Welcome back to Curbed Interviews, wherein Raina Cox (of If the Lamp Shade Fits and Curbed's Moonlighting series) interviews major players in shelter media and interior design. Have a suggestion for someone whose voice should be heard? Send it here.
As the fast-talking home improvement expert on The Nate Berkus Show, Stephen Fanuka has gained a reputation for smart, sound repair advice. The self-described "contractor to the stars" is gearing up for for his own career renovation with the debut of Million Dollar Contractor—premiering Sunday on DIY Network—and the release of What's a Homeowner to Do? a how-to book coming out in November. When we recently caught up with Fanuka, he packed a one-hour interview with chatter of his upbringing, celebrity clients, and that one time when he sourced a wooly mammoth tusk for a client.
As a young boy, you accompanied your cabinetmaker father on jobs. What did he teach you?
My father started taking me at about 7 years old, [...] he gave me a bucket of [used] nails and he said to me, “I want you to take these nails and straighten them out.” I’d spend a half-hour on each nail trying to make them straight. After about two months of doing that, he pulled me to the side and goes, “Go ahead, start nailing some of these nails into the wood, then pull them out.” I’m like, “They’d be bent again!” He said, “Do you appreciate the nails?” I’m like, “Yeah! I just spent two months straightening them out! They’re like little children to me.” He said, “Well, now you know how to appreciate nails and you’ll know when you nail something, you’re going to nail it right. So you never have to take it out and waste a nail.” That was the first lesson he ever taught me.
By the time I was 17 years old, I was a master craftsman. I was already as good as any adult was in the country. I was a full-fledged cabinet maker, but I still went to college. And then I tried advertising for about a year and a half at Young and Rubicam just to see what it was like. It was the hardest year and a half of my life, because I missed my Dad. He made me appreciate the business, he worked me hard. He made me earn everything I got, even to this day. You know, he’s an old-school European guy and I got this TV show, and you know what his response is? “Okay. You did okay.” You know, that’s pretty much it. I thought he’d say, “Oh my God!” but no. It's “You did all right. Let’s see how the show does.” [laughs]
You have a 12-year-old son. Is he going to follow in your footsteps?
He says he wants to be a cabinet maker. He also says he wants to be a writer. At the end of the day, I want him to be happy. My success didn’t come easy. And my success, or my ongoing successm is never going to be easy, because you really want to be the best at what you do. You have to breathe it, eat it, live it, think it. You can’t cut out at five o’clock and then say “I’ll take care of this tomorrow.” In the high-end residential, it’s a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job.
What do you think your clients have in common?
They want the best. They want “outside the box.” I’m not going to give you a vanilla box. Why would you pay for me to give you a vanilla box? You can get it for half the price with someone else.
So what we’re doing is these clients are bringing in very intelligent decorators, very intelligent architects, up and coming, the brightest and the best, the cream of the crop. They’re going to give you something that’s different, that’s worth you paying for that creativity and input, and then once they get the idea it comes to me and I make it reality. So basically, the architects and the decorators are my composers, my trades are my symphony, and I am the conductor.
What can we expect to see on your new show and how will it be different from other remodeling programs?
What’s so different from everyone else is a lot of home-improvement shows—and I’m not mentioning names, I’m not mentioning shows—but the majority of them are not full-time contractors whose living actually depends on the work you’re watching. Those are my jobs, they’re not being scouted. There’s no scouting in my projects. It’s not like “Hey, I’ve got a great job. I’m going to hook you up with this architect because he wants to be on the TV show." Nope. These are my jobs that I get, ones that I scout. They’re mine. And those jobs really pay the bills. Everyone on the show is getting paid. They have a salary, a life. Nothing is staged.
Which brings me to the fact that the show is not what’s driving me—it’s my jobs that drive me. I’m a unicorn, I’m the real deal. I’m a real contractor. These are my real jobs. If I look stupid on TV, I could lose my business.
And people are going to see high-end things like [...] a leather pedestal sink. That’s something outside the box. And people are going to realize, “Wow! You know, that is gorgeous!” And you’re also going to realize you can have this at home, too. You can even DIY it. So I’m going to give a lot of DIY into every episode. I’m showing people what’s outside the box, I’m showing them the major leagues of residential renovation, I’m showing them things they never thought they could do themselves, things they think they could ever afford to have themselves.
Can we expect to see any famous designers or architects on Million Dollar Contractor?
This year, we’ve got Nate Berkus on one episode and [...] Thom [Filicia] on two episodes.
Which was your most challenging celebrity client job?
You know, celebrities don’t always pose the most challenges. I mean, with the celebrities what’s posed is the secrecy, the privacy. That’s the biggest challenge when it comes to celebrities. When I was working with Lindsay Lohan I was trying to keep it under wraps, but meanwhile there’s 40 paparazzis are waiting for me outside because they think she’s coming outside and they start going.
But as far as challenges, I’ve had to do things like fly to Afghanistan to pick stone—the marble from the mountain itself—for a kitchen. I’ve set up X-ray machines for mail for celebrities who think they’re getting bombs.
I’ve had a job where I had to match a facade on a house in Italy that the client liked. And I literally had to go to Italy and try to find the builder of this house, find the formula to bring it back to a house here, and I found out this guy was dead. At like two o’clock in the morning under cover, I snuck up, took a little piece of the house and ran. You laugh, but the guy was goddamn dead—how was I gonna freaking get this damn formula? Take a piece of the house! So I chipped a piece of the house and ran like I was gonna get shot.
I [also] had a job where every other week for year I had to fly to Paris for a 15-minute meeting with Francois Catroux, the biggest interior designer in the world. So he can look at me and say, “How ya doin’?” “Pretty good.” “Okay, see ya in two weeks.” I did it 26 times! At one point, I was like, “Dude, can I just tell you this on email ‘cause I’d like to save you money.” But on a plane every two weeks and back!
And, of course, once I delivered a wooly mammoth tusk for one client.
Did you have to source the wooly mammoth tusk?
Well, you always have to source it. You have to find out who’s gonna to have it, who has it. I have a lot of dealers and antique collectors that I work for. So you make a few phone calls.
You know when you get the problems? It’s when you don’t expect it, the ones you’re doing a favor for. Your friend, a cousin, a school teacher. And the next thing you know, you’re being spanked by someone who shouldn’t be spanking you.
You also have a new book being released November 22nd. What were your goals in writing What’s a Homeowner to Do??
I felt like I wanted to give back. I wanted to show people that they could do it. I wanted to give them more confidence. There’s not enough confidence out there, people saying, “I can do things on my own.”
You know, one of the most expensive things in your life is going to be your home. Your home is your castle. Why not treat it like one? And if you can save some money doing some simple things on your own that doesn’t require a license that doesn’t require a permit, why not? And if you don’t want to do it, why not teach you how to do it? So the book basically shows you how to do things—442, to be exact. Even if you don’t want to do a DIY, you’re gonna know to treat the contractor, how to get the right person, what to look for. [...] A contractor is like a cold: once you get it, it’s hard to get rid of.