Vivian Beer on taking her shot at winning “Ellen’s Design Challenge”


Over the last few weeks, we’ve introduced you to the three out lesbian contestants on HGTV’s second season of Ellen’s Design Challenge. On the last episode, we saw Alexis Moran get sent home, but Melissa Rivera Torres is still in the running, as is this week’s interview subject, Vivian Beer.

Vivian, who is from Manchester, New Hampshire, studied at Cranbrook Academy of Arts and has owned her own furniture design business, Vivian Beer Studio Works, for the last 10 years. She says she “loves to push the envelope with her work by using industrial materials such as concrete and auto body paint.”

vivian-2photos via HGTV

We spoke with Vivian about getting into furniture design and her experience on the show.

AfterEllen: How did you first become involved with design?

Vivian Beer: Well, I would say I really fell in love with design while I was in graduate school. I went to Cranbrook Academy of Art out in Michigan, and I was in their metals program. My background is sculpture and metalworking but while I was there, I really, really fell in love with contemporary design. I fell in love with it, to some degree, in an unusual way. Because while I was studying metalsmithingwhich at the time, that program had a lot of latitude as far as what you would makebut it had its core programming, as far as research, in the history of the decorative arts. So I was in this program that was talking about decorative arts and also eavesdropping the professor of design constantly—its funny, I’m actually headed out to do a visiting artist date with the design program there.


AE: In Michigan?

VB: Yes.


AE: I’m actually from Michigan, so this is even more intriguing!

VB: Oh great! I haven’t been back in a really long time, and Detroit has gone through so many changes since 2009. I’m pretty excited to spend some time in the area. I’ve already made plans to visit with Kyle from the show and check out his shop.


AE: Oh cool!

VB: Yeah! Anyway, that sort of speaks to how the school allows for a lot of cross-disciplinary studies and you are able to really go to other critiques and all of the other things they have to offer. It was decorative arts alongside just discovering design as a subject. So that’s sort of the long version, but the short version is there’s a tradition for a yearly cross-disciplinary chair show there, and one of the architecture students asked me to do the show with them. And I made a chair, and I have never lost interest in that subject since. It was just like “Oh my god, this is it! This is what has been missing.”

In a lot of ways, when I was studying sculpture and making sculpture, I was doing all of these sort of pieces that involved mechanical movement or that had an effort to make you want to touch it or make it do something. And it was a huge barrier in visual arts because when you think of sculpture, it is predominately a visual thing, so you are expected to look at it and have this sort of intellectual experience with it by just looking. I wanted that phenomenological experience, and I wanted that to be part of it. So when I made furniture, I thought, “Oh sweet! Now I don’t have to try to get people to want to touch it.” The touch and function was instantaneous. So it was this perfect moment.


AE: So when did you decide you were going to audition for the show?

VB: Well, the casting company called me and asked me to do it, so I put together the information they were asking for.


AE: So they contacted you to ask you to submit an audition tape?

VB: Yes.


AE: How do you think they found you?

VB: I never asked them, actually, but they had asked me to audition in the first season, but I couldn’t make the schedule that year—I was doing a fellowship at the Smithsonian during the filming, but one of my former assistants was on the first season. I mean, it’s a small world [laughs] in furniture design, you know. So I never asked how they found my name, but it’s such a small community that I think it’s pretty easy to find the people who are practicing.


AE: Wow, what an honor!

VB: I think one of the opportunities of the show is sharing this community with the rest of the country. It’s pretty tight-knit and small, but it’s really an awesome group of people. It’s a very warm and sharing community, but at the same time it’s competitive, and you are inherently competing with each other, basically, every day, yet I’ve never met anyone who wanted to hide a technique from you. People share information so it’s a really special community.

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