St Augustine, St Johns County Real Estate & Home Staging


HGTV's Design Star, Home Staging and the White Box Challenge

Have you been watching HGTV's hit show Design Star?  Did you know that there is a home stager this year?  Cathy Hobbs, a world traveller and home stager in NY did very well during the first challenge when presented with a living room and furniture showroom to choose items from.  The white box challenge presented completely different obstacles. 

*****  This will discuss last night's show, so if you didn't see it, don't read below this point *******

Earlier this year I was sent a personal invitation to try out for Design Star.  I thought about it briefly but in the end realized that I'm a home stager, not a designer.  Now I know that some home stagers are designers so I don't want to say that this is true of all home stagers.  For me, this was a pretty easy decision.  My family, including extended family, thought I was crazy.  For me, the bottom line is that I wouldn't want to play unless I was playing to win.  Winning would be terrible though because the last thing I want is my own TV show. 

When the show came on last night and the white box challenge was revealed, the first thing that I said was, "And this is exactly why I didn't want to try out."  The thought of going to a home improvement store and creating a purely aesthetic room, no functionality needed, horrifies me. 

Cathy Hobbs

Cathy, while she rocked her on-air performance was told she was too controlled.  The judges stated her room was traditional. Vern Yip during the elimination told Cathy that Staging was the antithesis of this challenge and that she needed to let go of that control and bring out the creativity. 

To me, it is often this control that makes us really good stagers.  We are here to provide control in an orderly way that appeals to a large group of people (within the demographics of the likely buyer). 

While we are often required to "think outside the box" and be creative, the wild side of the winning room is not typically part of our job description.

Few home stagers have taken on a challenge like the white box challenge.  We've yet to see one on HGTV do it justice.  Oh sure, we've had our share of vanilla box homes that we've had to stylize into perfection.  But how often do we really do the unexpected? 

winning white roomThe winning Design Star contestant really understood the conceptualism that the challenge expected.  It was less about making an inviting living space and more about making something INTERESTING. 

As a home stager, if we saw a room like this in a home we would likely tell them to paint it and change things up so they were more.... well, boring - but conventional.

I'm anxious to watch and see if Cathy can let her hair down.  I really hope she can.  I think it would be a very powerful statement for our industry and a personal victory for her.  On a personal level, however I feel that she, like most of us is so used to working within the bound of "safe" that this is going to be more of a challenge to her than many of the other designers.  In this case, it's not about good or bad design.  It is about letting go and finding your inner style.  Control, one of the factors that makes us so good at what we do in our business is going to be her hardest obstacle to overcome.



 Author Bio: Melissa Marro, Home Staging Industry leader, Realtor, and entrepreneur offers a unique perspective on New Home Construction, Resale Residential Real Estate, and Home Staging

For more information on buying or selling in the Fleming Island, Orange Park, or Jacksonville, area, visit or call Melissa Marro (marro.melissa at, Keller Williams First Coast Realty, for more information (904-466-2093).


Comment balloon 19 commentsMelissa Marro • July 19 2011 01:53PM


I love your post! I'm trying to figure out what the "winner" was going for: Dog-feeding room?, Chef without a Bowl? Spread your wings & have a bowl? Landing Strip?

I really like Cathy Hobbs room. It has some "design" elements, so it certainly isn't boring. And it looks comfortable, which is what the ultimate goal for a real room should be.


Posted by Sharon Sein (Sein Organizing Solutions & Home Staging) about 8 years ago

I just watched last night's show and I totally agree with you, Melissa.  I loved the winning room for it's artistic conception, and I totally understood Cathy's difficulties.  I would have the same problem.  I'm not wildly outside-the-box creative.  Being told to design a room without regard to function would probably make me!

Posted by Beth Lester, Home Staging & Interior Decorating (Beth Lester Designs) about 8 years ago

Sharon - dog feeding room.... lol.  I agree that the function of a real room is comfort.  Of course that's not what this challenge was about, hence the difficulty for Cathy, IMO. 

Beth - I also though the water bottle room was pretty amazing in conception, but again, a completely unrealistic space.  Thinking only conceptually with complete disregard for function would make me crazy too....

Posted by Melissa Marro, Jacksonville Real Estate and Home Staging (Keller Williams First Coast Realty - The Marro Team) about 8 years ago

Matt Finlason, HGTV's host of The Stagers, had this to say about this blog on FB "Stagers step outside of your comfort zones. The industry has evolved and the current market trend requires greater levels of creativity even in a home stage. Let go of neutral once you have dialed in your demographic and merchandise lifestyle. Grab people's attention and do not let go."

Personally, after watching the way the end product of many of the stagers who've taken Matthew's SAR Advanced Staging Class, I've been wondering how they would do.  I love watching the creativity that many of them have unleashed in their staging.  The job is still controlled as it pays homage to the demographic that the home should appeal to but within the demographic I've seen some incredibly beautiful and creative design. 

Posted by Melissa Marro, Jacksonville Real Estate and Home Staging (Keller Williams First Coast Realty - The Marro Team) about 8 years ago

Good blog post and review Melissa.  Last night's winners reminded me of those designer fashion shows where the "best" clothing is often totally impractical and frequently bizarre.  I enjoyed the over-the-top non-functional rooms last night but, like most, I am too "controlled" to even think in the direction that these contestants had to.  It WILL be interesting to see how it plays out.  Wishing Cathy the best with her efforts!!

Posted by Ginger Foust, Home Stager Oakhurst CA, Dream Interior Redesign & Staging (Certified Staging Professional) about 8 years ago

My pick for best room was Tyler's.

Sorry, but so far, I am not a Cathy Hobbs fan.  I'd like to be won over!  There were a couple of rooms in her portfolio that I liked

In the first challenge, she was responsible for a totally unfunctional built-in bench; the rest of her (and Leslie's) efforts went into shopping.  I thought her white box room was sterile - very UN-Barcelona.  I mean, white mosaic on a white table top?  Why bother?

This is a competition for a design show on TV where you need not only a distinct personal style but an over-the-top personality - not that of a TV reporter.  So she's competing as a designer - not a stager (even though that's how Vern described her, and yes, I know she's also a stager).  According to HGTV, "Cathy now owns a flourishing interior design company and specializes in residential and commercial properties. She says that her signature design style includes Asian influences paired with touches of Hollywood glamour."  HGTV's website does not focus on her being a stager - I don't think it even mentions it.  So why did Vern bring that up???  Was that a slam?

I know that many stagers ARE also designers and can easily move between the two job descriptions.  She really does need to loosen up, get a little crazy, mess her hair, wear a fun top, smile a lot more, and (like Tyra) smize with her eyes. 

Here's my question:  Why were so many of the designers freaked out by the white box challenge???  Didn't they know by now that it's a staple of the show???  I fantasize about doing it all the time!!!  I'm ready - call me!

Another question:  What happened to Clive?

And shame on you, MM, for denying the rest of us the pleasure of cheering YOU on to win Design Star.  Boo!  But I'm glad you're here sharing with us again.  OK, enough of my blather...

Posted by Julia Maher, Connecticut Home Stager (Nestings: Connecticut Home Staging and Model Homes) about 8 years ago

Ginger - I agree.  There will be other challenges that will be more practical.  The next one will be a homeowner challenge, so definitely will need to be practical as well as beautiful.  I hope she listens to the judges and loosens up.  This will be a good one to see what's she's got.

Julia - I haven't read her bio or been to her website.  I only know what I saw on TV.  Everytime they flash her name it says Designer/Home Stager and that's how she was introduced.  I certainly would hope that Vern wasn't mocking home stagers.

I read a blog by Clive a few months back, that unfortunately I cannot find now.  It said that they opted not to renew his contract and were going in a different direction.  So far I'm not loving the new host and miss his great personality and frankly his voice. 

As for getting a tongue lashing on not interviewing for the show.... as it turned out I would have had to leave in the middle of filming with the health issues that cropped up this year.  I guess it all turned out as it was supposed to.  I did send one of my team members and she made it to #16 before getting cut.  So close but so far!

Posted by Melissa Marro, Jacksonville Real Estate and Home Staging (Keller Williams First Coast Realty - The Marro Team) about 8 years ago

Interesting post Melissa, I don't watch the show, so it's always curious to see what the buzz is w/posts w/people who do watch it - Vicarious I guess.  I've always thought the formula was ridiculous and works say for cooking or clothes, but not interior design - Just my opinion. 

I looked up this Cathy Hobbs person and she states she's ASID, which means she has a 4 year degree in interior design, so should be from her years in the biz pretty versatile in her craft and be able to flip that hat back and forth.

And remember, for Reality TV the more drama the better, 'cause w/out it who would watch - That's how they pick 'em. The Dog bowls win and now you guys are talking about it.


Posted by Julea Joseph, Julea Joseph House Stager - Reinventing Space (Reinventing Space) about 8 years ago

The water bottle room was my 2nd favorite as far as being artistic.  The ladies just really didn't seem to be able to pull it all together last night.

Posted by Beth Lester, Home Staging & Interior Decorating (Beth Lester Designs) about 8 years ago

#16 for your team is awesome, Melissa!   Definitely something to be proud of!

Posted by Beth Lester, Home Staging & Interior Decorating (Beth Lester Designs) about 8 years ago

Julea - I agree with much of what you said, but I do think that conceptualism, much like Haute Couture in the fashion industry, has a place in the design world.  Fun, funky conceptual spaces do help inspire real spaces and creativity.

Beth - thanks!  We were very proud of Leslie!  She has since gone back to teaching full time (needed benefits).  I actually liked the water bottle room better than the winning space.  The graphics of the splash, carried over with the water bottle chair was really pretty cool. 

Posted by Melissa Marro, Jacksonville Real Estate and Home Staging (Keller Williams First Coast Realty - The Marro Team) about 8 years ago

#16!!!  Kudos to her and the rest of your team, Melissa!  I'm with you on the best room too!

Posted by Julia Maher, Connecticut Home Stager (Nestings: Connecticut Home Staging and Model Homes) about 8 years ago

Julia - we were pretty proud of her, needless to say!

Posted by Melissa Marro, Jacksonville Real Estate and Home Staging (Keller Williams First Coast Realty - The Marro Team) about 8 years ago

Melissa, I agree with you completely. We, as stagers, are trained to create spaces that draw buyers from a specific market. The spaces must be serene and welcoming while making the potential buyer say, "Wow, I could live here," Not, Wow, that's wild."

I would love a white box staging competition. Fun, fun ,fun! Wish HGTV had a staging comp. We could do several rooms, each with it's own unique problems. As for Design Star, I just don't have that kind of mind as far as creativity goes.

I did love the water bottle room. It just exploded with drama. Would make a great art piece.

Posted by Linda Thompson (Selling By Design-Staging) about 8 years ago

Linda - Thanks for the commentary.  I wish I had that kind of imagination, but I just don't.  I love watching those who do though...

Posted by Melissa Marro, Jacksonville Real Estate and Home Staging (Keller Williams First Coast Realty - The Marro Team) about 8 years ago

Melissa - really interesting take on the episode and the whole show so far. I have not watched at all but I am fully aware of the formula behind the show and really like it when it comes to food design star shows but have a hard time with it when it comes to interior design.

In terms of Cathy, judging from the picture featured in your blog of her completed 'white box design' and her portfolio .. I gotta say I'm really underwhelmed. No offense to all the Cathy fans out there but I see very little evidence of her personality in the designs and everything she does seems .. rigid and controlled. I definitely get the personality of the designer who won the challenge - don't necessarily like the space but its got a great vibe.

I do agree that even though stagers and designers respect and use the same elements of design, the rules for each are staggeringly different. Polar opposites which repel each other to be honest, in most cases. There are some stagers who are bridging the gap and softening the often rigid designs stagers can produce - stagers like Matthew - who 'dial into their buyers'. 

I have had friends and family who keep bugging us to try out for some form of TV but honestly .. just as you  admitted, I'm terribly competitive and I'm afraid I would be the worst competitor ever. And then the question becomes, what happens if I won?? Good lord .. can't even go there. We aren't anywhere near as busy as you but for my partner and I we are lucky to have a thriving business. With growing families, I can't imagine more than that. 

So .. I wish Cathy good luck but I strongly doubt she's going to be the next Design Star.

Posted by Heather Cook, Quality Home Staging (Rooms in Bloom Staging & Design Inc.) almost 8 years ago

Heather - I feel the same way.... I DO NOT want my own show.  I would be truely out of my element.  I love watching the creativity of stagers like Matthew and am awed at their work - from idea to completion.  I'm just not sure that it's really what I do.. as in me personally.  When we have projects that really need that touch, I have team members who can do it. 

Posted by Melissa Marro, Jacksonville Real Estate and Home Staging (Keller Williams First Coast Realty - The Marro Team) almost 8 years ago

HI Melissa, haven't seen the show so I'm interested in following the conversation here. I agree with everyone in regards to staging vs design. Stagers are people who typically work well with controlled visions of what the buyer is looking for. Target marketing at its best.

TV takes a a ton of time away from your core business so I think you made a wise decision to keep to your business model. Easy to get seduced by the possibility of being on a regular show. Better still to be making a great living doing what you love to do.

Posted by Michelle Finnamore, Preparing your property for sale (Toronto GTA, Alliston, Newmarket) almost 8 years ago

Frankly.. HGTV has had some real "loser" winners.   I look at the shows they are producing, and their "creative" genius is more like a creative horror show?  How many people really live like that. 

When I see the designers who I enjoy seeing, and then they have so many people on the show that have absolutely no sense of "style".   Their creations are so over the top, that they need to jump off a cliff and give it up!!!

Posted by Liz Murray, Professional Home Stager (Renaissance Home Staging & Redesign) almost 8 years ago

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