One on One with Mark Brunetz

Most people know Mark Brunetz as the energetic designer on the Style Network’s top-rated show Clean House, but his roots in Hollywood actually run much deeper. Brunetz started his career working on Jane Fonda exercise videos, then branched out into producing movies with his friend Sandra Bullock. And while he may have found himself a great gig on Clean House, Brunetz spends his nights wishing he was a racecar driver.

We recently caught up with the multi-faceted designer to talk to him about his career, his clients and his blue-collar roots.

We know that you are originally from Cleveland, Ohio. What was it like growing up there, and where do you call home now?

It was fantastic growing up there. I think anyone will tell you that if you migrate west and mix your life with people on the west coast, you find that the Midwest really instills roots in people. It teaches you values. I grew up in a small neighborhood, so the idea of being very community-oriented was a great asset to who I am today as a person, as well as in my career. My family moved from Cleveland to Raleigh, North Carolina when I was 13. Back then, that was a big move. They pretty much established themselves there – all my siblings, my mom, everyone is there. My grandparents were my last ties to Cleveland, but they have passed away. There has been a question of Clean House doing a makeover on the road in my hometown, and the network asked me “Where would you call your hometown?” I would have to say that even though I am originally from Cleveland, I would consider my real home to be Raleigh, because all of my family is there.

At what point in your life did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in design?

This is actually my third career. My first career was in exercise physiology – that is actually what my master’s degree is in. My first job out of college was with Jane Fonda. At that time, in the early 1990s, I brought her to step videos. Although I actually don’t talk about this much, I am actually in those videos, teaching with her, so there are two videos that live out there that I am on camera with her, teaching. It seems so long ago! I was working with Jane Fonda and the number one fitness company in the world at that time. I had launched a cable network called Cable Health Club, now called Fit TV, I was traveling all through Europe training instructors, had products on QVC, and I felt that I had done everything I could possibly do in fitness. I just got really burned out on it. So, at that point, I went into my second career.

Sandra Bullock is someone who I knew in college. At the time, she was coming off the movie Speed, which was of course a huge hit. She wanted to start a production company, so with my experience in doing video production with Jane Fonda, she asked me if I would start the company with her. It was a big leap, since I had only been here in LA two years, and had gone to school for exercise and all that. But I knew I wanted to work in entertainment, and, if anything, that is what working on Jane Fonda’s videos taught me. I knew I wanted to work in the lifestyle genre where I could create products that improved people’s lives and empowered people to be the best that they could be.

So we started a production company, Fortis Films, and had a deal with Disney. Over the next five years, I headed her development and we did nine studio films. My first film with her was While You Were Sleeping, which remains one of my favorite films, for a lot of reasons. It was shot in Chicago, which I love, and it is just a very sweet film. It was at the beginning of Sandy’s meteoric rise, and it was just a good group of people making a great film. After we did nine films, including a couple at Sundance, we brought on the George Lopez Show, which Sandy actually executive produces. So I sort of ended my film career in a producer deal to develop television shows, which is what I decided to get into. For me it was like an exit strategy, because I realized I wanted to do what I love, and I didn’t love working in film. There are so many people involved in the process of making a film that it is very difficult to feel like you are actually a part of it and that you are actually contributing – that was something I felt was missing in my work.

I actually grew up in design – my mom is a very successful and established interior designer in North Carolina, and my grandfather, from Cleveland, custom-built over 50 houses by hand in his lifetime. So my entire childhood was entrenched in walking construction sites, going to flea markets with my mom and really learning at a very early age about different styles of furniture, such as turn of the century, vintage, modern, all of that. When I really took a hard look at my life, coming out of film, I knew that the thing I had always loved was some form of design. It was sort of in my blood. At the time I wasn’t even positive that it was going to be interior design specifically – I just knew that I wanted to utilize my gifts in the area of aesthetics.

I was actually in the Hollywood Hills, talking to a friend about a mohair throw, and I made the mistake of opening my mouth and saying to her, “Well, if I lived here, this is what I would do,” and she hired me. It was just my calling, I guess. I thought to myself, “I can do this. I’m ready.” So I started working on her house. At the same time, I took a job at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, where I designed some very high-end events for Daimler Chrysler, Coca-Cola, Bacardi – million dollar events. It taught me very quickly how to manage big budgets, how to work with clients, and it really reinforced my ability to design and accomplish projects. That was really my entrée into the professional aspect of design. Cut to six or seven years later, today, and I have now done over 25 houses on both the east and west coasts, a couple of restaurants, and over 100 episodes of television. So, that’s sort of my three careers.

How did you land the job on Clean House, and what has it been like working on that show?

At that time, I didn’t even have the desire to be in front of the cameras, so this was all very serendipitous. I was actually in a tile store on Melrose, and I met a sales associate there. A couple of days later, some producers from MTV came in to the store, and they were looking for a young, hip designer. The sales associate told them about me, and I ended up doing a pilot for MTV called CribCrashers, a spinoff show of Cribs. After that, some executives over at the Style network asked me to do some episodes of the show called AREA, where we had two days and $2,500 to make over a room. I ended up doing 15 episodes. At the time, Clean House had just launched its first season and was struggling. The designer on the show ended up leaving to do another show, and my tapes were handed to the network. I got a call one day, and they loved my work and asked me if I would consider doing the show. At the time, I hadn’t even heard of Clean House. I knew they were going to bring on a new executive producer, so I thought that the show could really find its legs. And here we are – the show is getting ready for its 100th episode. We’re in our sixth season, and it is the number one show on the Style network. Niecy Nash is fantastic to work with, and we have assembled a really great team. We have amazing chemistry, and completely love and support each other.

TV design is different than private design. You are designing under the gun, time wise, with very little money (since our money really is contingent on the yard sale and any gifts that are given), and there is more than one client – you’re got the homeowner, the network, and the viewer. It’s a constant dance between keeping your finger on the pulse, continuing to build the library of what people can see and are inspired by, but at the same time making everyone happy. I consider that my talent.

How tough is it for you to come up with design ideas for the families on the show – do you worry about their reactions to your designs?

It’s not difficult – I have a really good sense of people and their space. I ask them a lot of proprietary questions, such as “If you could go anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?” or “If you died and were reincarnated as a piece of furniture, what would it be?” At first you might think, “Wow … what’s that really going to tell me?” but your answer says a lot to me as a designer – it says a lot to me about your use of color, how you like to live in your environment, your feminine side … it says a lot. For me, your answer is a well of information. If you ask a client ten of those types of questions, you can just nail people.

We actually did an episode of the show where a lady hated everything we did, and she singlehandedly taught me something very valuable in my career. When I do my design work, it is specifically tailored to that person – it is not about me. There is no Mark in the design. It is truly about the person and how they want to live in their space. When I do my design, and it’s done, and we’re getting ready to reveal, I feel as though I’ve done everything I possibly can. I’ve given my best effort, I’ve listened, I’ve held their hands … I’ve done everything I can do to create the optimal environment for them. So at that point, I close the book. Sometimes it’s great – people cry, jump up and down, tell you what they don’t like or they are even like this particular woman, who had a meltdown. As much as I appreciate the acknowledgment, it’s kind of the icing on the cake at that point. The cake is baked. It’s done. And that is a hard lesson to learn. I spent many a season going home at night thinking “Is she going to like this?” or “Why did I put that color on the wall?” pacing and beating myself up. At a point, I realized that if I don’t get behind my work, no one else will.

One of the most memorable episodes of Clean House was when the crew remodeled the home of host Niecy Nash’s mother. What was it like filming that episode, and how did Niecy handle it? It seemed a lot more personal than the show’s other episodes.

Yeah, it was definitely more personal. We actually had to play different roles. Niecy is usually the one who sits down with the homeowners and does the moment of truth of “Why are you living like this?” That was my job on this particular show. In the episode, I sit down with her mom and she tells me about losing her son, Niecy’s brother, and about how she has dedicated her life to the non-profit organization she founded based on his death. It was really more emotional than any other scene I have done, because I felt like I was right there with her. It’s so easy to walk into someone’s home knowing you are going to leave five days later – you’re kind of detached. But in this episode, with Niecy and her mom, I was just so in for the ride. That is the only reveal I actually cried at. During the reveal, she looks up at the drawing her son had done of himself that I had framed and hung on the wall above the chaise lounge. We actually didn’t get the chance to say this on the show, but that picture was discovered in his locker a week after he was shot. It had so much poignancy and meaning. I really wanted to frame it and place it in such a place that when she sat on her chaise, she would be able to look at it and really appreciate it.

Clean House is in its sixth season. How much longer do you see the show running, and how much longer do see yourself being a part of it?
I have to tell you, Clean House is an anomaly in the both the makeover and reality television genres. Our numbers and ratings continue to climb, and there is continued interest in the show. I would have to say that we are still continuing to find our legs, and, with the network’s permission, I see it going on for another five years. Some makeover shows have crashed and burned, because they were kind of based on a fad, like, say Queer Eye. Queer Eye was a great show – a fantastic show – but it’s kind of this really hip, trendy idea, like “we have a queer eye, and we’ll decorate your place.” How long can that idea drive a show? But then you have a show like Extreme Home Makeover, a show that absolutely shot for the moon and accomplished it. As a result, what else can you really do in the makeover genre? You will see new shows pop up here and there, especially on HGTV, because that is their business, but at the end of the day it is truly reinventing the wheel.

Our show is truly one of the only shows that takes what I call a voyeuristic view at people’s obsession with clutter. The executive producer on our show doesn’t even like makeover shows. She’s from COPS. So, all of a sudden you have this absolutely fresh voice going, “We just want to get in there and shoot it in a very photojournalistic style, and really tell the homeowner’s story.” I always say that the real star is not us. It’s not even the homeowners! It’s the clutter. I think for that reason alone, our show is going to continue to pave the way in the genre.

As far as my involvement, I am on contract until April 2008. This will be my third renewal, and of course the network wants me to stay, since it has been so difficult to put together a strong team. But I think, like anyone, I will consider my options at that point. Chances are good that I will continue to do Clean House, since I love the show so much, and I love the people on the show, but I will know in April.

With all of the television shows you have done, including Clean House, do you still work with private homeowners?

I do, for two reasons. One, private clients are my R&D. I am very selective, and I take on maybe one or two projects a year. Right now I have two, but they have been going on for maybe two years. With Clean House, the rooms we make over happen in a day, and we are really asking the homeowners to wrap their mind around something that I would typically take eighteen months to do with a private client – it’s really the distilled version of what I do in real life.

What do you do to unwind when you are not working?

Well, I love to travel, which is hard since we have been shooting straight for the last two years. But I did manage to make it Barcelona and Paris in April, and I spent a week in each of those cities. And I love, love, love cooking, and food. I’m a huge, huge, huge fan of food. My family has had five restaurants, so I grew up around food, and I absolutely love it. I cook a lot of Mediterranean-style food. I can actually chop for an hour and go into my zone. And I have two dogs, a pitbull and a terrier-dalmatian mix. So I spend a lot of time with them. They keep me busy!

How often do you recognized when you are walking down the street? What types of people approach you in public?

Well, I do get recognized quite a bit. In L.A., I think everyone is sort of jaded. It’s more like they kind of look at me and wonder who I am, and they think they know me, but they are probably never going to actually say anything to me. But you know it happens. When I am on the road, I get recognized a lot, by people from all walks of life. I seem to be big with people in the young business professional demographic, as well as with moms. Moms just love me. I get a lot of fan mail. I probably get close to a thousand emails a week from what seem to be mostly moms, telling me things like “you’re adorable, you’re cute” and I really, really love that stuff. And I do respond to all my emails. The number one question people ask me about Clean House is “Do people really live like that? Do they really have that much clutter?” And it’s totally true – they really do. I think that is the thing that shocks most people. On the other side of that, and why I think our show resonates so much with viewers, is that we’re a nation of clutter. Research indicates that two thirds of the country suffers from clutter, on some level – whether it is a junk drawer or an entire storage unit full of stuff they have had for 20 years. From a television standpoint, viewers are just shocked, like “Okay, maybe I have a messy bedroom, but really, how can these people live like this?”

When you are working with a homeowner on the show, or with private clients, are there times when they want something that you just think will look absolutely heinous?

Well, yeah. There are. I do have clients who, I swear, I am not sure why they hired me, since they are just basically going to tell me what they want and what they think should happen. And I think that my instincts are to really honor that, and at the same time remind them that I am a partner with them, like their “design coach.” It’s a partnership to create the best environment possible. When you have a teammate, you treat everyone equally and respect their opinions. But at the end of the day, it’s their house, and they have to live there – if they want a citrus-orange-colored, high-gloss floor, then, well, that’s what they’re going to get! My job is just to work around that. Something that I have learned in my career is that design is not an absolute – it’s much like beauty, in that it is completely in the eyes of the beholder. And hey – when this person walks in their house and what they see inspires them, empowers them, lights them up, excites them, then what can I do to change that? Who am I to say that that shouldn’t be used? I think the trick is to integrate it, and make it look the best that it can look.

You also have a line of home furnishings on the Home Shopping Network. What inspired you to create your own line?

Really, it was the demand. From an external standpoint, people asked me, “Where can I buy the stuff that you work with?” And then from an internal standpoint, from a professional standpoint, I realized that as exciting as it is to be on a television show, if it’s not driving something else, then it is just that – a television show. Most people would think that would be enough, but for me, personally, there was just a missing opportunity. The personality and celebrity-ness, if you will, that I have developed and created on camera is in itself like an infomercial, or what we call a media driver. It’s constantly reinforcing my image and my stamp and my beliefs. So people think, “I like that guy. I want a piece of him.” So, we needed to create products that people would have in their homes and that were reminiscent of the work that I do. The key strategy to my line is affordable luxury. Without a doubt, my goal is to create luxurious environments inexpensively.

What do you think you would be doing for a living if you weren’t working in design?

Wow! I actually ask that question of my clients! Hmmm, let me think. Well, I have to tell you that I ask my clients what their secret passions are – the ones they never talk about. And in asking that question, I always reference my answer to that question, which would be driving a racecar. Last Sunday, I actually went to the L.A. Motor Speedway and drove eight laps in an Indy 500 car, and got up to 150 miles an hour. It was exhilarating! I really want to go back. So, if I wasn’t working in design, I would probably be an Indy 500 driver traveling all over Europe doing races.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you.

I really am a blue-collar guy. I have walked the red carpet at the Oscars, I have flown in private jets around the world, I’ve had carte blanche at all the studios – I feel like I have lived such a privileged life. But at the end of the day what matters most to me is where I came from and who I spend my life with. Probably half of the emails I get from people say, “I wish I could afford you, I know you’re working with all the stars,” things like that. But, really, if people only knew that the projects I choose, the charities that I work with and the people that I involve in my life are so … basic. And simple. I think that would be the one thing that people probably, truly, don’t know about me.

You mention charities that you work with – what are some of those?

I work with quite a few. I just recently did a huge event for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, a big silent auction for the owner of the Hurricanes in North Carolina. I work a lot with cancer-related organizations. I have also been very involved with the City of Hope out in California and with Meals on Wheels, with the American Wine and Food Festival with Wolfgang Puck. I have also been involved with the Trevor Project, which is a project designed to counsel at-risk youth, and also Greenpeace and Kids and Pets. All these charities are ones that are really near and dear to me.

Do you have any other projects you are working on?

I am actually in the middle of writing two books right now – I definitely think that being an author is going to be my next career. One book is about people’s obsession with clutter – it’s kind of like Chicken Soup for the Soul meets the television makeover genre. It’s sort of hip and cool, but really gets to the heart of what is going on in the country. The second book is more design-oriented, and addresses design myths.

I am actually also involved with another show on Style, Clean House Comes Clean, which is a behind the scenes look at Clean House. I am a consulting producer on the show, and really inspired it to happen – there’s so much of the process and what happens behind the scenes at Clean House that never gets told on our show because we only have an hour.

The network green lit 10 episodes, and we shot all 10. The show actually premiered in August to the second highest ratings at the network for a premiere show, so we’re really excited. And getting back into the producing seat, behind the cameras, is really exciting for me. So, yeah, Clean House Comes Clean usually airs after Clean House on Wednesday nights.

On November 7th, we are running two back-to-back shows – one deals with my top five greatest design challenges, and the other deals with the top five most difficult homeowners. So make sure to check that out!

Interviewed by T.D.M., November 2007. For more information on Mark Brunetz and his design work, visit his official site.

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