Reality TV Star Jillian Harris on Designing On and Off Screen

Reality TV veteran Jillian Harris opens up about life after The Bachelorette

Credit: Venturi + Karpa

Since the Bachelorette, Jillian Harris has been keeping busy on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

Interior designer Jillian Harris reveals her resiliency and romanticism, whether appearing on reality TV shows or renovating her Vancouver condo 

Vancouver’s Jillian Harris may be best known as a recent 
contestant on ABC’s The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. She also brings 10 years experience to her interior design company Jillian Harris Design, creating both commercial and residential spaces in the U.S. and Canada.

Harris continues her TV career as a designer on ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. 

On Getting Things Done, Jillian-style

Q: You’re not afraid to get your hands dirty, are you?

A: My Extreme Makeover: Home Edition producers have called me a “polished redneck.” I might be mud-bogging on an ATV and wiener-roasting one day, and shopping for chandeliers and Holt Renfrew pumps the next. Becoming connected to each project sometimes means taking on dirty jobs. When working for Cactus Club Cafe, it became a running joke that I always wore perfect makeup and heels – while eight feet up on a ladder installing a light fixture. 

Can you give an example of a project that you got physically involved in? 

Yesterday, I flew in the door excited because my kitchen’s Carrara marble countertop was installed, but found that the trades hadn’t put the sink back in or reconnected the plumbing and garburator. It was early Friday evening, so I couldn’t call a plumber, and I had company coming for dinner. Saying to myself, “I can do this,” I hoisted up the 70-pound, porcelain farmhouse sink – with my chair, knees and arms to the counter – but the fit was too tight. I got my stone grinder and ground the edges until it fit like a glove. Though hooking up the water was easy, the garbage disposal was difficult, but now that I’ve done it, I’ll know how to do it next time.

On Helping Out Others

Q: Why were you chosen as a designer for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition?

A: Being a good designer may be important, but the producers were more concerned with my ability to connect with families and the team. I’m also sensitive and don’t have a filter, which makes for good TV viewing. 

Q: How much work do you do on the show? 

A: I’m surprised that I am given as much influence as I am, considering that it would be impossible to get the project done in one week without a support team. After being assigned a project, I make the plan, research the family, and then we decide what we can afford and how to rework an idea so that it’s doable in the timeframe. There are always challenges that happen just before the show airs.

Q: Describe a challenge on Extreme Makeover, and the most memorable experience so far?

Both happened during the season premiere. I was in charge of the spa bathroom, which ended up looking hideous. It was 105 degrees in Baltimore; workers were so hot that they didn’t want to complete that room with little ventilation. An hour-and-a-half before we revealed the home to the family, the walls weren’t painted and the toilets weren’t in. I asked for a work shirt and bribed other girls to help me paint and adhere mouldings. 

The pink shade I’d chosen to accent the main grey colour was accidentally switched by the trades to become the main colour. The results looked like someone threw up a bottle of Pepto Bismol over the walls, but the family loved it.

During this episode, I was going through a difficult time after my relationship ended, so I felt disconnected from the show. To discuss decorating a little girl’s room, I sat with her mother who told me that her husband of 20 years had recently died suddenly while making breakfast. She said, “He was my best friend who was supposed to be here forever.” Her story helped me to look at the world from a different perspective. 

On Finding Inspiration on Extreme Makeover and The Bachelor

Q: What inspired you to custom-make 18th-century furniture? 

A: Scott Morison [former Cactus Club Cafe co-owner and current Browns restaurants owner] asked me to source a chandelier he saw in a photo. After searching for months, I found out that it was $30,000. Deciding to duplicate it, I discovered the many custom furniture artisans in Vancouver. 
I fell in love with the create-your-own-with-expert-help concept. We wanted to incorporate authentic 18th-century-style chairs at Browns, but the height and dimensions aren’t appropriate for dining. Scott prefers paying double for a high-quality piece [rather] than getting something off the shelf that looks inauthentic, so furniture is often custom-made.

I got carried away once, and as a surprise for Scott, had four Louis XVI chairs – in black lacquer with Designers Guild upholstery – made for two Browns restaurants. I almost got fired because they were $2,200 each. I had the style made for my home, and now manufacture them on a per-order basis. I will soon feature pieces on my website that can be custom-made for under $500. The profit margins aren’t high, but it’s a side-project that I’m excited about. 

Q: What inspired you to be on the The Bachelor?

A: The show was my guilty pleasure – 
I organized parties with girlfriends to watch it. Searching its website for a dress, I found the application [for The Bachelor], which said “Americans only.” I applied, sending a funny picture and silly comment, never expecting a reply, but got an email within a week. But when I finished The Bachelorette, I was determined to get as far away from television as I could. It was a rather traumatic experience for a small-town girl; I wasn’t sure I was cut out for it. Then ABC asked if I would be on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and it was the only show I would have considered because it combines my love of design, interest in philanthropy and new experience with reality TV. 

Q: Do you regret being on The Bachelorette? 

A: No. Life is about taking chances, and you never know when you might find love or a dream job if you don’t accept new experiences. I’m grateful for the relationship and what I learned. Before the show, people identified me as Jill The Designer, so it was important for me to bring out the Jill The Hopeless Romantic side, too, which plays just as important a part in my life as my career.

On Tackling a New Design Project

Q: What design elements do you prefer? 

A: I love coral and heritage colours: warm creams, smoky blue, silver teal. I’m definitely not a modern-style designer. There are clients that always want the best at any price, but that isn’t my market. Even when I have an unlimited budget, I’ll throw in a piece from HomeSense and a $20 antiques store find, and those will often be the items that the client will say, “Wow, where did you find that?”

Q: Let’s talk about your condo’s reno.

A: I’ve owned this 600-square-foot home for six years. After the last couple of years’ experiences, my life had changed and my design style had developed so much that I had outgrown my home. I also had to get reacquainted with reality after being on reality shows, so instead of selling it, I decided to renovate. Though it’s tiny – I am a one-woman show right now, but would love a second bedroom only for my wardrobe – I made every inch of the space work. We tore down the kitchen wall, replaced cabinetry, countertops and appliances, and replaced the bathroom vanity, mirror and cabinets.

I ordered a couch from a custom manufacturer called Bloom; I’ve always had champagne taste and a beer budget, but was finally able to treat myself to a piece that I love. It’s a creamy stone weave with traditional studded arms but is down-filled so it’s casual and comfortable. I always incorporate pieces that tell a story about the owner, not just seen in a showroom or magazine, which is true in my home, from the ceramic greyhound at the front door to the seven-foot studded mirror in the dining room. 

Q: You say that you design like you dress?

A: I have eclectic style, so I think nothing of [pairing] a $600 Chloe dress I wore on The Bachelorette with a pair of cowboy boots or mukluks. It’s important to own your style in fashion and interior design. In my entry hall, a deer shed (antlers) I found in the woods is perched beside a crystal diamond shape to juxtapose highbrow and lowbrow. I dress like I design like I cook: there are no rules except to have fun. And therefore, when guests walk into my space they say, “Wow, this feels like Harris’s home.” 

Q: What do you like to cook in your newly renovated kitchen?

A: Comfort food: French onion soup, 
jambalaya, lasagna. Like design and fashion, food preparation to me means no fuss: have a glass of wine, crank up the music, and see what comes out of the oven.

Check out Jillian Harris’s top style picks for 2011.

Originally published in BC Home magazine. For monthly updates, subscribe to the free BC Home e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the bi-monthly magazine.