Leslie Shapiro Joyal: Minimalism Meets Reality TV on Ellen’s Design Challenge

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An L.A.-based minimalist furniture designer delves into the chaotic, hyperbolic world of reality television.

If you’ve been watching HGTV’s new show, Ellen’s Design Challenge, you’ll know the series came to a strange end this week with the anointing — and then, in a weird add-on epilogue — the disqualifying of the “Colorado cowboy” carpenter Tim McClellan on grounds of plagiarism.

The twitterverse has been in an uproar, with many coming to the defense of McClellan.  Ellen promises an interview with Tim on her show t0morrow.

Meanwhile, we had been interested in the experience of one of the other competitors on the show: LA native and longtime designer Leslie Shapiro Joyal.

Joyal, an alumnus of the late LA designer Franklin Israel, was invited to compete on the strength of her carefully crafted, locally sourced, minimalist furniture.

She was then unceremoniously booted from the show on the second episode, having been depicted from the start of the series as a difficult character.  To add insult to injury, a judge inferred the loving mother-of-two (above, with her daughters) was indifferent to babies’ safety with her unfussy design for a baby changing station-come-cabinet.

So we wanted to know more about Leslie, her work and her experience with reality TV.

We met her in her storefront on Fairfax and asked her: what happens when you bring understated, heirloom furniture to the hyperbolic world of reality TV? How real was her “reality” TV time? Was it all worth it?

Find out below.

DnA: Tell us how you got into furniture design.

LJ: I love art and design, but I had this image of the starving artist and so I decided to go into design. And I found that my best place in design was actually within the world of architecture. It was a really good fit for me. I came out of design school, and I met Frank Israel, and I was hired to be Frank’s right hand girl.

Frank Israel was and is still a very well known Los Angeles architect, a modernist; he was heavily influenced by Schindler and the modernists of Los Angeles and he was just a really amazing designer, an amazing personality. Frank Gehry is widely known as Big Frank and Frank Israel was known as Little Frank.

Little Frank was a teacher at UCLA and really influenced so so many people in the world of design. That office that world, it became like home to me I was there with Annie Chu and Rick Gooding and the late Stephen Shortridge and the moment that I walked into that office I knew that I was exactly where I needed to be.

On where Leslie sources the wood for her furniture: ” They are sourced locally, and they have been for twenty years, and I have a love of solid wood because of the longevity factor. For me, the celebration is the purity of the material. It’s about letting the wood be the wood not putting too many finishes on it, not changing it too much, maybe just putting a clear oil on it and letting it speak for itself.” (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: And so you stayed there until Frank passed in the mid-nineties and then built your own firm?

LJ: From Frank’s, I went on to Lubowicki Lanier Architecture. I worked for Paul and Sue, who had worked for Big Frank, and they were actually put on the Chiat/Day/Mojo in the iconic binocular building in Venice, and so we worked on that project. It was so ahead of its time — a virtual office where desks were taken away and people were able to just work with their laptops and sort of plop down at these different stations, and I mean this is what we do now, but this goes back twenty years.

DnA: And it was quite shocking at the time; I seem to remember that the staffers weren’t necessarily comfortable with that arrangement.

LJ: Well, yeah, because all of a sudden they no longer had desks where they could put their their framed pictures of their kids, so it was revolutionary and now it would work. But back then it was challenging, you had a lot of people that were trying to get used to all of this, but it it was nothing short of brilliant. It just made perfect sense, but it was simply ahead of its time.

DnA: Did you have any role in that design?

LJ: I helped with the interiors. I helped with the materials, and that was such a nice role for me, because I was always around architects, and I could think in their language, but I could bring the whole side of interiors and materials and introduce them to materials that would work within that world. Because back then this is 1993, ’94, ’95, when the worlds of architecture and interior design were really two different worlds, they didn’t cross the way that they do now.

“Everything is made to order, but I do have a catalogue of pieces, I have pieces that are designed to be certain sizes. But I make them one at a time, I make them in whatever wood the client wants, and we will modify according to a client’s specific needs. That’s the strength of building locally is that I can make it two inches larger, or really work the design so that the client gets exactly what he or she wants,” says Leslie on her production process. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: But then you got into doing furniture design, is that correct?

LJ: I always had a love of furniture. After the Chiat/Day/Mojo project was finished, I knew at that point that I needed probably to start my own business, and so I did. One of the things that would happen is I could never find the furniture that I wanted to put in the projects. I would see things that were wonderful, but maybe had too much finish on them or too much ornamentation. I really was fascinated more with form.

And so I simply started to design it myself, and that worked really well, I was able to get commissions for my furniture from clients. And then of course I was well connected within the architecture world, and so many of the architects would come to me for the furniture, so I was feeding a need that was there.

Leslie’s profile image from Ellen’s Design Challenge. Courtesy of HGTV. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: So you have this highly regarded and well established business. But you decided to put yourself on Ellen’s Design Challenge. How did you get involved in the show?

LJ: This is so silly, but literally one night I was doing homework with my now 14-year old and I was just looking through my e-mail and deleting certain messages and I deleted one and something in my brain said I think you should read that one. And I read it, and it was actually an invitation to apply for the show, and I thought it was spam and I read it again, and then I applied and the rest is history.

We didn’t know back then that it was Ellen or HGTV.

I have two daughters, and I have been telling them that you have to embrace fear, and you have to walk through it, whatever it is. And so this for me was certainly scary to put myself out there and show my process to the world, but my girls looked at me and said, you know Mama you should walk through your fear.

And so I took a deep breath, and I said well let’s see what happens with this. And I got a call the next day and they were so excited, because they said, you are a woman in a male-dominated business and you’ve been there for a long time, and we love what you do. And so then I was thoroughly vetted, and then came the phone call that the show was Ellen’s, who I regard so highly, I mean all the people in Los Angeles know how refined her eye is.

And HGTV is obviously a very well-known station, so I just said let’s go do this. I’m actually very shy, but I think that once there it became so surreal that you couldn’t even think about it; you just kind of had to go.

DnA: What was surreal about the experience?

LJ: All the cameras from the first minute. And as far as the challenges themselves, they were really, really fun, but I think just having to make decisions knowing that everyone was watching was very surreal. I mean there were moments that I had a camera three inches from my face and I’m sweating and I know that that vein is just popping out of the side of my head, and there’s nothing you can do. And I thought of my girls like, well, here I am, thanks a lot.

DnA: How did the challenge piece work? What was the actual behind the scenes process?

LJ: The challenges were completely real, we were not given them until the final moment that you actually see it. We had very very little time. We were being pulled away to do interviews, we were being pulled away for lunch and all sorts of things would happen. The environment was constraining us in so many different ways, so even when they said it was a 24-hour challenge, I think we probably had something like nine to ten hours to really complete a project.

DnA: And you were paired with a carpenter and in your case, viewers were given the impression that you two didn’t get along. But how did the process of working together work? Did you sit down with him at a table with sheets of paper and draw up your ideas?

LJ: Part of why I wanted to do the show so much was that I really wanted to show the process. I am so excited when I get to think something up or collaborate with somebody and actually have it be created– that is just a wonderful thing.

I met my carpenter and we were given the challenge and we hardly got any time to know each other. The editing is what it is.

Again, if a person looks at his own day in a 24-hour period there are highs and lows to any day.

I make my living getting along with carpenters, and so this is not an area that I had any concern about whatsoever. But you’re going very quickly, and you have materials flying all over the place, so all of your emotions come out. On many jobs throughout my career, things don’t go the way that you want them to all the time, and so you know you might have a little profanity here and there but then you get on with it, right? I thought that we did wonderful pieces.

“The first challenge was about building a piece that showed who you were as a designer, and I absolutely feel that I did that. I’m known for craftsmanship. I’m known for leaning towards minimalist sensibilities, and I’m known for detail work, and I designed a lovely piece and I think that David (my carpenter) executed it beautifully.” Image courtesy of HGTV. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: I was intrigued at the judges’ response to your first piece, a very minimalist wall hanging, because the jury included the editor in chief of Dwell, Amanda Dameron, and you would think that  your first piece would be catnip for her.

But in fact they were somewhat critical of your piece and they embraced the piece by Katie Stout, that had Postmodernism circa 1983 written all over it. Were you surprised that there wasn’t at least one juror who was really coming out for plain and simple?

LJ: Well, the reality is that the judging panels were much, much longer than what was shown on TV. And so we would be there for twenty minutes talking to the judges. For each of us, when we walked away, we felt that we had been given a nice critique like you would get in design school, there were pros and cons, and it really was just a discussion.

But it would have been nice to show a little bit more of each person’s story, because the story is such a big part of the piece, particularly in that first challenge when they asked us to design a piece that told who we were. So for me designing such a quiet piece, it was very risky because, you put that piece out there and with no story behind it people are looking basically at a board with some teeny, tiny what they think are shelves. They weren’t shelves at all, they were picture ledges. It told the story of each person and what they decide to put on the picture ledge.

So you could really change the whole thing however you want it.

DnA: And anyone coming to these shows hoping to learn about the process of design, one is not necessarily learning that lesson, and nor are we learning about your design ideology, we weren’t learning about your commitment to locally manufactured materials and that kind of thing.

LJ: My take on that is that there there simply isn’t enough time to show what everybody is about. I think it would have been fabulous if we had designer profiles almost like the Olympics, where you fall in love with the people before you even get to see them compete, and so you have something really invested in the person. I know that I certainly would have benefitted from that, because what I do is very minimal.

I will never apologize for that, I love what I do I love the furniture that I put out. But to a person that hasn’t been shown that backstory it may not make as much sense.

Christiane Lemieux, Executive Creative Director, Wayfair.com, and judge on Ellen’s Design Challenge, pushes a changing mat off Shapiro Joyal’s design in a dramatic gesture on Episode 2. The implication was that this piece of furniture was dangerous for a baby. Image courtesy of HGTV. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: Now what about the second episode where you wound up getting eliminated. You created a storage unit for baby items and you were essentially charged with creating a piece of furniture that was dangerous for a baby.

LJ: I have two teenage daughters, and so I can happily say that they made it through every amount of neglect and abuse that I put them through. I could debate that whole situation forever. I’m not sure that I need to, I think that there were dramatics that were put there. I knew that at that moment I was a deer in the headlights. I did not know what to do with that moment, and I did not want to get defensive. When she (Christiane Lemieux, Executive Creative Director, Wayfair.com, and judge on Ellen’s Design Challenge) threw the changing pad off the table — I mean what are you gonna do. It’s like this has been a fun ride, see ya on the next plane! There’s nothing that you can do.

I’ve designed tons of baby items, and so that challenge was interesting, because I had actually designed a unique piece. It didn’t have rails but it it just addressed the whole storage issue very differently. I did think about putting rails on it but I also knew that any parent that is changing a baby has got one hand on the baby at all times, you simply never leave the baby floating in space. And I also know that a dresser goes up against a wall, so you have an instant barrier behind.

So that nasty five year old that’s going to push the baby off, just really it doesn’t exist. You change your baby everywhere. You change your baby in the back of a car, you change your baby on the bed, you change your baby really in a lot of places that don’t have safety rails, and so I didn’t think that that was going to be the one thing that came back to haunt me.

Those drawers were so beautifully designed, if they had opened up those doors there were one hundred diapers in there it had everything that a parent would have needed.

The way I see it is, these are prototypes, it’s nothing that four little things of Velcro couldn’t fix if you’re really worried about your baby going flying along the countertop like a thing of beer. That changing pad was the most slippery changing pad that there is. So there are all sorts of changing pads now that have latex or you could have put it in a tray. Never for a moment did I think that that was going to happen.


DnA: When you then watched back the the episodes, what does it feel like looking at yourself?

LJ: That actually feels surreal. I was glad that I did not lose my temper, and I didn’t let my feist get the best of me. No matter what I did, it’s still going to look a certain way to a certain viewer. The hardest part of that I think is when it came back to my kids. My kids were very proud of me and I think watching their mom be portrayed as somebody very different than she is in real life, I think that when kids are involved it’s it’s a whole different set of rules.

DnA: And has the experience affected business one way or the other?

LJ: You know I’ve had clients that have been out of touch for years get back in touch with me. Some are angry–not at me. Many are just pleased to see that I’m still here. You know clients can be very protective; I mean, you form a bond with people that you’ve worked with for years and when somebody that cares about you feels that you’ve been misrepresented, certainly you know there are there can be some some bitter feelings about that. I feel really loved by my clients.

They applaud that I went through with the process, because most of the people that I’ve talked to, they just wouldn’t have done it. They they just said you are absolutely nuts to put yourself in that situation. I think it will be good for business, it’s a little soon to tell.

One thing that we’re doing that’s coming up that’s going to be tons of fun is a furniture show called LA SHO. And so April 10th, we’re going to have a show at Think Tank Gallery and it will have all the contestants or some of the contestants from Framework and from Ellen’s Design Challenge, so we all get to show our pieces in this gallery space in Los Angeles, and I think that’s great fun because now I can do something even more creative and more artistic.

DnA: And the finale proved to be a bit of a surprise even for you all. None of you could see it coming this “woodworking plagiarism” twist.

LJ: We didn’t know, I found out just last night, I was getting a text from another designer on the show so we were absolutely as surprised as anybody. Twitter is aflame. Design is one of those areas where we’re all influenced by past design. That’s a very gray line; was something plagiarized? Was it inspired by something else? I mean, anybody can really take any design and reference something. I mean Katie’s designs are absolutely lovely and they are very Memphis-esque. And so you could really go back and find references anywhere, so that that’s a hard one for me. I feel terrible for Tim, I think that he brought so much to the table. But then Katie did too. How do you choose a winner? I thought we were all really experts in our fields.

DnA: Was there anything else that you’ve sort of learned about yourself going through this process?

LJ: One of the things that I learned is that I really need to smile more when I talk. I know that when I’m thinking, I process a lot, and so I don’t necessarily smile, and so I would be in these interviews with people and I would be processing, and just looking as dry as anything, and I would smile right after with a big toothy smile, but you never saw any of that. So I’m more aware than ever of how I move in the world and how people see me.

DnA: And you got to meet Ellen!

LJ: I didn’t get to meet Ellen, and I was eliminated right before Ellen made her appearance. So I’m still hoping to meet Ellen, come on you’re in L.A. I’m in L.A. Let’s have lunch. One of the things that was so gratifying is that they made a big deal of telling us that Ellen was the one that handpicked us, and I did get to meet Portia. I’m very, very honored. I know that my work got seen by Ellen, and so that’s just terrific.

See the trailer for Ellen’s Design Challenge, below.