Jul 19

Jen’s Richmond Reno: How I Ended Up Buying a House in Virginia.

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My friend Christine is always right. I often ask for her input on everything from relationships to design to what snacks to get at Trader Joe’s and somehow, she always nails it with the analysis and feedback. She is bad-ass/hilariously dorky/good at everything and she just GETS IT. She gets the situation, she gets ME. Christine and I met in NYC but now she lives in Richmond, Virginia. She had been telling me for a couple of years that I should visit. She promised I would like it, and as usual, she was right.

I’ve traveled to a good number of cities around the world and it’s interesting how certain places tug on my heart strings a so much harder than others. It wasn’t until recently that I’ve been able to pinpoint the 2 things I that just get me every time: big old trees, and pretty old houses. And Richmond is full of both.

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Christine lives in a spectacularly charming neighborhood called Church Hill. It is in fact named after a 275 year old church perched on a hill overlooking the James River. The neighborhood is approximately 15 square blocks of gorgeous-house goodness. When I visited Christine’s home for the first time, I burst out laughing because her place is ridiculously lovely and enormous. It’s a 1600 sq foot apartment on the top floor of a historic home with 11’ ceilings and 10 windows drenching the whole place in sunlight. I recall scurrying around her place taking photos and texting them to my friends living in over-priced urban hubs with lots of heart-eye emojis.

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Christine and her boyfriend Miguel were dreamy hosts. Every day we would eat some kind of delicious pastry from some charming neighborhood joint, and stroll down one of the hundreds of beautiful blocks — each one seemingly lovelier than the last. I couldn’t help but notice the occasional “for sale” sign, and it wasn’t long before I became addicted checking Trulia 5 times/day and planning daily walking tours based on what homes were on the market.

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I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area where a one bedroom bungalow can run you almost a million dollars, so when I realized that I could acquire a relatively large property in a neighborhood of this caliber for less than $300k, I became obsessed.  I contacted the first agent I found online and started going to open houses.

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Over the course of a week we saw at least a dozen houses in varying states of disarray, and there were 3 or 4 times that I came very close to putting in an offer.

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This was was a contender. It reminded me of a San Francisco Victorian and I couldn’t help but photoshop a new color palette that was more “me” just to see how it would look. I didn’t end up getting this one because Christine didn’t approve of the overly-modernized interior and the insufficient number of windows.

I was definitely overly-excited by how affordable everything was compared to NYC and California. Christine was with me every step of the way, politely putting me in check, telling me when I should calm down and hold out for something better. I didn’t want to buy a house that Christine didn’t approve of. After all, Christine is always right.

I had only intended on visiting Richmond for 6 or 7 days, but I wound up staying for 14 — on a mission to find an old fixer. I eventually left Richmond without buying anything. A part of me thought that if I left empty handed, I would lose momentum and lose interest in buying an investment property altogether, but that never happened.

A couple weeks later, back in Cali, I noticed a new house pop up on MLS. It was a 2000 sq ft 4 bedroom, 2 bath house on a 7000 sq ft lot with a garage in Montrose Heights, just 5 minutes from Church Hill. And get this… it was HALF the cost of the other houses I had been looking at. I really started to think that this could be perfect because I didn’t want to max out my budget on a home in an ultra-hot neighborhood leaving little or nothing in the budget for renovation. After all, I’m a designer and I’m doing it mostly for the experience, and not just for the financial pay-off.

This house was on a lot and a half with a huge front, back, and side yard. It’s was on a street corner and had 19 windows so it was super bright (right, Christine?!) And there was a garage! Very few homes built before 1920 have garages. If they do, it’s usually a freestanding structure near the alley, which is what this one is. I was super excited and texted Christine to see if she could cruise by and check it out asap.

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The neighborhood is not as majestic as Church Hill because the homes are more spread out and modestly sized, nevertheless the neighborhood is charming and quiet. Christine mentioned that she saw “gay pride flags and solar panels” so that was a good sign. She said that it was a really good house and that we should ask for a tour.

I called my agent and she was able to meet Christine at the house right away. They face timed me and I put in an offer immediately. The house had only been on the market for 4 or 5 hours, and I was the only person to view it in person. The selling agent must have thought I was nuts, but hey…that’s how we do it in California — early bird gets worm.

The seller accepted my offer right away and before I knew it, we were in the process of getting the property inspected. I’ll spare you all the super boring details, but in summary, here’s were the major problems with the house:

-Termite damage under the joists in the living room. The only way to repair this is by removing the (original) living room floors

-Somewhat old roof that may or may not need to be replaced

-A big hole in the ceiling caused by moisture from an improperly insulated a/c duct

-A few pieces of siding and trim chewed up by squirrels on the exterior of the house

Honestly, not a bad report card for a 106 year old house. Despite these issues, I decided to proceed with the purchase anyway. After a long-ish closing, I finally flew to Richmond to see the house for the first time, and to sign my name on a thousand papers. Here are some pics and some notes room-by-room.

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Living room – It’s not terrible, but that light has to go. I plan on installing ceiling fans throughout. Because this is the first room you see when you walk in, I want to demolish that fireplace and replace it with something more elegant and period-appropriate.

 

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Dining room – This room is very similar to the living room, but it’s actually even bigger. It also has a pretty ugly mantle which I plan on replacing. The dangling pendant has to go.

 

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Kitchen – The layout is going to stay. I plan on demolishing some cabinets and keeping others. That range hood is S.A.D. I’ll bring in some rustic wood shelves and new beadboard to freshen up the space. The floor is kind of ugly, I’m considering replacing it.

 

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Downstairs hall and bathroom – This is where the washer and dryer went (pretty much right where I’m standing.) That’s going to be a huge eyesore so I’m going to build a new closet to hide them.

 

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This bathroom is pretty hideous. At first I was hoping to save the tile around the tub, but it’s cracking because the divider wall is built so poorly that it moves when you put pressure on it. Everything but the tub must go.

 

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Bedroom – Best room in the house. Patch/paint/new trim and we’re good to go.

 

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Office – This weird little room used to be an upstairs kitchen back in the day when the owner converted this house into a duplex. I’m going to rip up this linoleum, restore the floors, and put a door on that little closet.

 

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Tiny room – This one is easy. Patch/paint/new trim and we’re good to go.

 

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Upstairs bath – This room looks better in the pictures that it does in person. This beadboard is ROUGH, and the tub is very damaged. The floor is depressing. The only thing it has going for it is the big window that lets in tons of light.

 

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Balcony – Even though the previous owner did all kinds of weird things to the house in order to turn it into a duplex, the one good thing that came out of that was this balcony. I’m assuming it was built as a second form of egress. It’s well-built and one of my favorite features of the house.

 

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Yard -The yard is pretty massive. Aside from a bit of fence repair, and a good mowing, I’m don’t plan on doing much.

 

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Garage – Also known as “tiny Alamo prison.” This garage is probably not going to be used to house cars any time soon because the door is a GIANT, 1000 lb sliding barn door and not one of those nifty modern doors that go up at the touch of a button. I’m just going to clean it out and call it “storage.”

 

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The layout is pretty typical for a home in Richmond — sort of narrow, really long, common areas downstairs, and sleeping rooms upstairs.

A few things that are a total bummer that don’t really affect the inspection process, but I really need to change  for aesthetic reasons:

-The ceilings in almost every room are cracked/textured/stained and just hideous overall. The house needs new ceilings throughout

-A lot of the walls have cracked plaster that was poorly patched. I’m extremely OCD when it comes to smooth walls, so I know there will be many days and nights of patching/sanding ahead.

-The kitchen is a hot mess, but some of it should be salvageable. This is going to be the first project and I have a huge kitchen reno post on the way!

-Both bathrooms need a lot of cosmetic work. The linoleum is terrible, the claw foot tub is chipped and scratched in a million places, and there’s a lack of storage.

I consider this a “light fixer” and I plan on working on it in between TV gigs. I know it’s going to be challenging, and probably twice as expensive as I would like it to be, but I could not be more excited. No, I am not planning on moving to Richmond. As wonderful as it is, my heart lives in Brooklyn, and my paychecks live in Los Angeles, so I’ll just enjoy my time in Richmond for the next few months until I finish the reno and rent this out.

I’m so grateful for my dear friend Christine who helped me make this happen. Her enthusiasm for her neighborhood was contagious and I would never have taken on something this huge without knowing that my wise little sister-from-another-mister would always be nearby. Most of the time, I’m totally stoked and confident that this is going to be amazing, but every now and then I wonder if I’m quickly draining my life savings for the sake of having a big project to fill my art void. But then I think about how Christine says that it’s a great house and it’s a good investment. She better be right…she’s always right.

 

Posted by Jen at 4:35 pm — 2 comments
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Jun 4

The California Cottage: Bathroom Renovation!

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I don’t watch a lot of TV — probably only about an hour per week. I recently signed up for HBO Now just so I could watch Lemonade, and I’m slowly making my way through the 6th season of Girls, but that’s about it.

However, when I travel for work and stay in a hotel, I binge watch HGTV like a crazy person. It doesn’t help that these days, networks are all about playing 4-8 episodes of the same show in a row, so I find myself up until 2am watching re-runs of Fixer Upper until I’m dazed and bleary-eyed. I can’t help it. I LOVE a good before-and-after. The more tragic the better.

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When I bought my house, my cottage bathroom looked more or less like a dilapidated prison cell. The “walls” were made of flimsy water damaged panels, the floor was rotted through, and the window was corroded. Most infuriatingly, the toilet was oriented the wrong way, so when I sat on it my knees would bump the sink pipes. What crazy person thought that this was a good idea?!

Somehow I managed to tolerate (and use!) this mess of a bathroom for an entire year.  There were times when tried to convince myself that it wasn’t so bad. “Maybe I’ll keep this little sink…maybe the tile around the tub can be refreshed without replacing it…maybe I don’t mind the fact that I can prop my feet up on the tub when I’m on the toilet.” But then one day I was just like, “I hate everything. Everything out, out, out!” So I dragged all of my bedroom furniture into my living room and just camped out there for the next 2 weeks while chaos ensued.

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First thing first… demolition. I got rid of everything but the tub.  I hired a guy to help me with the demo, plumbing, and electrical. I never would have been able to handle a renovation like this myself.

The bathroom is tiny (only 5 feet wide) so I wanted to keep it as open and airy as possible. I initially envisioned a bold black and white tile floor like this. I even bought the tile a year in advance and hoarded it in my shed in anticipation for the big reno. When it finally came time to put the new floor down, I had second thoughts.  I was concerned that the high contrast would be too jarring. I kind of wanted the flooring to flow form the bedroom into the bathroom. The floor in my cottage is laminate which is not recommended for wet areas, so I scoured a few local tile shops to see if I could find a porcelain tile to match. I got pretty lucky. The 2nd place I checked was called Tile Depot and despite its ho-hum name, it was actually tile heaven. Beautiful showroom, nice sales people, good prices.

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My new found tile helped me solidify my vision for the space. My handyman I worked 8-10 hours/day for 2 weeks on this tiny bathroom. Not gonna lie, it was hard!

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After the new sub floor went in, we put in new drywall. The room was feeling a little plain, so I did what any Fixer Upper viewer would do — I installed shiplap (or rather, fake shiplap made of luan strips.) I realize shiplap is kind of trendy right now, but I DO live in a cottage, so it felt like the appropriate thing to do.  I’m so glad I painted the slats first, because even though the gaps are only as thick as a nickel, you can definitely see them at eye level.

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By the time the ship lap was done, I was feeling pretty confident and decided to tackle the tile floor myself. You’d think that a small 5′ x 5′ floor would be no sweat to tile, but let me tell ya…tiling a small bathroom is HARD. There was barely any room to move in there which made every step of the process so frustrating. I was also using a ton of mortar so that my porcelain tile would be perfectly level with the laminate floor in the adjacent room. Apparently mortar is SUPER heavy and really tiring to mix even with a drill and mixing attachment. Who knew?!

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The tiling never really got easier. It was frustrating till the bitter end. I was definitely relieved when I made it around the toilet hole, though.

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How many cuts does it take to cut a circle in the shape of a toilet flange out of tile? Only about 35. Unless your first tile snaps, then you’d need 70. :(

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Grouted and sealed! Honestly the floor was a huge pain and while I was doing it, I kept saying that I wouldn’t tile a floor myself again.

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My favorite project to do in any renovation is trim/moulding. It’s always a good sign when you’re ready to put the trim on. That basically means you’re almost done!

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Just when I thought I was ready to put on the last piece of trim, I realized that because my overall floor is a little slanted (and always has been) my simple baseboard looked super crooked. I wound up having to buy a larger piece of lumber and cutting it at an angle to compensate for the slant. Ugh.

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This was also my first attempt at installing subway tile in a real interior (as opposed to on a set.) The subway tiles are small and light enough that they’re relatively easy to install. I just did all the math first, then tiled in sections starting from the bottom. The best part about subway tile is that you don’t have to use any spacers. They are designed to have a 1/16″ gap between each tile. I would definitely consider doing subway tile again by myself in the future, because it’s on a wall as opposed to the floor.

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So the bathroom is done now! I’ve lived with it for a couple months now, and I couldn’t be happier. This is my first time having my very own brand new bathroom, and it makes me feel kind of fancy, even though it’s not a fancy bathroom at all.

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Sources:

sink and vanity: IKEA YDDINGEN/LILLANGEN

sink faucet: Amazon Derengge

mirror: IKEA GRUNDTAL

small metal shelf: Container Store Simple Ledge Shelf

toilet: Home Depot American Standard

wall hanging: Heather Levine Ceramics

shower/tub hardware: Amazon Kingston Brass

subway tile: Home Depot Rittenhouse

floor tile: Tile Depot Rosemead

 

 

Posted by Jen at 1:22 pm — 1 comment
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Dec 20

All-Star Gingerbread Build.

In high school we had this competition called “Spirit Hall” where a bunch of kids from each grade would pick a theme, rally as many students as possible in their grade, and decorate a long hallway to fit that theme. My junior year was the inaugural year of the competition and we chose an “Under the Sea” theme — we lit the hall with blue lights, wrote all the juniors’ names on hand-cut paper fish, and made jellyfish out of iridescent cellophane strips. My senior year, we called our hall “Zoom In,” and we made everything gigantic as if you were walking through the set of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids — giant grass, giant ants, giant sneaker laying in the giant yard, etc. My class won both years.

What did I learn from this experience? I learned that a) I love crafting b) I am competitive at team crafting and c) I especially love larger-than-life competitive team crafting.

gingerbread0pin it!Fast forward 12 years and I’m sitting at my desk at the Halloween Baking Championship and my boss comes to me and says that he is putting together a team for a fun holiday show — 2 guys from HGTV partner up with 2 guys from Food Network, and they will compete in building/decorating life-sized gingerbread houses!!! !!! !!! As most of you know, I’ve worked on quite a few Food Network shows, and I also happen to be obsessed with HGTV, so this was pretty much my dream job. I know I say that about a lot of jobs, but for real this time. Giant miniature houses…yay!

They recruited Ron Ben-Israel and Jonathan Scott to go head-to-head against Duff Goldman and Drew Scott. I art directed Ron Ben-Israel’s show Sweet Genius, and that guy’s cakes are B-A-N-A-N-A-S. They are so incredibly delicate and detailed in person. He’s basically cake decorating royalty. Duff is the host of Kids Baking Championship, which I also art direct, and he has an entire dessert empire and an army of talented young bakers that help him bring his crazy cakes to life. And I’m sure you all know and love the Property Brothers – Drew and Jonathan Scott.

Oh, and did I mentioned that these houses had to be completed in a mere 36 hours?!

gingerbread2pin it!We built the entire set at the Westside Pavilion mall in Los Angeles. The idea was to build the gingerbread houses inside this huge empty retail space so we could eventually invite mall patrons inside to vote for their favorite house.

gingerbread3pin it!Only problem was that the retail space looked like this on the inside. It was completely raw — no doors, no walls, no lights. We only have a few days to make the space TV-ready so I called up my best and brightest and we started designing and building a winter wonderland.

gingerbread4pin it!We built windows and doors, glittered countless snowflakes, and brought in 12 ovens and an entire workshop full of tools sponsored by Sears.

gingerbread5pin it!Our amazing carpenter (affectionately known as Magic Michael) took my design for the entrance and brought it to life. He built those doors from scratch!

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gingerbread6pin it!After the set was clean, colorful, and ready for camera, the 2 teams came in and started designing their dream gingerbread houses. The Red Team (Jonathan and Ron), wanted to make a chalet-style lodge, and the Green Team (Drew and Duff), opted for a curvy, Dutch cottage.

gingerbread7pin it!Both teams were given 3 “elves” to help them build and decorate. Shoutout to my art team — Michael, Emmett, Amber and Elizabeth. You guys look adorable in your mini-aprons :)

gingerbread8pin it!The first walls of the Red Team house go up.

gingerbread9pin it!Chaos at 3am.

gingerbread10pin it!Jonathan works on planters for the chalet while Drew assembles a picket fence for the cottage.

gingerbread11pin it!After the houses were framed and skinned with wood, we began “gluing” our gingerbread tiles on with royal icing. We ordered over 10,000 bricks of gingerbread, but even that wasn’t enough! Thankfully we had 12 ovens to bake even more.

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It may not look like that much candy from here, but trust me, we had hundreds of lbs of candy for the guys to choose from. By the time we were done with the houses, I vowed never to eat candy again. That only lasted about a day.

gingerbread13pin it!Candy brainstorming for the Dutch door on the cottage.

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It looks like fun and games, but  these houses were a TON of work and we were all actually sleep-deprived and delirious by the end of it.

gingerbread16pin it!Duff had his team make this insanely perfect reindeer out of fondant as an final touch to his cottage.

gingerbread crowdpin it!By the time we completed both houses, mall patrons started lining up to meet the cast and to see the finished houses.

gingerbread17pin it!Behold! The Green Team’s cottage complete with a marshmallow chimney, chocolate chip covered Dutch door, and a fondant covered reindeer.

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gingerbread23pin it!The Red Team’s chalet!

gingerbread24pin it!The stained glass window was made out of colored sugar that we melted and poured into the frame!

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gingerbread26pin it!We let the mall patrons in, and each person grabbed a gingerbread man to cast their vote for their favorite house.

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gingerbread30pin it!In the end, the Green Team cottage with the reindeer head won. The losers had to don Santa and Elf costumes and walk around the mall.

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gingerbread32pin it!Even though this was one of the hardest projects I’ve ever worked on, we had a blast and I can’t wait till next year so we can do it again!

Massive thanks to Erin, Michael, Emmett, Rick, George, Aubrey, Nick, Giles, Amber, Elizabeth, Renata, and Lynsey. A thousand hugs for Morgan, Beryl, Dave, Alex, Amy, and co. And high 5’s to Hillary, Whitt, Steve, Larry, and Dustin. XXOO

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Posted by Jen at 3:31 pm — 1 comment
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Oct 31

The Halloween Baking Championship.

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I can get down with Halloween. I love the idea of it, but I usually procrastinate or don’t really have anywhere cool to go, so I opt out more often than not. What did you do for Halloween? I hope you wore a sparkling polyester unitard and stuffed your face with candy because I sat at Houston International Airport for 4 hours waiting for my connecting flight to Jackson, Mississippi.  (High five to this airport for providing FREE unlimited internet!!) The good news is that it gave me ample time to archive photos. I think this is the first time I’ve ever posted pics from a show RIGHT after it aired as opposed to 1-3 years later. Hooray!

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I art directed my first cooking show, Sweet Genius 2, about 5 years ago. I remember loving it and telling my colleagues that I wanted to work on more cooking shows.  I love custom making anything and everything, so there is something about the hand-crafted nature of cooking and baking that complements my design/build/arts-and-crafts approach to art direction. I worked on a lil’ Food Network special called the Holiday Baking Championship last year, and I had no idea that it would blow up into an entire franchise of baking shows including the Kids, Halloween, and Spring Baking Championships.

The shell of this set was designed by Shaffner & Stewart and my amazing art department KILLED it this year with the set dressing and custom builds. We had so much fun making all things smoky, slimy, and spooky.

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My set decorator Andrea and I spent an absurd amount of time scooting things around on these shelves.

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My favorite vampire.

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For the most part, I design and hand-draw the signage on all of our shows. I’ve gone back to using pen and paper when designing and I find that it’s so much more fun and freeing than designing everything on the computer.

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My awesome assistant Ryanne outlining letters in white paint pen.

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This “fire” is actually 3 light bulbs, and a mini fan blowing around small triangular pieces of white lining. TV magic!

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My carpenter Michael is basically like a human 3D printer. He can literally make anything. I drew this sketch of a gothic table, and 1 day later, he texts me this picture below. Like… no big deal… just banged out a custom judges desk in 8 hours. Ugh. Show off. ;)

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A big part of my job is figuring out how to visually convey ideas that the producers have for challenges. For this challenge, we needed a tree with 2 kinds of apples, the red ones would have secret ingredients written inside. The green ones would have creepy adjectives — and the bakers had to combine the two words and make something delicious and scary out of it. As you can see, not every display  is an instant success. It takes A LOT of collaborative brainstorming to get a galvanized bucket and a tree branch to a point where it’s TV ready.

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A dollhouse that we “hauntified.”

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Again, Michael being crazy and amazing. I asked him to build a fireplace surround. Whatever he wanted…surprise me! And he took a pile of MDF and made it into this in a couple days.

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That’s it for now, but the passing of Halloween means that everyone is going to be playing Christmas music by tomorrow. It also means that the Holiday Baking Championship is returning and my art department dressed the hell out of that set too, so come back soon for more pics!

Posted by Jen at 11:29 pm — 1 comment
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