Jack Thomasson may have been best known as that HGTV Dream Home guy for over 20 years, but this acclaimed professional house planner and entrepreneur has a diverse background in real estate, architecture, construction, landscape and interior design. At HGTV, Jack produced the HGTV Dream Home (the largest sweepstakes in cable television), the HGTV Smart Home, and the HGTV Urban Oasis. Before going prime time, Jack was the founder of the acclaimed Coastal Living magazine, which was acquired by Time, Inc.
Christopher Parr had the pleasure of working with Jack for over 8 years in creating the award-winning Sub-Zero and Wolf kitchens that were showcased within the HGTV Dream Homes. Christopher sat down with Jack to learn about what it was like to build his business, working in the design and construction industry, and how he keeps his projects protected.
Can you please share the secret origin story of Jack Thomasson?
I’m a country boy from central Florida who paid attention in English class and then tried to pay attention in general as I started my first career after college in magazine publishing as a writer and editor, primarily on topics involving architecture and interior design. Ultimately, I earned some success as the founder of Coastal Living magazine, which I later sold to Time, Inc., and then worked for a period of time in the Time, Inc. offices. While there, HGTV came to us and requested assistance with the first ever HGTV Dream Home because their research at the time noted that when most people think “dream home” that they also think “coast” (and, we were Coastal Living magazine). I decided to take my experience gained from writing about architecture and interiors and make the HGTV Dream Home a personal project at Coastal Living. When I left Time Inc., I was asked by HGTV to continue with the project, which launched an entirely new career for me in television.
What have you been up to since you departed HGTV, what’s the latest for Jack?
I believe that in order to progress in life that you have to know when it’s time to turn the page and start a new chapter. After 20 years of spearheading the design of the HGTV Dream Home, it was time to say goodbye to something I had loved from the first HGTV Dream Home, until the last one under my guidance. My next step was to take a moment to breathe before diving into some passion projects, which have included renovation of a Florida beach cottage that was destined for demolition, and restoring an extremely neglected historic home in Georgia that was built in 1853. It’s funny, because the historic home in Georgia, which is still under construction, is probably the most camera-worthy project I’ve ever been involved with.
What sort of advice do you have for new designers entering the home remodel and new construction industry?
It’s all about who you work with. The design world constantly changes, so be part of the change, or you’ll get left behind.
What new trends do you see in the design industry?
There is a re-commerce retail trend in used clothing right now, and I’ve always felt that trends in interior design closely follow the apparel industry (i.e., colors and patterns todays runway fashions will be seen in tomorrow’s home interiors). Consignment stores have been around for decades, but you’ll see a sophisticated system emerge that will get used home accessories, for example, to an eager consumer who wants designer goods on a budget.
In working with clients, what are some tips designers should always observe?
Really get to know and understand your clients. While they are interviewing you, you should also be “interviewing” and observing them. Beyond their home, what do they drive, and what automobile exterior and interior finish combination did they select? How do they dress, and what colors do they seem to migrate to? How do they interact with others in their lives? What is motivating them to make a change? Your creative ideas should complement their lives, not just their homes. And, be genuine about it – getting to know your customer is also the polite thing to do.
And continuing that thought, what are obstacles they should avoid?
We would all love to believe that we are the definite source for design decisions, but in reality it should always be collaborative to a degree. You have been hired to guide the design process, but the degree of desired guidance is subjective from client to client. When it comes to a design decision between two items, for example – no matter how disparate — your client should defer to you, but don’t always expect it and don’t risk losing your client over small differences of opinion. The best way to enjoy the process is communication, because your clients want to be part of the process in some way, whether they express that or not. Don’t expect to get the job and then unilaterally manage the process until your big reveal – that only happens on television.
When starting a project, what priorities immediately come to mind?
My first priority is planning. Never underestimate the benefits of spending extended time planning before you start a project, which will also reduce the number of decisions you’ll have to make during the project that can often be costly. At the start of your planning process, it is important to try to realize and understand your actual starting point. What are you starting with? It’s a bit of a glass-half-empty or half-full exercise, since most people look more at what they need to do versus realizing the benefits of what they already have from the start. For example, in home renovation, I always invest in an “as-built” set of floorplans, where a qualified draftsman or Architect creates a set of to-scale floorplans that show my starting point with accurate room measurements. It’s amazing what you can learn from studying an as-built floorplan that you would miss by relying only on a walkthrough of a space or doing the measurements yourself. When that sofa shows up, you want it to fit. (And, if it’s a highrise project, don’t forget to measure the elevator.)
What do you wish that you knew at the beginning of your career? What’s the biggest mistake that people make?
I think a big misconception is that you’ll stay in the career that you selected from the start. Be willing to be open-minded when opportunity comes your way. You’ll take the experience from every position you’ve had with you as you move to your next opportunity.
What are steps that you take to set yourself up for success?
Planning, planning, planning. For my television projects, I had only a fraction of the time to complete a project compared to the amount of time it would have taken in the real world. I would literally spend as much time planning as the time it took to construct, decorate and landscape. But, for a non-television designer, the same principle should hold true. Plan as much of the project as you can before you order the first throw pillow.
How do you avoid risk on any project?
I only work with licensed contractors and subcontractors who are bonded and insured, otherwise I’d not be able to sleep at night. You want to be confident as you ultimately turn over your project to the homeowner, knowing that you’ve delivered a product that was constructed by professionals. Additionally, I take out a personal liability policy with each construction project for further personal protection. And, finally, I check references. I’ve seen too often where references are requested and received, but are never actually checked. It’s worth the effort.
How important is it to know that the entire workforce on the project is properly insured?
It’s everything to know that the entire workforce on the project is insured. Not only does it give you piece of mind from a liability perspective, but you also know that you are working with trade professionals who have taken the time to set up their business properly.
What are tips for building the best relationship between designers and builders?
I try to work with designers and builders who have worked together successfully in the past. They’ve learned what to expect from each other, and there is already a degree of trust. If you are new to an area – as I was frequently with the HGTV Dream Home – I would get referrals from designers for builders, referrals from builders for landscape architects, etc. The best professionals always seem to know the best professionals.
At the end of any project, what’s the last thing that you do? Any rituals?
I’ve never been asked this question before, but I absolutely have a small and slightly embarrassing ritual at the end of each project. Before turning the house over to the homeowner, I like to have a final moment to myself in the house where I literally say “thanks” to the house. Then, I lock the front door and leave. For some reason, it puts a smile on my face and shifts my thinking to the next project. Whatever it takes, right?