Tips from Atlanta’s ‘Big Daddy’ of design

Atlanta's Big Daddy of design Kerry Howard

Atlanta’s “Big Daddy” of design is bursting out of the local scene and returning to television as part of a new design show on HGTV.

Kerry “Big Daddy” Howard first came to the attention of the design world in 2008 as part of the second season of Bravo’s short-lived “Top Design” competition reality show. At the time he was living in Cumming, Ga., and struggling to establish his company. He survived in part by doing small budget jobs, often acting as the “gay best friend” for women redecorating their homes. But things have changed.

“We have come a long way,” Howard says with a smile.

Big Daddy’s Design Tips

Lighting: “Lighting is like a new tie for an old suit… You have these big box stores in town, Masterpiece and Progressive, but you can go online and find pieces for half the price.”

Painting: “People used to paint and every room was a different color, but now we suggest trying to paint as much as you can in one color, because people are nesting because of the economy. It makes your house look cleaner for one, and it doesn’t chop your house up.”

Tricking the eye with tile: “If you have a small room and you want to make it look bigger, the way you install the tile can make your room larger… I try to find tile that has smooth edges so you don’t have large grout edges, you can almost bump it right against each other and make it look like an expensive piece of stone. If you’re doing a master bathroom I always look for big tile. Try to get the 16 by 16 or the 18 by 18 pieces.”

Choosing a designer: “One thing I would look for is their education, because there are so many people out there who are decorators and not true designers. I would also check their professional affiliations… I would also interview at least three people, because it’s easier for me to go to a client and say that it’s not a good fit for me, and I’d probably recommend someone.”

Kitchen: “Granite is still the big thing for kitchens. People think its always going to be the big whoop whoop … Stainless still seems to be the big item… Viking stoves you can get in red, yellow blue, white, grey, so you can get them customized in whatever color you want. But it’s hard to push people because it could get dated really quick, and I’m all about trying to give people a look that will last for a while.”

Howard recently received a 12-page spread in the September issue of “Traditional Home” and is designing homes across Atlanta and the country. He has recently completed projects in New York, Colorado Springs and the Georgia coast and has started receiving requests from California.

“My client base has grown to the point where people trust me,” Howard said.

So instead of decorating suburban homes on a budget, people are throwing him the keys to beach houses.

“This was an amazing job, they basically said, ‘Here’s the keys, here’s the floor plan, we want it finished on this date.’ We took them shopping a little bit, but basically she called me two weeks before the install, and said, ‘I feel guilty, I feel like I should be helping,’ and I told her, ‘We’ve already done everything down to the dishes,’” he says.

Howard has moved to Midtown Atlanta, where he recently relocated to expanded offices. His staff has grown, as have his connections with his clients and suppliers. But all of that success has come with a price, a price that almost cost him his second shot at television.

“It’s like everything is happening so great, and then this opportunity for the new show came up,” he recalls. “I jumped on that kind of begrudgingly because I had just moved into a new town home, we moved (the office), we had a big wedding we were doing and we had two beach houses we were doing and I thought ‘Should I do it, should I do it?’”

HGTV launches the new show in November titled “Design Wars.” The premise is three designers compete for a chance to redesign a horrifically dull room. HGTV shot eight episodes in Atlanta, and Howard appeared twice, but of course can’t spill the beans on whether he won or lost.

“It’s more high end design and so I competed against Michael Habachy (of Habachy Design), Robert White (of Reiner-White), big designers in town. The family is the judge, and you war against each other in the house over a four-day period,” Howard says.

Designers don’t compete with drawings, or mock rooms, rather, they source their own materials and design and install the entire room.

“So we would do that venue, the family would come in and judge it, then they would tear it apart, the next designer would come in, they’d judge it and then they’d tear apart, the next designer would do it, then they’d  put it back the way it was,” he says.

Howard went home early on Bravo, and while he talks about those days with some regret, that experience helped him on “Design Wars.”

“The one thing that bothered me the first time was all the cameras in my face because they capture every flaw,” he says, mentioning how the cameras caught a fall.
Not this time around.

“There have only been a couple of times in my life where I felt very secure in what I was doing, and back when I met with that family it felt good, and I was ready for the cameras… that was the best part, being at ease,” he continues.

While this show was shot locally and Howard was in his own surroundings, it wasn’t exactly easier than “Top Design.”

“I wouldn’t say it was less intense, I had a lot more fun, but it was intense because it was 95, 96 degrees, and when we’re wearing the mikes they can’t run the AC, and Daddy was sweating ferociously,” he jokes.

Howard appreciates the bump appearing on “Top Design” gave him professionally, and not hiding his sexual orientation has had positive implications for him.

“I’m proud to be gay and I’m not ashamed of it anymore. Before when I went home to South Carolina… my family finally talks about it,” he says.


Top photo: Kerry Howard (by Bo Shell)