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BY DESIGN : He's a Designer for the People : Interiors: With two new cable shows, Joe Ruggiero aims to bring design concepts to regular folks and professionals.


Joe Ruggiero has climbed aboard his star vehicle and is tooling around the country peering into the homes of America's interior designers. They don't set the dog on him, though, because Ruggiero is one of them--and the host of two new shows on cable TV.

The Los Angeles-based Ruggiero is working with Home & Garden Television, a 24-hour cable network that, like the killer bees, has not yet crossed the Los Angeles County line. Its Southern California premiere will come Aug. 1, to Cablevision Industries subscribers in the San Fernando Valley. HGTV's lineup of decorating, home repair, remodeling, gardening, sewing and other programs for do-it-yourselfers already airs in Sacramento and San Francisco.

The Knoxville, Tenn.-based network, owned by the E.W. Scripps Co., is among the latest entries in the growing media response to interest in hearth and home. (See related story, Page E1.) It debuted in December, 1994, with enough cable franchise contracts to reach 6.5 million viewers. Advertisers include the big names in home improvement, such as 3-M Corp., Black & Decker, Home Depot, Owens-Corning and Sears.

Channel surfers might recognize the 53-year-old ruggedly handsome Ruggiero as the interior designer Bob Vila turned to for the final flourishes on PBS' "This Old House." He also hosted ABC's "Home Show," which folded last year after a six-year run.

Ruggiero has also toiled for Ethan Allen and designed the Idea House--a display of state-of-the-art home furnishings--for the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. Now, he's added producing, directing and starring for HGTV to his resume. And he continues to do interiors, having just completed "the old Garry Shandling house," he says. The old Garry Shandling house? "It used to belong to him," Ruggiero says.

What happens when the hoity-toity world of interior design ventures into the chips 'n' dip realm of cable television? Such Geraldo-like pronouncements as: "Bathrooms will be the sex symbols of the '90s." On the hourlong "Rooms for Improvement," Ruggiero flaunts his expert knowledge of toilets, for example, while co-host Leslie Uggams gushes and gasps and claims complete ignorance.

Ruggiero seems more at ease as sole host of the half-hour "Best of American Design," allowing the other designers to set the tone. Strolling the grounds of fabric designer Jack Lenor Larsen's East Hampton, N.Y., estate, he's deferential as Larsen chats about designing gardens.

With giggly French designer Florence De Dampierre, who lives on Shelter Island, N.Y., he is playfully cajoling, entreating her to explain the seed packets she has glued to her bedroom floor.

And as Mark Hampton, one of the grand old men of decorating, proudly shows off the 20-year-old faded dining room draperies in his South Hampton, N.Y., home, Ruggiero waxes historic about Hampton's Washington, D.C., connections--designing Blair House as well as Christmas cards for recent Republican administrations.

Rather than model himself as a do-it-all, know-it-all male Martha Stewart, Ruggiero aspires to become a household name in the Elsa Klensch mode. He fashions himself as a conduit.

"My goal is to bring design to people and provide a showcase for professionals," Ruggiero says.

Although he has worked in the land of print, as editor in chief of Home magazine, he believes video adds an important dimension. "It transports people. Print is good for all the details, like where you can buy things, and it's good to hold on to, but video gives you a sense of being there."

The false sense of being there has an insidious side effect. While magazines often instill a bad case of "I want that," "Best of American Design" inspires thoughts of "I want to live there."

While many of the homes are breathtakingly lovely (Larsen's springs to mind) and out of reach, most are much more humble. "Designers' homes are much less luxurious than their clients'," Ruggiero says. "They have less budget. They live in a more modest way, but very creatively. The difference is, clients' houses are often austere and formal, [but] they don't necessarily have style."

Touring a house via video is comforting. Many of the designers confess that their most successful works were happy accidents. They admit to being inveterate furniture movers, and as clever as they may be, designers have unsightly rooms that are off-limits to the cameras.

The West Coast is virgin territory for Ruggiero. In planning the show's itinerary, he divided the country into seven sections. He started with the East Coast, will move to the Northwest this summer and will begin showcasing Southern California next year.

Who will he choose from his long list of L.A. designers? "I haven't approached anyone yet," he says with a shudder. Are there professional jealousies? "Only in small towns," he says with hope.

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