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‘Trading Spaces’ and finding an unlikely queer icon in Hildi Santo-Tomas

An eccentric designer more provocative than the rest

This article was originally published in March 2015.

In 2000, around the time reality programs were becoming a force in the television landscape with the likes of Big Brother and Survivor, a quieter take on the genre in the guise of a home renovation show debuted on The Learning Channel. I speak, of course, of Trading Spaces, the show that would spark a DIY decorating mini-movement across America and inspire countless other shows.

Trading Spaces was itself inspired by another show, the BBC’s Changing Rooms. Very little was altered in the American adaptation, and it became TLC’s first breakout hit. In each episode, two sets of neighbors were paired with a professional designer, afforded a very meager budget, and given two days to use that budget to redecorate one room in each other’s homes. And, most importantly, they would have no say in what happened in their own houses.

While home reno TV wasn’t new—shows like This Old House had been around since the late ’70s—Trading Spaces captured just enough of the sensationalism that was becoming de rigueur in prime time reality TV that it sparked new interest in the subgenre and gained a dedicated following.

The cast featured several eccentric designers in its rotation, but there was one whose reputation as a provocateur towered above the rest. Her name was Hildi Santo-Tomas. Viewers hated this woman, and I bore witness to it. A teenager at the time, I was obsessed with the show and joined several message boards where I could waste hours doing postmortems of the weekly episodes, discussing with fellow devotees the fine points of slip covers and bolster pillows. On these message boards, people talked a lot of smack about Hildi. And I spent a lot of time passionately defending her.

Regardless of this tidal wave of online hate, or perhaps because of it, years after the show went off the air (and a decade since it’s really been relevant), Hildi remains the one element that has lingered in our cultural imagination. After all, none of the other designers received their own nostalgic Buzzfeed list or name recognition on this very site.

Hildi was notorious for plastering the walls of homes across America with all sorts of odd materials, from hay to vinyl records, wine labels, rubber o-rings, or feathers; nothing was too outlandish to end up adorning the walls of unsuspecting homeowners. From a real estate equity standpoint, Hildi might as well have been Godzilla. She tore through these rooms without mercy, razing them and leaving nothing but destruction and chaos in her wake.

Her makeovers would have been very costly to “fix,” and if they weren’t “fixed,” they likely would have sunk the resale value of the home. And at least if Godzilla were to ever wake from his slumber, rise from the depths of the Pacific, make landfall, and crush your house beneath his massive, reptilian foot, there’s a chance you’d have an insurance claim. No such luck with Hildi; she and the show were likely protected by a fat stack of waivers signed by the Trading Spaces participants.

But here’s the thing: Hildi was brilliant. For starters, she was a good designer, a fact that all too often got lost because viewers had tunnel vision. Throw some hay on the walls, and suddenly that’s the only thing anybody can see in the room. The truth is, for every room she painted black or covered in shredded newspaper, she would also design a beautiful, livable space with broader appeal—a room of the sort that won other designers, like southern belle Laurie and perfectionist architect Vern, the adulation of the show’s fans.

These “subdued” rooms made it clear that Hildi knew precisely what she was doing. Her personal taste tended toward an elegant, clean-lined minimalism. She kept this aesthetic from skewing utilitarian by softening the spaces with furs or decadent fabrics in lustrous sheens. And through her repetition of patterns and monochromes and her penchant for items used en masse, she perfected a singular aesthetic that played with positive and negative space in unexpected and exciting ways. She was a good designer. Period.

Even when she was experimenting, she kept those core design principles intact. Her rooms were still composed of sharp, pleasing lines and smartly deployed colors and textures. They just, you know, added gift wrap, or thousands of wine labels, or had the furniture on the ceiling. Minor things, really.

Hildi took interior design and turned it into installation and performance art. Her spaces were three-dimensional still lifes as much as they were traditional interior decorating. Her rooms demonstrated a cunning wit and a winning whimsy. They were smart. For instance, take that room with the furniture on the ceiling. The way she designed the room was fun in itself, its black walls punctuated with furniture of simple geometric design and bright neon colors.

But it was the specific room in which she chose to pull this particular prank that was the real coup: it featured a staircase very prominently coming down the back wall, extending about halfway into the room and positioned right in front of the main entrance. In other words, you couldn’t miss it. And this was, of course, one of the few elements in the space Hildi couldn’t “flip.” The result was that the upright staircase leant the upside-down room a cheeky touch of MC Escher’s surrealism.

Or take the infamous feathered bedroom she designed in the show’s fourth season. The fabrics and colors she used gave it the feel of a boutique hotel room. Such an aesthetic is chic, but it can also feel commercial and impersonal. The feathered walls not only granted the room undeniable personality, they also softened it considerably and turned it into a (pardon the pun) nest. It looked warm and romantic and stylish all at once, and it had a sense of humor. How often can you say that about design? My admiration for Hildi was grounded in the fact that she was a gifted interior designer and visual artist.

But it went further than that. Trading Spaces has been off the air for years and is, at this point, a footnote at best in our larger pop cultural narrative. But Hildi remains. There’s something deeper that contributes to her delirious charm.

Hildi spoke to my gay sensibility. Using a phrase like that—”gay sensibility”—always feels a bit clunky. I imagine straight readers trying to envision a “gay sensibility” and coming up with a cornucopia of decadence, all unicorns and glitter and feather boas. And while that’s an aesthetic I could wholeheartedly support, I’m not strictly talking about a taste for camp.

To be fair, Hildi’s designs did often demonstrate a camp aesthetic. Not necessarily in the so-bad-it’s-good sort of way—though her silk-flower-covered bathroom, featuring gold cabinets with red Lucite inserts, might tap into that sort of unhinged Nirvana—but in her level of indulgence and exaggeration and her emphasis, always, on form over function.

There’s a spirit in her work of “to hell with your ability to watch TV or sit comfortably, there’s an aesthetic Moment to be had.” There’s a grand gesture to be made, something white-hot, fabulous, hilarious, or utterly perplexing to be crafted, and that trumps our mundane concerns with utility and functionality.

But Hildi also rendered a sense of liberation through her design—a sense of liberation that is one of the backbones of a gay or queer sensibility.

LGBTQ individuals are acutely aware of space, because so often we’re moving through spaces in which we don’t feel safe. Spaces in which we cannot be open. This is why “safe space” stickers are plastered on so many of the office doors of universities across the country. We have to be reassured explicitly that we are entering a space that has been secured for us.

This is why one of the idioms so familiar to queer people—“coming out of the closet”—suggests claustrophobia and is configured in terms of spatiality: in or out. Even wide-open, airy public spaces can feel constrictive, tight, and threatening to us. This is why neighborhoods from the Castro to Boystown to WeHo have been so crucial in fostering, protecting, and promoting the queer community.

The LGBTQ community has had to carve out its own spaces—from gay and lesbian bars and clubs to bath houses to centers for queer youth—where they could feel supported and safe and free to live openly. Queer people have had to make their own spaces just so they can be.

Queer spaces are self-made and self-realized and often born of resistance. And, on a smaller and more humble scale, this is also the context in which Hildi frequently worked. She met with the constant disapproval and derision of both her teams on the show and the program’s broader audience.

Regardless, Hildi had a grand vision for her spaces, one that played by an entirely different set of aesthetic rules, and she never wavered in the face of mockery or scorn. Quite the opposite: Hildi was always a vision of cool confidence and granite resolve. Every room she completed was an act of resistance rendered in miniature and a preservation of a way of seeing that was slightly, delightfully askew.

Hildi’s designs always experimented with materials and surfaces: peel and stick floor tiles didn’t have to go on the floor, more than paint could be put on walls, and just because a room had a bay window didn’t mean you couldn’t cover it up. That last one might sound like heresy to designers and architects alike, but that’s precisely what made it so thrilling.

Hildi didn’t play by the rules, but she didn’t really break them, either. She did something more transgressive: she made her own. Hildi bent her materials and spaces to her will, and as a queer viewer who so often experienced the reverse, who bent to the will of public space and spent a great deal of time boxed in the closet, that was both exciting and inspiring.

Hildi never let her elegance neuter her design philosophy. Of all the designers who appeared on Trading Spaces, she was by far the most posh. She was the only one to rock a pair of Prada pumps while wrangling pneumatic power tools and paint brushes, she lived in an effortlessly chic Parisian apartment, she would jet-set around the globe and leave trinkets of her travels behind in her rooms, and she was the most likely to name-drop her well-curated artistic inspirations (from Lichtenstein to Miró) or bring in pieces from influential designers and brands (like Eames chairs or Marimekko textiles).

Undeniably cosmopolitan, Hildi had taste. But there’s a crucial, if subtle, difference between having taste and being tasteful. And thankfully, while Hildi had the former, she always avoided the latter.

Being tasteful means submitting to the prevailing attitudes of the mainstream and upholding the status quo. Camp and kitsch have always been important facets of queer taste not because camp is so bad it’s good but because a camp sensibility says “this is only bad because you’re looking at it the wrong way.” Camp provides an entirely different way to see the world. It’s a whole new barometer of quality.

Hildi’s rooms were instructive in this way. If there is something else besides her go-for-broke aestheticism that aligns her work with a camp sensibility, it is that while she had impeccable taste, she never let that dictate or delimit what she was willing to try. She pushed her designs to uncomfortable or awkward or surprising places because that challenged viewers to investigate our preconceived judgments and to expand creatively and imaginatively. She was operating on an entirely different rubric from her peers, and where their rubric was largely prescribed to them, hers was self-manufactured.

Watching Hildi on Trading Spaces was to see the active creation of queer space. She reconstructed rooms to create room for an entirely new way of seeing that stood counter to prevailing opinion. Hildi didn’t trade spaces; she made them. And because of that, a lonely queer teen in the Midwest stumbled upon a vision that spoke to him. She carved out a niche for me on Saturday nights, a place and time where my queer sensibility was nourished, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Looking back, I recognize that Hildi’s rooms were perhaps the first “safe spaces” I ever entered.