By Stacey Harrison
Having covered HGTV for the past couple of years, I’ve seen more than a few shows pitched as something completely different for the network. While sometimes you can chalk that up to clever marketing, it happens to be oh-so true in the case of The Antonio Treatment. For instance, how many design shows can boast life-size pink rhinos coming out of walls and boxing with a former Saved by the Bell heartthrob?
Design Star Season 4 winner Antonio Ballatore brings his rock’n’roll background heavily into play as he revamps dumpy spaces with his signature edgy style. Along with his crew of longtime friends, and his ever-present bulldog Chewie, Ballatore sets out to make radical designs custom-suited to his clients. Among his tasks this season are a renovating a non-profit music studio for young people, creating an art studio for a deaf cartoonist, a punk rock family looking to incorporate antique furniture into their home, and giving Mario Lopez a swanky new workout gym. It all gets started when The Antonio Treatment premieres with two episodes at 10pm ET Sunday on HGTV.
Ballatore took some time to answer some questions about getting the show off the ground, and the backlash to his unconventional approach.
Did you know right after you won Design Star what your show would be, or was there a lot of planning that had to be done?
Antonio Ballatore: I think we had a basic plan to begin with, and once we started, we really got into more of my life and what I was doing and captured a lot of that also. It’s definitely evolved since then. A lot of what goes on, it’s a lot of my friends, a lot of things that are in my life, a lot of artist friends I bring in as guest artists. I could have a guest artist come in every week. A lot of that developed as it went.
What was it like coming from Design Star, which was such a competitive show, to something like this where it’s just you doing your job?
That was definitely nice, to collaborate. My crew is awesome and we all work together and everybody helps come up with ideas. But we were definitely competing against the clock. We’re doing these major makeovers in three-and-a-half days. That was the competition.
Every makeover show has the part when things start to go wrong, and the audience is led to believe the whole project could fall apart at any minute. But, sitting at home, you can’t help but be pretty sure everything is going to turn out OK. How dicey do things really get?
It can get pretty close. We had to figure out each other’s work and what we could do in that time frame. By the third episode, we were pretty tight. We were cranking them out. We took on some pretty big jobs — retail spaces, clothing stores, we did a bar, the art studios at the Boys and Girls Club of Hollywood, we did a bunch of residential spaces. You know what was funny, the big spaces, we really knocked out. It was the little spaces that always came from behind and shook us a little bit and almost didn’t finish. The smallest spaces always came back to get us. Maybe we were just too laid back and thought we had it in the can and didn’t realize that we were running out of time. We got them all out, though. That became fun, being able to do such crazy jobs in such a short time.
The episode I saw, where you redo the music studio, there was an injury to one of your crew. Anything else like that happen?
No. Thank God nobody hurt themselves. Greg has been a friend of mine since we were kids and stuff like that always happens to him. (Laughs) I ripped him a little bit for it and people thought we were being mean to him. But it’s a construction crew and we’re all buddies, so he had to get made fun of for a little bit. Nobody got injured, but we were all hurting after awhile. We did 13 shows in 15 weeks, with just two weeks of prep time, so it was a crazy schedule.
Since you’ve known most of your crew for a long time, was it easy to be yourselves on camera and capture your camaraderie?
That’s what was pretty cool about it. There was one new guy, Billy, and he was a little shy at first, but then two or three episodes in, we all got to know each other and we pretended the cameras weren’t even there and just treated it like a regular job. We all had a blast together. Toward the middle we started bringing guitars to the set and having little jam sessions at lunchtime. It was definitely a fun gig. We’ve been done two weeks now and we’re still tight, calling each other and missing each other. Last night we all went out together, so it’s a really tight crew, even behind the scenes, with the camera crew. It became a cool little family.
Was there something you thought was missing in the design show genre that you wanted to fill with this show?
The whole thing with this show and with me is that I’m just trying to do something different and push it a little bit and just inspire people. What I do isn’t for everybody, but if it inspires people to go out there and try something different and be a little bold with their design and not be intimidated by design, that’s what the main goal is behind this thing. That’s what I want to get across.
By “intimidated by design,” do you mean the people who might feel they’re not cultured enough to tackle design, or that they need formal training?
Yeah. A lot of designers use a lot of big terms, and they try to intimidate people with things. Where I come from, it’s just from the gut. It’s almost like an artist’s point of view. There’s no right or wrong. If it’s you, if it’s something that fits you and you dig it in your house, then go for it. Don’t worry about what people think. That’s the big thing, a lot of people either really love me and they get it, or some people, like, there’s a lot of bloggers that kind of hate me. “This guy’s not a designer,” and all this. You’d think I was out eating babies on the weekend, but I’m just trying to do something different and open people’s minds up and have fun with it.
What do those bloggers get mad about? Do they think you’re not qualified?
They get worked up about it. People have their opinions on what they think good design is and, for me, if you dig it, it’s all personal. Sure, you can lay something out wrong that doesn’t go together, but it’s all about being creative with your space and doing what you want.
You seem really unfazed by all this — winning Design Star, now having your own show. Are you just good at hiding it, or are you really not nervous and blown away by it all?
With the cameras around, and the whole show, I’m just doing what I’ve always been doing. It’s almost like, “It’s about time the cameras showed up.” I’m just doing my thing and having fun with it and the show and interviews and the whole artistic end of it. I’m just going for it and having fun and just being myself, and if it succeeds, that’s awesome, and if not, at least I went at it being myself and didn’t sacrifice anything.
You’ve been working as a professional designer for a long time, so how has being on TV changed your career?
For the past 12 years I’ve been a set designer. I’ve worked for people like David LaChappelle and Annie Leibovitz. Since I’ve been doing the show, I haven’t had a chance to do any of that. We just finished taping two weeks ago, and I’m just trying to catch up and recover and just chill out a little bit and see where this takes me. The interior thing is a whole new thing for me. I did small interiors here and there and commercial spaces, but now being this interior-designer guy is a whole new world.
What do you think of the episodes of The Antonio Treatment you’ve seen so far?
I think with the first episode, the one with the music studio, it was more kind of just following me around. There wasn’t too much of the design in there. As the episodes go on, there’s more and more design and it’s more of a design show than a reality show. I think they were setting it up and just showing the crew on that first show. You definitely see me evolve as a designer, too, and do all these crazy different spaces. … By the last two episodes, I was in a real groove and really figuring things out and really getting it tight.
This seems like a show aimed at bringing in viewers who might not even think they’d enjoy a design show. Do you think that’s the case?
Most definitely. That’s the thing about the show, it will go across lines and get a new audience in there to watch HGTV and get into design shows. We’re not doing your run-of-the-mill stuff. I did this hotel room with this life-size pink rhino coming out of the wall, and all sorts of stuff. I’m just going over-the-top with it and going crazy with it and making it entertaining and inspiring at the same time.
You’ve got your Mario Lopez episode coming up. How was that to shoot?
We do his home gym and a gym at his Extra studios. I get in the boxing ring with him, and it was pretty crazy. We went to his boxing gym where he trains, and Mario Lopez is no joke, he’s ripped on top of ripped. Muscles everywhere, he’s been training and boxing for years. He even fights semi-pro dudes. I went in there and I was warned, everybody’s like, “He’s going to rough you up, no matter what.” I went at him swinging full force and he just lit me up and I almost went down twice. I almost got knocked out. My knees got wobbly. That’s the first time in my life that’s happened to me. Mario calls me a “method designer.”
That is definitely not something I’m used to seeing on HGTV.
(Laughs) Yeah, we do all sorts of crazy stuff. Each episode is something kind of fun and crazy.