Listen to Austin 360 Radio

A Coffee With... Kris Swift, Season 7 contestant of HGTV's 'Design Star'

Austinite says what you see about him on HGTV competition is what you get in everyday life

Nicole Villalpando
nvillalpando@statesman.com

Last September, Kris Swift showed up at the Hyatt Regency on the shores of Lady Bird Lake for an open casting call. He walked into a packed room and knew that on this day, when he was juggling among the casting call and three meetings with clients, he couldn't stay.

The 34-year-old Austin interior decorator and principal of 10-year-old firm Future Design Now asked if he could come back later once his meetings were through.

The casting directors allowed it, and he's glad he didn't just blow off the audition. On Tuesday night, Swift watched the premiere of HGTV's "Design Star" as he always has; this time, though, he's one of the 12 finalists. The reality show with judges Genevieve Gorder and Vern Yip and mentor and first-season winner David Bromstad promises the winner a chance to have his or her own show on the channel.

For Swift, the show is the coming together of his studies at the University of Texas. He has a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of science studying acting, directing and production design. He also has a master's degree in convergent media, which allowed him to take classes from different departments — robotic lighting for theater, figure drawing, production design, color theory for architecture and more. Since leaving school, he's done work for private homes as well as for the Shore condominiums downtown and Nice Kicks shoe store on The Drag.

We chatted with Swift last week at Jo's Hot Coffee on South Congress Avenue about the show, his philosophy on design and why he loves Austin.

Even from that first audition for one of the three casting directors, Swift decided his intention would be to be authentic and to have fun.

"I'm big on authenticity," he says. "They better like you for who you are."

He passed and that lead to a screen test locally. Then he was flown to New York to audition there and do a screen test there.

At the audition, he was given 10 minutes to design a board for a room using a stack of tear sheets with furniture, décor, fabrics and paint swatches.

After the stopwatch hit the 10-minute mark, he presented his board.

The time constraints were new to Swift, but not the products. Being filmed also didn't bother him, he says. In the initial screen test, he says he laughed the entire time.

The show he says, should be informational and fun. "It shouldn't be a chore to watch someone on TV," he says.

The time constraints proved to be one of the most challenging things about being on the show. The long hours and shopping in a new city — Los Angeles — also tested his resolve.

The biggest surprise? How often you have to stop for production, he says. He'd be pulled from working on a project for on-camera interviews, for the union-required hour lunch and more technological aspects of the show. Don't think that he got a cushy schedule, though. Call times were often 5 a.m., and they worked late into the night.

"The constraints were out of control," he says. "Either it's the low budget or the time frame. ... they push you to your limit."

Swift says he tried to be smart about the shopping constraints. The finalists were given a list of stores and a description of the stored and they'd have to figure out where to go. They'd also have to go as a group, which lead to negotiating.

Even if he didn't like a store, Swift would walk around it and take mental notes for future challenges.

The contestants also are given a carpenter for some challenges, but Swift has no fear of tools and saws. Viewers also might see him wielding a pickaxe or a blow torch.

Swift is looking forward to watching the show to see what was going on with other contestants. He will tell you that when they say, "this year we raised the bar," it's true.

"There are times when I would walk around from room to room on a reveal and I was blown away by the quality of the spaces," he says.

Swift says his basic design philosophy is "risk equals rewards." He's not afraid to push boundaries, and have clients be blown out of the water when they see the results. His goal? "They don't like something, they love it. They are so overwhelmed they can't speak."

This summer, Swift is working on three projects in Austin, one in Los Angeles and one north of Toranto, where he was born and lived until he was in third-grade and moved to a suburb of Dallas.

He has no intention of leaving Austin, he says. Since he came here in the mid-'90s, he's seen Austin grow up in the quality of products offered to designers, but still keep its authenticity, he says. His favorite stores: Mercury, Uncommon Objects, Scott + Cooner as well as local artisans that he displays in his office.

Most of the time, he can get everything he needs for a project locally, but when he cannot, he's not afraid to look internationally.

What he hopes viewers will get to know about him is how he works and the importance he places on authenticity and understanding the client, not just creating something to meet his ego.

"What you see is what you get," he says. "I'm very authentic, highly enthusiastic. Hopefully my enthusiasm and positivity is contagious."

Contact Nicole Villalpando at 912-5900

'Design Star'