At the time, Gidding had only recently come out of the closet, and he wasn’t ready to tie his career to his sexuality. “Possibly a decision I’ll regret for a long time to come,” Gidding remarks. But the producers were still interested in working with him and brought him on board Knock First, an ABC Family program that did room makeovers for kids. He eventually parlayed this into work on HGTV’s Designed to Sell, fixing up homes to increase their market value. “I sometimes miss Designed to Sell. There was a simplicity there: $2,000 budget working on interiors,” Gidding explains. “When you make a mistake indoors … you can fix it. It’s not a big deal. When you make a mistake outdoors, that is thousands of dollars of fixing.”

Nevertheless, outdoors is where Gidding ended up, working on a program originally called Curb Appeal, which was conceived with the goal of transforming overgrown yards and frowsy facades into outdoor spaces that really say, “Welcome home!” Between the painting, fencing, digging, planting and all the other ingredients that go into these projects, there is a great deal of work involved. “It takes a couple months from start to finish. I go out and I scout the projects beforehand. I measure them; I draw them out; we start finding contractors,” Gidding explains. But what we ultimately see on HGTV still happens pretty quickly. “Once all the pieces are in place, the project takes about 10 days to build.”

A new twist was added to the equation when Curb Appeal became Curb Appeal: The Block. In addition to one lucky home receiving a major $20,000 renovation, Gidding and his crew also seek out a few neighbors for some light makeovers, ostensibly boosting the property values of the entire neighborhood. “The Block is definitely sort of the big unknown,” Gidding explains. “Just in terms of finding those people that are excited about the project. Some people don’t want to show how decrepit their front yards have become, and they refuse to let us film them. Some people are shy.” But, Gidding tells me, typically by the time they knock on about 20 different doors, they can find a group of neighbors who are “very much on board.”

As he begins designing a new facade, the key for Gidding is context. “It has to fit into the fabric of the neighborhood. It’s less about trends as it is the honesty of the architecture,” he explains. “That said, I find that a lot of the materials used for outdoor projects these days are trending away from the artificial versions of real materials — even though they’re usually more durable and have longer warranties. People are going toward the redwood deck instead of the Trex decks. They’re going toward real boulders and real flagstones instead of pavestones, fully recognizing that these are higher maintenance materials than the fake-and-usually-just-as-real-looking counterparts, but nevertheless people feel like there’s an embedded value in the real material.”

When Gidding set out to pursue a career in design, tv wasn’t originally part of the plan. “When you get to these schools, they teach you: You’re going to work for a firm for a few years. Then you’re going to try to move your way up the corporate ladder, and over 20 or 30 years you’re going to gain more and more architecture responsibilities. But those first 10, 20 years, you’re basically detailing stairs and windows and curtain walls,” Gidding explains.

He did spend some time following this path. “My happiest time working for a firm was with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, who designed Brooklyn Bridge and Union Square Parks, and it was truly a life-changing experience — working for a company that was doing these incredibly public projects,” Gidding says. He’s still particularly proud of certain aspects of his work there. “The project that was closest to my heart was Union Square because I got to design the paving pattern,” he says. “So every time I walk through Union Square I feel like I’ve literally put my fingerprint in New York City.”

Now Gidding heads up his own firm: John Gidding Design, Inc. “I started that company right after graduate school, but just as a lark. I was doing some small stuff: designing wine labels [and] small interiors,” Gidding says. “But it didn’t really come into its own until after Designed to Sell.” Ironically, the TV work that gets clients calling also limits the time he can spend on it. “I focus on HGTV right now because it’s a lot of fun, and it really requires my focus because Curb Appeal: The Block is a really difficult show,” he says. “But I’m able to do more and more with my company. We just took on three new projects; they’re all over the country and we have one international project too.”

However, making time for all this work doesn’t leave much time for anything else. “Yeah, there’s very little personal life,” Gidding admits. “But that’s ok. At this time, I’m focusing on the things that make me happy. To be able to do what I do and enjoy it: It’s such a gift that it really doesn’t feel like work,” he explains.

Fortunately, Gidding’s initial trepidation about the intersection of his sexuality and career proved unfounded. “There are a lot of gay people in design; it’s come to be expected. I’m certainly standing on the shoulders of many who’ve gone before me, in terms of opening up people’s acceptance towards gays in this profession,” Gidding explains. “That said, I find that America has always been welcoming for me. This is a country that I moved to [after being born in Turkey and attending college in Switzerland] to come out, and in that regard I feel like it’s a non-issue, more so than ever before. Even when I came out in grad school, I was amazed at how much of a non-issue it already was.”

Nor does Gidding worry that being openly gay will limit his audience. “As far as the viewing population is concerned, I think HGTV viewers, especially, are extremely educated, relatively liberal-minded, open-minded and also quite interested in what they want to see, which is design,” says Gidding. “And that’s why even the most conservative HGTV viewers completely put aside their prejudices when it comes to [fellow gay HGTV designer] David Bromstad and me and the rest of us who are living our lives out and proud. It’s almost a way of breaking into a lot of people’s shells, because they want what we’ve got to offer and they sort of have to take the whole package.”

“It’s like crabs in a bucket: You’re all trying to get to the top,” Gidding answers, when I ask him about other TV designers. “For me, people like Ty Pennington and Nate [Berkus] are sort of in a completely different bucket. They’re at a very high level. They’ve been working at this for a very long time and done remarkably well for themselves. So I don’t really see them as competition so much as goals to strive toward sometime in the future.” “As far as my [HGTV] colleagues are concerned, it’s funny,” says Gidding. “We’re all so caught up in our own little shows, in our own little worlds, that when it turns out that one of our colleagues has done well, it’s almost like a family event more than a competition.”

This is not to say that he never has a critical word for design he sees elsewhere on television. “I was just watching a House Hunters International episode, and supposedly this bedroom that was bright, bright red was one of the selling points of this house, and I wanted to just rip my eyeballs out and throw them out the window,” he says. “In fact accent walls in general, in terms of trends, they’re kind of headed out. I don’t think they’re necessarily the worst things, but there are other ways of accentuating a room; or drawing people’s eyes towards other parts of the room; or making rooms feel larger or smaller — rather than finding the brightest color you can find on the color deck, painting one wall that color and calling it design.”

Gidding is also occasionally called on to bring a critical eye to other shows in the course of promoting his own. “I did a whole series of office critiques. I got to criticize Matt Lauer’s office and Al Roker’s office,” Gidding remembers. “I was like, ‘You’re doing this and this and this wrong,’ and they were all just so funny and self-deprecating.” Indeed, Gidding has dealt deftly with hosts — from Regis Philbin’s ribbing on Live with Regis and Kelly to Kathie Lee Gifford’s flirtatiousness at the Today show. “Kathie Lee and Hoda [Kotb] are just so hilarious,” Gidding says. “Like when you’re in the green room, Kathie Lee will come in and hike her skirt up and apply lotion on her legs while talking to you.”

In real life, just as on TV, Gidding is full of ideas. He once tweeted: “If I’m stuck on a design, I’ll get up at 4am and spend an hour just thinking about the project without getting up.” Gidding explains that he uses the time not only to come up with new ideas but also to narrow possibilities. “I don’t just sit down and draw something. I sit down; I draw; I erase; I draw again; and I do this 50, 60 times for every single detail, so by the time I’m done with it, I’ve really designed a couple hundred different things for this one project.” That time of early morning stillness, Gidding says, can be useful for “editing out all the things that I might have drawn that day but decide not to.”

On the subject of drawing, no episode of Curb Appeal: The Block would be complete without a look at the beautiful sketches that Gidding creates to show homeowners how he is conceptualizing their renovation. But keeping sketchbooks, he tells me, is more than how he designs; it’s how he builds his own history. “I’ve kept every sketchbook I’ve had since high school, and I always go back and I see the progression — of not only my ideas but even my skills: how I’ve drawn, what I draw, what my focuses have been on,” he says. “That way these books are my memory.”

And perhaps the fact that he brings this sensibility to each of his projects — the idea that with each design, he is creating something that will become part of someone’s most precious memories — is the true appeal of John Gidding.■

John Goes On…As our conversation continues, John talks about growing up in Turkey, our continuing struggle for LGBT equality and how to be convincing when it comes to discussing color.

METROSOURCE: You grew up in Istanbul, Turkey. Do you think that affected your design aesthetic?
JOHN GIDDING: I think it must. I grew up in a very residential part of Turkey but always in apartment buildings and things. Living in an urban environment like Istanbul — Istanbul when I was a kid was 11 million people. I believe it’s about 16 million now. It gives you an impression of what “city living” is: everything to do with congestion and urban planning and even the small parts of Istanbul that are green become like landmarks almost. … On a more subtle level, I think the Oriental or the Far East aspect of design probably seeped in a little bit as well. Today I have a very strong appreciation for decorative elements in design, even though I am a modernist at heart, I still find that the decorative and the ornamental elements of design are, somehow resonate with them.

METROSOURCE: What does it mean to you to be a modernist?
GIDDING: It’s hard to quantify at the end of the day, but for me the most interesting way of approaching design is through materiality. I typically sculpt a space before I decorate it. I think that’s a pretty modern way of approaching design. So I’ll really shape the space based on circulation and sight lines and lighting [but] I like using stones, concrete, wood: really natural materials that you can do modern things with, [however] the familiarity of them is what connects with my clients because they feel like they’re getting a modern space that doesn’t feel cold. It feels familiar and welcoming. I think a big part of that also is having done the last three years of TV in Atlanta, there’s really a very traditional bent in Georgia, of course. I think it’s seeped into my aesthetic as well. I’m definitely a lot more comfort minded these days, I’m buying a lot fewer white leather low sofas..

METROSOURCE: Can you recall any situations where a project went way over time or budget?
GIDDING: Sometimes because of weather or other scheduling conflicts we’ll push it to 2 or 3 weeks, but we try not to because it gets very expensive on the production side. … I remember we were doing one house in Atlanta and it rained for 11 days straight and there was flooding everywhere. We didn’t have to deal with the flooding, luckily, but after the flooding we couldn’t get our contractors back on the site because higher-paying customers were desperate for contractors after all the flooding. … No contractor is getting rich off of Curb Appeal: the Block. It’s mainly for the experience and a good time and marketing. So we were sort of on the back burner for a while and that project took close to two months to complete because of that.

METROSOURCE: Your energy on camera always seems so positive. Is that just naturally how you act?
GIDDING: I always play off of people’s energy when it comes to real life. And that is actually a bad thing when it comes to TV because in TV you have to have a very consistent energy. So when you have homeowners who are feeling a little insecure, or questioning or doubtful, sometimes I like to bring my energy down to their level — so that they feel safe. But on TV, I’m not really allowed to do that. It’s got to be high octane all the time. … Even when I become bored or tired or just frustrated on the site, I always have to perk up when the cameras arrive. And I will say that having the TV now for 5 years, it’s just one of the skill sets of TV.

METROSOURCE: Does it feel bittersweet to help so many married couples transform their homes when in so many places, gay people still can’t get married?
GIDDING: The great thing about HGTV is [that] it’s very inclusive, and we typically feature straight families and gay families. It’s almost as if we pick homes just based on the home itself and not the social situation of the home-owners themselves. So I get exposed to a lot of different kinds of families. I’ve certainly come across families who are yearning for a little more legitimacy afforded to them by the country that they live in. But there’s an air of optimism. I would definitely say that. It’s not really a pessimistic attitude that I walk into. I feel like, in general, most of the country is moving in the right direction — and that includes the military, of all institutions. So I think for the most part everyone thinks it’s a matter of time, and I actually believe that to be the case.

METROSOURCE: You mentioned not necessarily feeling competition with other HGTV hosts. Where do you feel competition?
GIDDING: Where I do feel competition is in the real world of design, when I find some of my colleagues are bidding for the same jobs, and this is where, of course, the real money is made. TV is great and all, but you try to build up a real profession, and this is where the real clientele can really change your life in terms of the projects that you’re allowed to build as opposed to a $20,000 façade in lower Oakland — you know: something that’s going to get published and it’s going to do really well for me and my firm. That’s what we go for and that’s where the stiffest competition is.

METROSURCE: In one episode of Curb Appeal: The Block, I heard you say, “In Turkey we say, ‘Colors and flavors cannot be discussed.’” I sensed the wisdom in that expression, and yet, on the other side of things, that’s essentially your job.
GIDDING: I always do my renderings in black and white because the color conversation is one that I have to have with every single client, and I can literally make any project go in any color way, truly. I feel like if my preconceived notion for a space blue, and the client came in and said, “My god I hate blue,” I’d say, “We’ll what do you like?” And they would give me a color and I’d make it work. It’s really never, “Oh I could never make that color work!” kind of conversation. … I have a very soft-handed approach to convincing clients and it makes them feel like they are part of the decision making process, but that they’re still being led by somebody who’s done it before and probably has used these colors before and who’s giving them good advice.

METROSOURCE: Having modeled for some great designers, who do you prefer for your own wardrobe?
GIDDING: I’ve got to say Calvin Klein has never done me wrong. I’m kind of a suit guy, I have a very commercial look, and so when I started working with Calvin Klein it’s kind of been a dream come true for me in how they fit. But I remember being pretty happy with Armani, too. You won’t find me complaining! For more on John Gidding, visit hgtv.com.

Photography by Emily Rose Pearman Written by Paul Hagen

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Comments (1)

  1. Mike Neville says:

    Your article on John Gidding was wonderful! With his show on HGTV John brings a freshness and sincerity to the many “design programs” that speaks to his caring knowledge of his field. With endless talent and enthusiasm we are all treated to a much anticipated program…that never disappoints!

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