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Article posted: 4/9/2013 5:30 AM

HGTV designer's style rooted in the suburbs

“HGTV Design Star” winner Meg Caswell, who grew up in Kenilworth, says the show changed her life.

"HGTV Design Star" winner Meg Caswell, who grew up in Kenilworth, says the show changed her life.


courtesy of Meg Caswell

“HGTV Design Star” winner Meg Caswell, of Kenilworth, shops for home accessories at Scentimental Gardens in Geneva.

"HGTV Design Star" winner Meg Caswell, of Kenilworth, shops for home accessories at Scentimental Gardens in Geneva.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

“HGTV Design Star” winner Meg Caswell, of Kenilworth, shops for home accessories at Scentimental Gardens in Geneva last week.

"HGTV Design Star" winner Meg Caswell, of Kenilworth, shops for home accessories at Scentimental Gardens in Geneva last week.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

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Shopping for home decor at Scentimental Gardens in Geneva last week, HGTV designer Meg Caswell found inspiration everywhere.

"Oooh, those would look so good in a foyer," she said, pointing to two half-circle stone tables. "You could paint them white, maybe. And this old artwork? It's so hard to find!"


'Design crimes'

HGTV designer Meg Caswell says these are common problems she sees in suburban homes:
Too much beige and generic-looking furniture: People need to break away from buying matching sets and shed their fear of incorporating color.
Purchasing the rug last: By doing that, you buy a rug you don't like because you have to match it with everything else. The rug should be the first thing you purchase, as it is the foundation of a well-designed room.
Feeling overwhelmed in a home decor store: Make a list of what they're buying and shop for only that. Also, pay attention to shapes. You can always transform color, but its shape is key.

Caswell then pointed at two white ceramic cow heads mounted on the wall.

"Those would be good for 'Yay or Nay,'" she said, referencing the popular fan-input question she poses about home decor items on Facebook and Twitter.

"I love hearing what people have to say, and what they see in (the items)," she said. "And they get to see what I'm looking at, which is fun."

Fun is a good word to describe the 35-year-old Kenilworth native and Chicago design firm owner, who won "Design Star" Season 6 in 2011 and now hosts the room makeover show,"Meg's Great Rooms." It's not on HGTV now, but past episodes are online, and she's currently crisscrossing the U.S. filming new ones.

Caswell also is heading up HGTV's Home Makeover Contest (deadline to enter is Monday) and will be one of the HGTV designers participating in a Pinterest party on the social media site April 28.

It's been a whirlwind two years for Caswell, whose HGTV stardom almost didn't happen.

A few years ago, while hanging drapes in a client's house, the client asked, "What's next for you?" and she joked that she wanted her own TV show. The next day, she found -- in her deleted email folder -- a notice that HGTV was coming to Chicago to audition decorators for Design Star. The prize was your own HGTV show. The lease on her Chicago office was almost up, and Caswell decided all signs were pointing to "go for it."

She remembers walking into the Chicago audition, seeing about 100 intimidating designers in the room, and immediately eyeing the two men who would eventually become her "Design Star" competitors, Karl and Kevin.

She said the extensive (and, at the end, secretive) auditions tested her knowledge of interior design as well as her on-air likability. She thinks they liked her "every woman" look, including her raspy voice, and her energetic personality.

"I just brought it," she said. "I remember after the first audition they asked, 'Is your hair red?' And I said, 'Yes.' And they said, 'Come back tomorrow.'"

After landing a spot on Design Star and winning the competition, she embarked on a whole new life, both personally and professionally.

"I got engaged five days after I won," she said. "It was the best week of my life."

Today, Caswell's life is consumed by filming new episodes and working on a few select projects with her firm, Meg's Design Studio in Chicago.

"My business before was my heart and soul, but it was a lot of hard work. I sometimes had 20 clients at once. Now, I have the privilege to select just a few clients," she said. "Because of the TV show, people will say, 'I don't care what it costs to get her here.'"

Growing up on the North Shore, it's no surprise that a preppy style -- both modern and classic -- is among the looks she likes. But she's also fond of a colorful and vibrant style she describes as "Palm Beach chic." Lately, she's been doing a lot of "coastal" designs, both for her show and for a beach house she just bought in North Carolina.

Caswell grew up in a fully decorated home and began decorating at an early age. ("My mom would put me to bed with my bed against one wall, and by morning, it would be on another.") When it came to college, though, she started to follow in her father's footsteps and become a lawyer.

A heart-to-heart talk with her grandfather, the late Baxter International CEO William Graham, changed all that, and she switched gears and enrolled at The Art Institute of Chicago to study interior architecture.

"My grandfather was my inspiration. He taught me to do what I loved, and to do something that helps people," she said. "I knew design was what I loved. And I thought, I can give people a home they love."

That's also why Caswell makes time to do things like throw a birthday party for a 9-year-old cancer-stricken fan in her Chicago office, or auction off her services for Project Ladybug, a charity founded by "Real Housewives of New Jersey" star Dina Manzo that helps families of children suffering life-threatening illness.

Caswell's currently redesigning the pediatric intensive care unit's lounge at University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital in Chicago.

Meg's brother, Bill Caswell, also successfully switched career paths and is now having a movie made about his decision. He went from being an investment banker to a rally race car driver, running his first race in Mexico with a $500 BMW he bought on Craigslist and rebuilt in his parents' garage. Paramount Pictures plans to make a movie about his life story, starring actor Jeremy Renner, Caswell said.

"We were raised to think you can do anything you want to do, you just have to go out there and do it," she said.

• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now in showbiz. If you know of someone from the suburbs who would make a good column, send them an email at dgire@dailyherald.com and jsotonoff@dailyherald.com

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