Week after week this spring, celebrity judges on Bravo's Top Design subjected young, nervous interior designers to crueler crits than get inflicted in most design schools. "Your rug looked like it belonged in an airport," Jonathan Adler scolded a contestant fond of swirly patterns. Of one contestant's use of tan plaid slipcovers, fellow judge Kelly Wearstler complained, "It was, like, granny." The surprisingly bubbly, cheerful mastermind behind the harsh series is Bravo's executive vice president of programming and production, an Englishwoman named Frances Berwick. An 11-year veteran of the network, Berwick also helped realize the megahits Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Project Runway, which brought design consciousness closer to the American mainstream.
"We bring people a practical look at what they might have considered 'high design,' something inaccessible to them," Berwick says. "What the designers say always encapsulates a lot of tips, good takeaways, that people could use to get their own 'wow factor' at home." Plus, she adds, "It's fascinating to watch designers agonize."
Berwick, a Yorkshire native and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, worked as a fund-raiser for the London theater Sadler's Wells before moving to New York in 1996 to climb the TV production ladder. At the time, Bravo was a rather frumpy, classical music-dominated network. NBC bought Bravo in 2002 for $1 billion and has pumped up production and marketing budgets.
Many other networks run unscripted home-design reality shows, but Bravo has taken the upscale path with high-profile hosts and judges, such as model Heidi Klum and designer Todd Oldham. Berwick's shows have also made stars out of the contestants: Laura Bennett, an architect best known for designing gowns with plunging necklines on Project Runway, has become a regular Bravo commentator.
The audience members, Berwick reports, send e-mails about what they're working on at home, in emulation of the broadcast projects. "There's a play-along component," she says, "which we never envisioned."