HGTV Design Star judge Vern Yip is an award-winning architect and interior designer. He gained national acclaim through his private design practice and as a designer on TLC’s Trading Spaces, NBC’s Home Intervention and HGTV’s Deserving Design. He is frequently seen on such television shows as Today, The Early Show, Oprah and Live! With Regis and Kelly. Vern sat down with HGTV’s Lindsey Weidhorn to dish on his amazing interior design journey and why he says gray is the new neutral.
1. When did you realize you wanted to be a designer?
It is pretty crazy to say this, but I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to design. My parents brought me over from Hong Kong when I was two months old. They had previously fled Communist China and wanted me to have access to the best schooling possible. By doing this, they made major career sacrifices. My dad, who was a biochemist, took a job as a busboy at the Marriott hotel in Arlington, Virginia and my mom, who was a child psychiatrist, took a job washing floors in a bank. Of course, knowing all of the sacrifices they had made for me, I wanted to please them. They wanted me to be a doctor because that is a revered profession in Chinese culture and a stable job. I knew, however, that I loved to design. After finishing the pre-med program at The University of Virginia, I took the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) and got into medical school, but two weeks before school started, I told my mom that I couldn’t go through with it because I needed to design. She was not surprised. Moms are never surprised.
All I ever did as a kid was draw homes and then construct them out of Legos. I never wanted to go to soccer practice or practice my violin. I just wanted to hang at the National Gallery of Art and sketch. It was pretty obvious from the beginning that design was a passion. When I finally made my decision to go to graduate school in architecture instead of medical school, my mom took me to New York to meet with famed architect I.M. Pei so I could ask him where to go to school. He was — and still is — a hero to me. He told me his best interns were all coming out of Georgia Tech, so that fall, I enrolled at their School of Architecture and the rest is history.
2. What was your first design job?
My first design job was helping my mom with retail design. I started designing the store windows for two retail stores that she had opened when I was about six years old. When I was ten, she had me design the plans and elevations for the addition to our home — and then she actually had them built! Thank goodness my mom was always supportive of my creative endeavors. When I was thirteen, I designed my bedroom furniture out of polished chrome and glass, which my mom also had made. I remember my sister coming back for a visit and declaring that my room looked like a bank vault. My first real professional design job was the corporate headquarters for Disney Cruise right before they launched the cruise division. I was working for the largest firm in the southeast and couldn’t believe my good fortune. From that point onward, I worked in both architecture and interior design and never looked back.
3. Who (or what) do you think has the biggest influence on the design world right now?
Without question, the biggest influence on the design world right now is travel. Travel is full of the history and influences of different cultures. Fashion, the environment, and the media all have influences on design but it all ties back to experiencing something from the vantage point of someone who has a different perspective. Without travel, there would be no differences in fashion and in the media, and the environmental cause would not be understood nearly as well. Understanding travel’s impact on design can be as immediate as seeing the rise of eclectic design over the past 20 years or as abstract as trying to understand why gray has become the new neutral.
4. What is the one thing EVERY living room should have?
Aside from a fantastic space plan, every living room should have a very personal and meaningful piece of art. I’m constantly surprised by how low on the priority list art often is. Your home should be a reflection of you. It should be a manifestation of what you love and your experiences. I have seen so many people spend significant time researching the right sofa or coffee table and then slap a framed poster on the wall or a landscape from a mass retailer to just fill the wall space. After you’ve experienced having art that is actually meaningful to you on your walls, you’ll never be able to go back! There is also a huge misconception that art has to be expensive. It does not. Art can be very accessible, especially in the realm of photography. If you actually know what you are doing, art also has the ability to appreciate, which cannot be said for most furniture. If you’re still stuck for ideas, try hiring someone to take artistic photos of you and your family or enlarge some of your most scenic photos from your favorite vacation or your honeymoon. When someone walks into your living room, you should be able to tell them a personal and meaningful story as to why that piece of art is hanging on your wall!