Cover Story: Outsourcing 

Cheap finds and unexpected materials get the reality-TV treatment.

"It looks like a prison cell," Geller laughs about the "before" version of the room, which is sparsely furnished and has cinder-block walls. "They want a place that's warm" and inviting, she says, showing sketches of a traditional-with-a-twist study using old neckties as window valances and leather belting to decorate chairs. Plaid fabrics, deep colors and extensive built-in shelving units balance lighter touches such as pillows made of old blue jeans or star-shaped wall photos of the fraternity's six founding fathers.

Once shopping for the episode is complete, production begins and is frenetic, made more so by Richmond's humidity and the intense schedule of cleaning, painting, building, installing and finishing within two days. The hosts stop mid-brushstroke to chat on-camera about their progress. It's grueling by any production standard, eased by the camaraderie of a crew that travels three weeks each month and knows how to solve problems. The team will churn out 60 new programs next season; the frat house episode is scheduled to air Friday, Aug. 6 at 9 p.m.

Three fraternity brothers walk into the unexpected transformation by the end of the weekend and are startled and enthusiastic. The camera catches everything. "There was this incredible setup with great desks and shelving, colors all over the place," says Stanton Leddy, a marketing major from San Antonio. "They repainted everything, and the new entertainment system is exciting. It will completely change the way we use the lodge. We're already planning on hanging out there so much more."

Cast and crew congratulate each other on pulling off another surprise, and head out of town for a dramatically different assignment: redesigning a living room in Williamsburg, with a shopping foray to match.

For more information on "While You Were Out," go online at

Plan first. These pros never shop without a budget and a list. Impulse buys still happen. but for larger items, they compare costs online before heading out. Though each show happens over three days, planning takes place several weeks beforehand when they measure, conceptualize, research and sketch out their ideas.

Shop on the cheap. "I found — on the streets of New York — nearly everything in my apartment," says designer Nadia Geller. She is a regular customer at six of the city's Salvation Army stores and is always looking for ways to recycle materials and adapt pieces to modern uses.

Paint. "It's always a huge factor," Geller says, in the way rooms or furniture can be transformed. "It's the least expensive way to make the most difference," she says, and her transformation of cinder block walls with fresh coats of navy paint is an example.

Refinish or recover. At the fraternity house, an old sofa with good bones got a makeover in red sailcloth upholstery that's bright and durable. Other "early attic" pieces were refinished or repainted. Ugly pieces were disguised with slipcovers.

Think creatively. If a hardware item or found object has an interesting look, consider it in a decorative or practical role. Light fixture? Wall art? Divider? Container? Let form dictate function and see what develops. — D.T.



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