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Designing Duo

By Dena Hill

Special Contributor

Decorating devotees all have their favorite television home design programs.
 

Matt Fox and Shari Hiller blocking out a scene in a contempary model home where they re-did the living room
Photos Courtesy Matt Fox

These programs “surprise” the homeowner with a makeover, landscape dreary front walkways, decorate on a budget, design around “his and her” styles, and more. But the show that helped get it all started nearly a decade ago is still going strong–and growing.

“Room by Room,” the hit decorating show that debuted in 1994 on the Home & Garden Television network, was, in fact, among the first programs to air on HGTV, showcasing the talents of its popular hosts, Shari Hiller and Matt Fox.

“The gray comes out and the wrinkles appear,” said Mr. Fox, poking fun at his evolving on-air appearance.

The program’s down-to-earth format offers viewer-friendly elements that keep fans of the show optimistic about tackling their own home projects. The Hiller/Fox mantra is: “Real decorating for real people.”
 

The Fox/Hiller team on the set in Mr. Fox's shop, shown from the camera's point of view

“It probably comes across that we’ve actually done the projects,” said Ms. Hiller, whose college degree is in interior design. “We walk the talk,” Mr. Fox added, as the two discussed the show’s format and the positive feedback they continue to receive from their audience.

In each 30-minute episode, which airs locally at 7 p.m. Saturdays, Ms. Hiller, 45, shows viewers how to go about decorating a room, while Mr. Fox, 47, takes a key project of the design and demonstrates how to build it. As Ms. Hiller explains the process, they begin by showing viewers what is wrong with a particular room, “the challenge,” and how to correct it.

The duo met while both were employed at Sherwin-Williams. Ms. Hiller was a color stylist in Cleveland, Ohio, looking for a way to launch her idea for a television design program. She met Mr. Fox, then a sales representative for the company in San Francisco, at a dinner where he won a sales award. He knew how to build furniture and had a background in theater. She told him about her concept for a television show. The two began working together to create a plan, and Mr. Fox relocated to Cleveland. After their presentation impressed an executive at Sherwin-Williams, who gave them $10,000 to do a pilot, doors began to open. “It was amazing,” Ms. Hiller said.

In 1992-93, the Hiller/Fox team learned the ropes while appearing on a local access cable show in Cleveland and then pitched their idea to the brand new HGTV network. “They signed us on. The first day, they flipped the switch, and we were on the network,” Mr. Fox remembered. The pair’s chemistry together, part on-air banter, part friendly manner, has continued to build an audience for the show since then. “People watch us and they like us. They say we’re like their neighbors,” Mr. Fox says.

 

 

 Matt Fox (front), Shari Hiller (center), and the folks that help with the rooms (back row): Pete Lora, Jennifer Cuthberson, and Dee Ashburn

Since they began collaborating in the early ‘90s, Ms. Hiller and Mr. Fox have worked on hundreds of homes. The work is done in real houses instead of a studio setting. Viewers send in photos of their homes to be considered for decorating help. Because the show is based in Cleveland, Ohio, all homes chosen for the program are in the Cleveland area. Despite the fact that the show’s hosts have attained celebrity status (they do online chats with fans, make special appearances, and do presentations at trade shows), the work is still very hands-on for them.

“You go in, you talk with the homeowners… find out their likes and dislikes,” Ms. Hiller said, describing the process. “I usually tell them to pull ideas from books and magazines and pull that ‘inspiration’ piece.’” Then, the shopping begins.

Although they work with behind-the-scenes helpers, Ms. Hiller and Mr. Fox average 12-hour days onsite. They say they spend two to four weeks in each home where they try to work on two rooms to maximize their time and resources. As if their days weren’t full enough, they continue developing projects to keep them busy.

Fans will be happy to know that the Hiller/Fox team recently launched their own website, mattandshari.com, chock full of decorating ideas and tips. And they have a new project underway for 2004 to introduce “Matt and Shari Design by Mail.” They feel bad, Ms. Hiller said, when they have to refuse requests to decorate homes outside the Cleveland area. “We’re trying to figure out a way to reach everyone,” she said.
 


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