The Vidivixi founder explains how he surmounted the competition and chats with finalist Arielle Assouline-Lichten about tackling their biggest challenge yet: designing an entire furniture collection for judge Brigette Romanek’s storied Laurel Canyon estate.BY RYAN WADDOUPS May 20, 2021
When speaking toMark Grattan and Arielle Assouline-Lichten about the challenges they faced while filming “Ellen’s Next Great Designer,” the finale of which is now streaming on HBO Max, it’s clear that neither knew what to expect. If one thing is obvious, however, the two finalists knew how to roll with the punches.
For those unlike myself who haven’t been obsessing over the show since it debuted, here’s a quick premise. The seven contestants—Vidivixi founder Mark Grattan, Indo- founder Urvi Sharma, Artless founder Alejandro Artigas, Slash Objects founder Arielle Assouline-Lichten, Christina Z Antonio, Erica Sellers, and Paul Rene Furniture founder Paul Jeffrey—were tasked each week with creating a piece of furniture around certain parameters. During the first week, for example, giant slabs of stone and raw pieces of wood were delivered to their studios. The following week, they were given an artwork from Portia de Rossi’s art company General Public to use as inspiration. The interior designer Brigette Romanek, actor and furniture enthusiast Scott Foley, and designer Fernando Mastrangelo served as judges, ultimately deciding who goes home and who remains in the running for the $100,000 grand prize.
Though there were some close calls, both Grattan and Assouline-Lichten prevailed as the final two contestants. In the series finale, they faced their biggest challenge yet: designing an entire furniture collection from scratch across four days to furnish the living room of Romanek’s picturesque Laurel Canyon estate. Both designers worked from a shared woodworking studio in Los Angeles—an unfamiliar city where neither had their valuable network of artisans and fabricators. Despite the grueling time crunch and continuous unforeseen obstacles, both designers kept their composure to deliver formidable, showroom-ready collections that serve as impressive additions to their oeuvre.
Grattan named his collection “A Seat at the Table” (he was listening to Solange on repeat during the design process)—it consists of a velvet sofa, bronzed glass coffee table, walnut side table, and stainless steel and walnut credenza marked by Vidivixi’s signature graceful curves and Italian retro sensibilities. Assouline-Lichten, meanwhile, delivered “The Rift,” a collection whose forms evoke California’s tectonic plates while featuring her signature blend of natural materials—this time, onyx and brass—across a floor lamp, coffee table, console table, and daybed. Each collection thoroughly impressed the judges, who agonized over who should take home the grand prize. During the deliberation process, they praised Assouline-Lichten’s unparalleled consistency and elegance and the boldness of Grattan’s strikingly original vision.
Of course, there could only be one winner. Though the judging process truly came down to the wire, Grattan was ultimately named Ellen’s Next Great Designer and received the $100,000 grand prize—as well as an invitation to design a few pieces for ED by Ellen, DeGeneres’s furniture line. We caught up with both designers, who dished on staying calm during the final challenge, how to design four pieces of furniture in four days, and staying true to their competition mindset.
What was going through your mind when you first walked into Brigette’s home?
Arielle: I was overwhelmed with Hollywood glamour. Her house is set in Laurel Canyon on this incredible hill, there’s greenery everywhere, and the path up to the house is extremely beautiful. Being there felt like the culmination of all my work so far. Brigette is also so chic.
Mark: So chic. Since day one, I wanted her to be my second mother. What I noticed most is her impeccable furniture collection. Everything in her house was an inspiration to my work, my geometry, and my materials at some point. Her style is very eclectic. Her Italian pieces are out of this world, and some I’d only seen virtually, never in real life. That was very exciting. I knew that I’d have a great time aligning her aesthetic with mine because they’re so compatible.
Arielle: There’s something about how she renovated her home, which has an incredible history. It was Houdini’s home once, and some incredible artists recorded music there. I found it so inspiring to think about the greatness created there in the past. For me, it was really about tapping into that and aspiring to create something that could match the level the space was providing.
Mark: Jay-Z recorded there, The Beatles, Steven Tyler, the Red Hot Chili Peppers… there’s even a hidden tunnel where Houdini’s mistress would escape and come back.
Arielle: I also love how she merged contemporary details with architectural historical details, like how the moldings were kept. It still felt really modern. It also shows why she appreciated our work—it has that element of refinement and diverse perspectives on how to bring furniture together.
You were asked to create an entire furniture collection within four days for a magnificent home with great provenance. What were some challenges associated with this?
Arielle: Mark, I feel like you already knew what you were gonna make.
Mark: I didn’t! It was really stressful being in a completely unknown landscape. It’s one thing to build one piece in a week using vendors who you know. Building an entire collection in L.A. during a pandemic… They really set us up to fail! We didn’t know who to call or where to get anything.
Arielle: It was also a weekend. I wasn’t expecting to make four pieces in four days. I thought it might be two pieces, so I prepared to make a pair. Doubling that while considering the space and time frame was an insane amount of pressure. I’m honestly shocked that I pulled anything off.
Mark: I was relieved that we had to design a collection, because I love doing that.
Arielle: I wanted my pieces to feel like they were a collection, but it’s almost antithetical to putting them in the same space. I kept confronting what should get priority—the fact that they’re a collection with the same visual language or how they should be paired together in one space. Usually, you don’t style a living room with four pieces by the same designer, so figuring out how the pieces can coexist so closely without competing was a funny push-pull. That, and making the space feel like a natural living room arrangement. The nice thing, though, is that we walked in and immediately knew which side of the living room we wanted.
Mark: I think they expected a tiff about that.
On the subject of tiffs, you also shared a woodshop during this high-pressure situation.
Mark: We were fighting over the helpers at one point, but Arielle did most of her work off-site.
Arielle: Your coffee table appeared out of nowhere! You’re right though, I was out sourcing stones at the marble yard for a day. When it got down to the wire, we stayed out of each other’s way.
Mark: Our helpers were really equipped, efficient, and well-versed in the shop. We couldn’t have done it without them. We both had five workers to share.
Arielle: I’ve only really created in Brooklyn with my same fabricators, so it felt like a test to see what my work might look like in a different environment.
There were so many unforeseen obstacles in every challenge, but in this particular episode it was building and fabricating everything in an unfamiliar city.
Arielle: I felt out of my element because I never work in a woodshop. Mark is a woodworker, which isn’t my training. I was trying to figure out how to put these helpers to work because I needed to give them things to do. I didn’t know anyone in L.A. and was scrambling to find someone to produce anything for me in a short turnaround time. I ended up relying on Alejandro’s contacts, which was a lifesaver! I wouldn’t have had anything to show without him.
Mark: Normally, I would’ve been more diverse with materials. I used metal and upholstery, but my pieces were mostly wood. I made sure to keep that on lock because I didn’t have any contacts either. It was safer for me to do innovative woodwork, but I don’t know how innovative it really was…
I think you’re selling yourself a little short!
Mark: I made sure that I could handle the process, like stretching forms over a fabric, making cabinets, or routing rings out of wood. Except for the coffee table, most of it was made in house.
Arielle: For my coffee table, the pieces didn’t come in until the last day. I kept thinking, “Oh my god, how is this gonna fit together?” Normally, the tolerances are so specific, and for my pieces to look the way they do, there needs to be a small tolerance that allows the pieces to fit beautifully and actually function. Waiting until the last minute was extremely nerve-wracking because it depends on each trade to work as close to spec as possible. Luckily, they came through.
For many of the challenges, it felt like everyone was putting it together at the last minute. Usually design is a lengthy, iterative process, so it was mind-blowing to see that.
Mark: You have to go with your instinct! There was no time to question yourself. I always second guess my direction. We had to pick a road and not turn around. Trust yourself, trust the process, trust your motivation, trust the universe…
Arielle: The time constraints forced you to make quick decisions and tap into your intuition and adrenaline. The final was overwhelming! You had to tap into that times four, and trust that you were making the right decisions at every turn.
Mark: If you weren’t making the right decision, you had to make the second right decision because otherwise you were going home.
After this, do you think you’ll be a “faster” designer?
Arielle: I don’t think I’ll ever do four pieces in four days again, but I could definitely design one piece in a week. I never thought that was achievable. It’s not a bad way to test out ideas super quickly.
Mark: It’s a good way to look inward and have more confidence. It’s achievable for television, but maybe not for a showroom. As you know, Scott broke something of mine in almost every episode.
Arielle: The cost to produce is super high, so furniture needs to be impeccable for a design fair. There’s more room to hide things on a TV show.
What do you think programs like this are accomplishing for the design industry?
Arielle: We tend to have a conversation with ourselves within design. A show like this can help teach a broader audience about what the process of design actually is, and the value of creating one-of-a-kind furniture pieces and how to experiment with new ideas. There are shows like this in food and fashion, so why aren’t there any in furniture? So many people are fascinated by it. I also feel like the American furniture design world has started to transform its voice in the past decade, which is an interesting thing to put on display.
Mark: One of the reasons I decided to do this show was to give Brown and Black kids more exposure to what’s possible outside a blue-collar or white-collar jobs. That’s my biggest hope. Black people can be just as creative and beautiful and successful and innovative.
It was great to see what you could produce given all the constraints and obstacles.
Mark: Arielle definitely helped me win, and I mean that in the best way. She’s a very strong designer and I wouldn’t have pushed myself as far if she wasn’t there.
Arielle: I honestly feel the same. I’m glad that I challenged you. Besides filling Brigette’s beautiful home with incredible pieces, the biggest challenge was competing against a designer who I respect—all within four days. Taking it away with a positive note!
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