From top: Ty Pennington, Paige Davis, Brad Johnson, Rachel Johnson.

Torrey and Cheryll Hairston


  The Mason Spirit

Designer Drama: Trading Spaces Comes to Northern Virginia

Mason alumni put their decorating skills and friendships to the test

By Michelle Nery, B.A. ’97

White airbrushed swirls on Tiffany blue walls and a bed suspended from the ceiling are just two of the many design elements brought to the homes of George Mason alumni Rachel Johnson (B.A. International Studies ’93 and M.S. Professional Studies ’99) and Torrey (B.A. Communication ’92) and Cheryll (B.A. Communication ’94) Hairston when they participated in the Learning Channel’s hit show Trading Spaces this past fall.

The show features two sets of neighbors who redecorate a room in the other’s home in two days with $1,000 and the help of some very charismatic interior designers. The participants are not allowed back into their homes until the decorating—or damage—is complete.

Interior designers Doug Wilson, Hildi Santo-Tomas, and Kia Steave-Dickerson, along with carpenter Ty Pennington, rolled into town in September with their hefty crew, paint brushes, and mischief in tow to tape the episodes. Johnson’s episode, “Virginia: Gentle Heights Court,” aired in October, and the Hairstons’s episode, “Arlington: First Road,” aired in November.

“We applied to the show as a joke really,” says Johnson, “just for kicks to see if we would hear back from them.” The Hairstons applied because they are great fans of the show and thought it would be neat to showcase their older colonial-style home, which Cheryll says is smaller than the newer homes the show usually features.

Although the Mason alumni were all ready to send in their applications, they first had to rope in an unsuspecting neighbor to participate in the plan.

“Our neighbors had only seen the show once or twice, so it did not take much to convince them because they didn’t know enough to be afraid,” says Johnson.

Cheryll says, “[The designers] do some pretty wild stuff, so we decided to pick a fairly conservative neighbor. We didn’t even need to convince them. They were all for it.”

Leaving one’s home wide open to the decorating whims of another can be a frightening task, but the group took it all in stride. “I had no problems turning my house over to my neighbors because they have such great taste,” says Johnson. “But when the designers showed up on the set the first day, I was terrified to see Kia, whom I knew nothing about other than her flair for theme rooms, and Hildi, whom my neighbors saw in the infamous hay episode.” During that episode, the walls in the room were painted pink and then coated with hay.

Cheryll was determined to protect her neighbors’ wishes and bedroom while working with Wilson, which created the atmosphere for a show that won’t soon be forgotten. The designer insisted on staining or painting the hardwood floors, but Cheryll wouldn’t have any of it. “There was a lot of drama and fighting,” says Cheryll. “But people who know me know I am feisty, and if I had let him paint the floor, I would’ve come out the bad guy. We won the argument, thank goodness. But if I had it to do over again, I would have worked with [the designers] much more.”

Despite the drama, Cheryll’s neighbors were so pleased with the results that they haven’t changed a thing in their more masculine and modern bedroom complete with a huge dark wood headboard surrounding the window. Cheryll herself loves the work her neighbors did in her bedroom, transforming its taupe walls and coordinated bedspread to a more abstract design with free-flowing white lines swirled across Tiffany blue walls, window shade, and bedspread. “Torrey might paint over three of the walls because the swirls are giving him a headache,” she says, “but I love it!”

Johnson was pleased with the results in her bedroom as well. “They turned my room into another country really—Indian/Thai inspired—something I never would have done, but it is so comfortable and romantic.” Johnson’s neighbors were also thrilled with results in their son’s room, which gave the room a camping theme complete with rock wall.

Since the show, Johnson has made only a few practical enhancements to her room, including stabilizing the suspended bed with a platform and adding a console table at the head of the bed to serve as a nightstand. “We just recently disassembled the ‘Taj Mahal’ surround of the entertainment center and replaced the whole thing with an Asian-inspired, solid wood piece.” Her neighbors also made only a few changes. “They brought their son’s dresser and nightstand back into the room. The wood even matches the birch of the rock wall.” Some of the climbing rocks were also reconfigured to prevent him from climbing too high.”

Cheryll described the experience as a whirlwind from the time the researchers called to the day the crew came in and took over their home for three days. Despite the chaos and the designers’ off-the-wall taste, both Johnson and the Hairstons would repeat the experience. “I loved everything about it,” says Johnson. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”