THE premise for "Designing Blind" sounds like an episode of "Punk'd, Home Edition": Lucky couples have a room in their home completely redecorated by designer Eric Brun-Sanglard, or Eric B., as he prefers to be called. Oh, but surprise! Eric B. is blind.
Hence the title.
The home improvement show, premiering tonight on A&E, embraces the humor of its unusual hook, but it's no gimmick. Eric B. has been working as a designer since he lost his sight 10 years ago to CMV retinitis. As his co-host, Alexandra Hedison, said during a recent set visit, "Eric doesn't need sight to have vision."
He had been the creative director for a perfume ad company until he lost his sight. In the ensuing months, Eric B. redesigned his home before putting it on the market. The response was so encouraging that he began buying, redesigning and selling houses. His work attracted clients as much for the way the rooms felt as for their visual appeal, and a unique design career was launched.
He approached an acquaintance, actress and independent producer Meredith Scott Lynn ("Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss"), with the idea for a reality show. The two filmed Eric B. converting a dilapidated garage into a guesthouse. They showed the pilot to executives at A&E, who quickly greenlighted the program.
Eric B. begins by sussing out a space. "The first thing I use is the sense of energy, which most people don't really understand," he explained in strongly accented English. (He was born and raised in Chamonix, in the French Alps.) "It's about getting in touch with the flow of a room and its layout and how the room works or doesn't work."
He employs some pretty cool tools -- a talking tape measure gives him the room's dimensions, and a computer program produces raised blueprints he can feel.
On the low-tech side, he goes through a room slowly, feeling everything in it. He claps to hear the height of a ceiling and the acoustics in the area. He smells the scents coming from plants and feels the light and breeze from the windows.
As for figuring out colors, his old advertising days come in handy. "You can pull out a Pantone color book and go to any color out of thousands and read off the number, and he can describe it exactly," Hedison said in amazement.
But the important thing to keep in mind, Eric B. said, is that "colors are emotions; people respond to colors emotionally."
In choosing hues, he studies his clients' personalities as much as he studies the space being designed.
That brought him to a downtown Los Angeles loft on a blistering hot day a couple of weeks ago to meet a couple whose apartment was going to be refurbished for the show. The loft dwellers entered, on camera, and met Hedison and Eric B. for the first time. Hedison gave them the news that their designer is blind; their response was completely unexpected and not to be divulged here.
The couple were then whisked to a "confessional," a reality show trope, to discuss their feelings. Hedison was next in the confessional. A source of levity on the show, she offered up one-liners about what had occurred, abetted off-camera by Lynn and Mitzi Druss, the show's makeup artist who moonlights as a comedian.
Between takes, Hedison, a photographer as well as an actress ("The L-Word"), said she never imagined hosting a reality show.
"I can barely host a dinner party," she joked. But seriously, "At first my fear was that it was sort of a gimmicky thing," she said of hearing the premise, "but Eric's whole approach to how he works and how he lives his life, and what he's trying to do, inspired me."
Meanwhile, Eric B. was evaluating all the information his senses had taken in, "like pieces of a big puzzle." He next had to decide where to take the couple on their "feel trip," a field trip with a twist. He and Hedison always take the clients out in the world blindfolded, to experience the design process his way. They'll visit a store and touch the furniture, but they might also stop off at a petting zoo or a dance class -- anything Eric B. can think of to help them learn more about his methods..
Because, ultimately, the show isn't just about design. "We're basically redoing people's lives at the same time as we're redoing their space," Eric B. said. And, he added, if they can watch as a man without sight designs their home, then they can realize that there is no limit to what they can do with their own lives. "I have a little bit of agenda here. Yes, we want to entertain people, but we also want to educate people, and there's no better way to do that than with a little bit of fun."
Laura Ward, a recent participant whose remodel is complete, rhapsodized over her new living room and said she and her boyfriend, Luca Byr, had so much fun with the show that they missed the crew afterward. But even more significantly, "we weren't expecting the show to reflect our relationship, and it did," Ward said. "Eric was able to bring out our personalities and what we represent and manifest them through how he designed the room. He saw the beauty that sometimes you forget you have in your life together."
To Eric B., that's the true hook of the show.
"I really don't care about being famous, and I'm certainly not getting rich," he said with a laugh. But to change perceptions as well as rooms, to teach and share all that he has learned, "that's what makes this entire experience of losing my sight worth it."