Scott Foley has never done reality TV before, but you wouldn’t know it watching him host Ellen’s Next Great Designer. He’s such a natural on the furniture-design competition show, named after producer (and avowed design lover) Ellen DeGeneres, that it should really be called Scott Foley’s Next Great Designer. He’s the one greeting contestants, assigning them challenges, judging their work with co-panelists Brigette Romanek and Fernando Mastrangelo, and visiting them in their studios to offer encouragement (or, in the case of one contestant, a gentle reminder that referring to him as Noel, his character from Felicity, makes them both look old). As an unabashed fan of reality-competition shows — The Challenge and Top Chef are favorites — and amateur furniture-maker himself, Foley has the chops.
Vulture caught up with Foley to talk about his experience filming a reality show at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, how he keeps his puppy, Duke Pumpkin, from destroying his furniture (spoiler alert: he doesn’t!), and his advice for amateur woodworkers that really applies to anyone who wants to try a new thing. “It can’t hurt,” he points out, “unless you die!”
I was impressed by how knowledgeable you seemed in the judging. Did you do any research before filming, or did you just rely on your own experience?
I’m so glad you said that, thank you — that helps ease some of my imposter syndrome. I didn’t do any research, I was mostly coming at it from the perspective of the viewer. You know, I could sit up there and be pretentious, but people watching at home are more in the mind-set of, Does that look comfortable? Would that look good in my house? You know when you see something if you like it. That’s good design to me.
Can you clarify how the production schedule worked? The way the show is filmed, it appears that the designers are flying back and forth to L.A. every week, but that seems like a lot of flying!
It was wonky. Usually you’d get seven or eight designers in a warehouse together to do all of the challenges. Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately in this case — because of COVID we couldn’t get everyone in one room. We’d give them challenges over Zoom, and they’d have four days [to complete the challenge]. Each of the contestants did all of the pieces in their own studios, then we all flew out to L.A. for the judging. And the finalists worked on their final projects in L.A.
It is funny how you’ll see me and/or Ellen give them the design challenge in person, then they walk off as if they’re pretending to go build them. But no, they’d already finished all of the projects when they got there. It worked out though, because we got to see their studios. Arielle had this beautiful spot in Brooklyn. Urvi was in a co-working space. Christina is so talented — she works out of an itty-bitty little studio in Manhattan. There are these beautiful old buildings that used to be factories — sweatshops really — that have been converted into work-live-build spaces. It was really cool to walk in and see the industrial tools, smell the wood and metal.
Do you think COVID restrictions improved the show?
They definitely didn’t hurt us.
I’m thinking specifically of the way you got to really see how the designer was feeling, really examine their facial expressions, because they had to stand so far back from the judges.
That’s right — that was kind of cool. Its interesting, production-wise — each piece had to be assembled and lit correctly before judging, and we were in the studio while they were setting up. We did everything we could not to look at the piece until the contestant described their process, what they went through, and how they felt about the challenge. I really didn’t want to look until I said, “Light it up!”
You only see us looking at the piece for three to four minutes — looking, touching, usually breaking it in my case — but we probably spent 20 or 30 minutes asking about why they went with a specific color or cut, really trying to understand the piece. Urvi had great stories about her inspiration coming from India, Erica explained how she made digitized sound waves. It’d be cool to see a longer cut of that, and our deliberation. The other judges would sometimes ask me, “Scott, how much would you pay for that?” and I’d say, “I could get that for $400 at Ikea.” They’d be like “WHAT? That’s a $7,000 piece!” I was like, “You guys are fucking high! Are you insane?” That didn’t make it to air.
There was one really emotional moment in judging when Erica broke down thinking she was going home. Were there other emotional moments that didn’t make it to air?
That was the most dramatic one. During eliminations, where I was sort of coached, they’d ask me to wait 20 seconds before saying who was going home, and I had to look them in the eyes the whole time. It was brutal. Erica was the one who wore her heart on her sleeve the most, but when Urvi walked away my kids were like, “How could you hurt her feelings!?” I texted her, “My kids hate me now.”
In the episode where the designers are tasked with creating furniture for your kids, Ellen volunteered Diane Keaton to deliver it. Did Diane Keaton ever deliver your kids’ furniture?
No! It was so funny — like five minutes before that [was filmed], I got a text asking me to hop on a Zoom. My wife and I were making dinner. I was like, “Babe, I have to go Zoom with Ellen.” Then like a second before I logged on, I got another text: “Diane Keaton is here too.” I didn’t even brush my hair! I was like, “What’s she going to be wearing? Will I see her neck?” She was very cool. But no, she never brought me my pieces.
Is there a contestant you think should have gotten a second chance?
I’m pretty happy with our decisions and the order people were eliminated. I think Alejandro was an unfortunate situation just because of the materials we gave them. I’ll be honest, with that raw stone and wood I would have also made a cantilever table with a stone as the base. He has kids around the same age as mine, so I would have loved to see what he would have made — what he did make! — for my kids. But look, it was a panel, and I didn’t always get my way. I could make an argument that someone should have stayed and get outvoted. That’s just how these shows work.
Do you have a favorite piece?
I have a couple! Erica’s side tables from the first episode. One she made totally by hand, and one totally [by machine]. In person they were so stunningly beautiful. Even though in the episode you see her helper drill in and crack a piece off, you couldn’t tell. You could put them in any house and they’d look great.
For me, Mark’s mirror was his sort of redemption challenge. I loved hearing how he was inspired by the piece of art, and it was finished beautifully. I would love to have that in my home.
The piece that didn’t get the attention I thought it deserved was Urvi’s sideboard [from the art challenge.] I think she did such a good job. You couldn’t really tell from watching, that even though the sides were wood, dyed to match the berries in the artwork, the top and bottom were made out this gorgeous metal. It was just beautiful.
I loved Urvi’s side tables [from the shapes challenge] too.
Yeah, I visited Urvi during that challenge. They didn’t show it for time, but I live in Connecticut and she’s based in Rhode Island, so I drove out with production to see her. I probably spent two hours talking to her and Manan, her partner. She had so much work to do, with the intricacies of the cuts and sticking on the mirror pieces. I’m surprised she’s not sill working on it.
Are you a fan of reality competition shows?
I’m unabashedly a fan! You know, it used to be a guilty pleasure, but it’s a format that has really come to dominate television, from Survivor to the Real Housewives of Fucking-Who-Knows-What-City. I still watch The Challenge — my wife and I get so excited Wednesday nights now because they’ve got The Challenge All Stars. We watch Project Runway, Top Chef. I love Blown Away on Netflix; there’s shows on pottery throwing, flower design. I love to watch talented people just doing what they do. If you look at my Instagram, you’ll see that I love to see what cool artisans are up to.
I did see from your Instagram that you have a new puppy — how do you keep him from destroying your furniture?
This damn dog. I don’t! I wish I knew. He poops in the dining room — ha! I said “poop” and he just looked up at me like, “You talking about me?” So now in addition to three kids, we have three dogs and a cat. But what can you do? He’s made his way into our family and we love him.
Who has the best taste: Felicity’s Noel Crane, Scrubs’ Sean Kelly, or Scandal’s Jake Ballard?
Oh, hmm. Jake. I say that because the Shondaland world is very curated, design-wise. I also think both Noel and Sean are married by now, and Jake as an eternal bachelor pining after Olivia Pope has the time and money to spend on good furniture — and no kids to tear it up.
Do you have any advice for amateur woodworkers?
Don’t be afraid! It seems so intimidating watching people talking about miter saws and wood grain, but just go to Home Depot, buy some plywood, a hand saw, some screws, and a screwdriver, and go outside and make a box. Then you can make anything you want. I look at it this way: I’m not that much different from anyone else. I look at someone and think if they can do that, I can at least do half of what they did. [A couple years ago] I took flying lessons after I was on a flight with a lot of turbulence. I figured, If this pilot can keep 300 people from dying, I can fly a tiny little plane. It can’t hurt — unless you die!
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.