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Before Meg Caswell was ever on HGTV’s Design Star, she was already a sought after interior designer throughout Chicago and the North Shore. Interior design captured her imagination even in her youth, growing up in a house on Sheridan Road in Kenilworth. “I was already buying those builder magazines to learn about floor plans when I was 10 years old,” says Caswell. “I just always loved the whole space planning and visual aspect of it, even when I was a preteen. You’re supposed to be thinking about boys, not ‘Oh, your mom has beautiful wallpaper!’”
Despite her obvious love of design, she almost chose a very different path. Her undergraduate degree was in sociology and criminal justice. She had already served as a congressional intern in Washington and was preparing for her LSATs to enter law school when her grandfather stepped in and changed her life. “He told me that one of the best things about looking back on his entire life is that he did something he loved, and that because he loved it, he was successful at it,” remembers Caswell. “He asked me what I really wanted to do. I thought about it, and it was design, it was interiors.” That was all it took; he sent her to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she studied interior architecture. The defining difference between interior architects and interior designers is that the former have studied the structural elements involved in designing an interior, allowing them to envision a space more fully from a blueprint stage.
Caswell’s knack for capturing the personality of a space saw her graduating from school into a position at Ralph Lauren Home downtown on Michigan Avenue. Five years later, she opened her own design boutique in Lincoln Square, the first of its kind in the city, where people could stop in anytime to ask her advice on their decorating needs or just peruse her fabric samples or vintage objets d’art. The boutique took off immediately, but as her list of loyal clientele grew, so did Caswell’s next ambition. “I always told all my friends, ‘Oh, I want to have my own show one day,’” says Caswell. “I was telling a client one night about how I wanted to have my own show and she goes, ‘Well, why don’t you just try out for Design Star?’”
The next day, Caswell received an email inviting her to an open casting call that Design Star was hosting in Chicago. “I was like, ‘This is fate!’” she says. “So I went and I sat in line with everyone else. I walked in and I was myself and I showed them my portfolio, and they were like, ‘Great, we want to see you Monday. We love your energy, you’re experienced, you’re established.’” Before she knew it, she was on her way to New York to compete against 12 other designers on television.
“It was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says Caswell. “It was a combination of the most extreme emotional stress and physical stress at the same time. And you’re isolated from your world and your family—no phones, no television, no magazines, no Internet, nothing. Your inspiration seriously only comes from inside of you. I wouldn’t trade it in for anything in the world, but it was difficult.”
Caswell distinguished herself from the other designers in the first episode during their first camera challenge when she stared down the camera and pitched them an amazing concept for a design show by inventing “Design Crimes.” Combining her disparate backgrounds of interior architecture and criminal justice, she would educate viewers in the methods of good design by pointing out various design misdemeanors and felonies as found in a subject’s home. She would then interrogate the homeowners and use her education in profiling to create the perfect environment to suit their personality. “A week before I left, I realized that if I was going there to compete for my own show, I better figure out what that show was going to be,” she says. “Five minutes later, I’m like, ‘DESIGN CRIMES!’ But I didn’t know where that was going to pop up, and it happened the very first challenge. I just said all of that off the cuff.” She hasn’t heard the end of “Design Crimes” since.
So after wanting to spread her unique brand of design justice for so long, how was it to finally see herself on television? “It’s very odd, because everyone has their own perception of themselves,” she says. “So I’m watching myself going, ‘Oh. Do I really sound like that? I’m sing-songy, the way I talk?’ I’ve never heard my inflections in my voice before. But anyone who’s upset with the way a reality show might edit something is because they’re not happy with themselves. Anyone who says, ‘Well, they edit it weird! They put it together wrong!’ That’s all a bunch of baloney because they can’t put words in your mouth.”
Her whirlwind experience competing in all of the show’s design challenges also granted her unique access to many of the resources available to New York designers, making coming home that much sweeter. “Chicago is the second city? Not really,” says Caswell. “We’ve kind of surpassed New York. I was exposed to all of what they have, and if people really go out in Chicago and dig for the cool resources, they’ll see that we are just as good as New York. And our Merchandise Mart is one of the best resources in the country. It’s insane, what we have down there on the river.”
Look for Meg Caswell on her new show, Great Rooms on HGTV.