The Hippo


Jul 23, 2019








The cast of Ellen’s Design Challenge. Courtesy photo.

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HGTV Mondays at 9 p.m. Visit,, or follow her live tweets during the show @vivianbeer

An Ellen experience
Manchester furniture maker on Ellen’s Design Challenge

By Kelly Sennott

This summer, Manchester furniture artist Vivian Beer competed in Ellen’s Design Challenge, a 10-person furniture design competition produced by Ellen DeGeneres in which designers compete in weekly assignments for the chance to win a $100,000 cash prize and HGTV magazine spread.

Beer couldn’t tell anybody about it — until now. The show premiered Jan. 18, and while she couldn’t talk about anything that would give away certain details of upcoming episodes, Beer was able to chat with the Hippo just before a viewing party at The Pint on Jan. 25 about the experience and how it’s inspired her.
How did you find out about the opportunity?
I got a call from the casting company and they asked me to apply. I think they were throwing out a net to people in the industry. They had actually called me last year, but … I was going to be busy at the Smithsonian doing the fellowship there at the time.
What were your thoughts when deciding to apply?
With the kind of star power that Ellen has — she can really do whatever she wants, basically — but for her to decide to be the executive producer, and to put on a show about furniture design. … Obviously I think furniture is the most amazing thing. But to have somebody like that who has such an extraordinary voice in the country really made me excited to be a part of it. … It’s a way to kind of show something that is, in general, a fairly private experience, in a very public way.
When did you learn your application was accepted?
I got a call from Ellen herself, and she said, ‘Hey, you’re on the show.’ And then I had to get on a plane a day later. And then a day later is what you saw [on TV]. … That was really fast. I did have to shift things around a little bit. … I’d just finished [a show in July]. I was de-installing that, actually, when I got the phone call. 
Did you have any hesitation?
Basically, my sister-in-law, my wife and one of my studio mates said I had to do it. So I feel like I had a group conspiracy! … But in a lot of ways, I feel like the conversation I had with my sister-in-law framed why it would be a good idea for me. … She was like, ‘You know what, you haven’t had an assignment in over 10 years.’ I’ve been running my business for over 10 years. … When somebody’s coming up to me, it’s to do something that’s fitting of what I’ve already done. I haven’t had an assignment, really, in a long time. And she said, ‘That would probably be really good for you.’
What did you enjoy about the experience?
I’ve got to say, I really, really enjoyed working with Cliff [Fong] and Christian [Lemieux]. They’re amazing. It’s the first time in so many years I’ve had the experience of feeling mentored. The judges, they’re judging, and you’re getting called to the carpet on what you’re doing. In so many ways, it’s criticism, but it’s constructive criticism. … And it’s intense. What they’re asking us to do is something nobody has asked from a furniture person, ever. 
How did you adapt your building style to fit what was needed for the show?
This competition is taking furniture making into sports. So you could say I worked fast, and that’s all relative — we’re talking three days total, from, ‘Hey, this is what you need to do,’ to, ‘We’re judging you on it.’ So this is an extremely compressed deadline. That is never the sort of deadline I would choose. … Most of my work takes like a month. … It’s a very vulnerable kind of situation to put yourself in. I was surprised at what it’s like to put your maker-designer heart on your sleeve like that. … In general, I work by myself. And I’ve got this process set in stone — or so I thought, but it turns out, maybe it’s a little more flexible than that. 
How much of the show is accurate? 
Someone said to me, ‘Oh, is this happening live?’ … And my general thought is, nobody wants to watch a furniture maker working live! ‘Are you still sanding?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Really good! Still sanding!’ So they’re editing, but they’re obviously compressing it, like a cooking show. You don’t want to watch the soufflet rising. There’s a lot of information that isn’t necessary. But I think they told the story really well.
Did you know any of the furniture makers beforehand?
There are a lot of people in the show I have friends in common with. It’s just chance we haven’t overlapped. If we’re playing the Kevin Bacon game, with six degrees of separation, there’s like one degree.
What were your interactions with Ellen?
She’s the executive producer. So she’s behind the scenes, really the mastermind of the entire experience. She does come on set … but you never know when she’s going to appear. And then it’s just like, boom, Ellen. She’s adding a lot of humor and levity. We’re all really uptight and stressed out, but whenever she comes on, it’s nice to have some laughter. My takeaway from Ellen is, she’s funny, she’s intelligent, and she cares quite a bit. There’s this feeling from her, and from the entire competition — we’re being judged, and we’re in a competition, but it feels nurturing. Like the overall goal of the experience is to make each individual have a positive takeaway. 

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