"Interior Motives" began as a half-hour show but was expanded to capitalize on its popularity after its first season. Each program is devoted to a single theme and can include demonstrations with experts, room or home redecorations in the field by Lowell or other designers, a segment during which Lowell uses a special TV screen to draw on top of photos brought by audience members to help them reconceptualize their decor, and a Q&A with adoring fans. Discovery executives say Lowell delivers to them the "all-important women, 25-54" demographic. And his studio audience, perhaps two dozen viewers, reflects that, although it is not unusual for a handful of men to attend.
"The women who watch our show are very well turned out, and many of them had professional lives prior to nesting," says Lowell, pausing one day for a chat in his dressing room at the Chatsworth studios where the show is taped. "They've been traveling on these fabulous travel and entertainment budgets, they've been to wonderful hotels, the best restaurants, so when they come home to their nice houses with no furniture, they're embarrassed to have people over."
On the day of my visit, he's taping an hour on Scandinavian design and turns an inexpensive wood armoire into a faux Swedish oven with fake tile contact paper, a fake tarnished metal oven door and a fake ornamental top. "You wouldn't really have something like that in your home?" I ask him. "Oh, yes, I would," he replies indignantly, "although I'd probably use real tiles and not the contact paper." Lowell says he loves about half of what gets on the air, and the remainder he describes as "make-do because we can't afford better." And anyway, "chances are that people at home watching are gonna have to make do, too."
The show's rule of thumb on cost: room redos for less than $1,000; project demos (like the "Swedish oven") for under $100. Unlike Martha Stewart's quasi-judgmental tag line, "It's a good thing," Lowell's is a cheerfully upbeat "You can do it."
Mario Buatta, the Old Guard New York designer whose clients have included Barbara Walters, Billy Joel and the late Malcolm Forbes, was a guest on Lowell's show and loved it. "He's great for all those women who are afraid to do anything, afraid to make a move. He makes it easy for you."
"The likes of me can watch this program and not be turned off," says Suzanne Beshoff, a harried 37-year-old Tustin hairdresser and mother of two, who emigrated from working class Liverpool years ago and appreciates Lowell's practicality.
Lowell brags that he can exhibit "good taste" with a budget of $1.98. And yes, he has actually redecorated a house trailer for the series. "I'd be lost without my staple gun," he says. As I watch him create a box-pleated fabric backdrop for a bed, I wonder how on earth you'd get it down for cleaning. I guess you'd just rip it down in six months and make a new one.
As he attaches a piece of fabric to the foam cushion of a window seat with duct tape, I imagine the horror I'd feel if a guest ever noticed. "The fact of the matter is," Lowell says, "if your guests are gonna walk in your house and lift up your cushion and look underneath, they shouldn't be in the house in the first place cuz they ain't there to see you. When you can afford it, you can have it professionally slipcovered." Touche.
Watching Lowell, with his close-cropped beard and theatrical gestures, is like watching a hyper-creative set designer who has wandered off the proscenium and into your living room by accident. As it turns out, that is not far from the truth. Lowell spent many years in the theater, acting and in technical roles; both kinds of training serve him well now.
His childhood was a peripatetic one, with a restless father who frequently changed careers and locales, bringing his wife and three children with him. Lowell, born Richard Lowell Madden in Anchorage, Alaska, says he attended more than a few elementary schools, never bonding with other children. "I was a quiet kid and very shy," he says, "a total 'Shine,' if you know what I mean."
But for as long as he can remember, he could paint, sculpt, draw and play the piano. Perhaps the artistic temperament was inherited: Lowell says his Sicilian American mother, Josephine Cavaleri Madden, who died eight years ago, was a Miss Bell Telephone and sang as part of a sister act with Tommy Dorsey. His father, Henry Madden, was a "real frontiersman," who worked as a master carpenter, restoring old homes, and as a photographer, cinematographer and videographer. He lives in Maine and owns his own video production house.
When Lowell was a child, his father preached in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and was a charismatic speaker who "understood the word of God" and exuded "just an extraordinary amount of love and energy." Lowell says he fully expected to be a preacher one day, too. It is this quality, this man-with-a-mission air, that captured the attention of the TV executives who created the craze for Lowell.