Reality TV Show “House Rules” – 10 lessons learnt from Rose and Rob’s Retro Revival house.
Alistair McLean
Category: Colours, Renovations, Television

While channel surfing the other day, Secret Design Studio stumbled onto Channel 7’s “House Rules”, which is one of the many generic quick-makeover reality shows.  It was fascinating (and a bit scary) watching what was happening to a modest, early 1970’s family home that was a very, distant cousin to a Pettit and Sevitt home, with a simple skillion roof ,  terracotta tiles, white bagged brickwork and dark stained timber. Many houses in Western Australia are full, double brick, including modest homes like this, which can make internal renovations more challenging.


The premise of the show is that there are 6 enthusiastic, photogenic couples, and each week one couple has a holiday, while the other 5 couples “renovate” the holidaying couples’ house.  Before the holiday couple go away they leave their “House Rules” which is like a mini-brief for their desired look and feel for their home.  Unfortunately the remaining five couples need to interpret the brief, and don’t get the opportunity to discuss the details with the client.

One of the most important parts of the any design project is that the designer has the ability to listen, and understand what the client is trying to achieve. Part of being a good listener is the ability to gently probe if a client can’t articulate the result they would like. The first unreality of this reality show is that the few broadbrush statements left by the clients are a bit vague, and they can’t be contacted for clarification. Amongst other things they ask for a “retro revival” style, with no white walls, that their artwork is incorporated into the design, and that the contestants should use a mixed bag of “retro” fabrics.

Understandably the contestants are a bit mystified by these “House Rules”, and a few confess to know nothing about Retro styles, as they scratch their heads trying to remember the last Austin Powers movie that they saw.  The main issue is that the term “retro” is so generic, it can’t really be pinned down, and can draw on a number of decades from the 1930’s to the 1980’s according to the individual’s interpretation.

If the contestants (or the owners) had done a little bit of research on the home they would have realized that this style of home was usually a crisp, white house, inside and out for walls, with contrasting stained timber trim and timber beams.  Bold colours were often introduced into splashbacks, curtains and soft furnishings, but they were often earthy tones. The problem that the contestants faced is that one of the “House Rules” was no white walls.  White walls would have been appropriate, and a good back-drop for the family’s artwork and retro fabric collection. Most of the contestants decided that “no white walls” actually meant a riot of intense colours that make your eyes hurt.

The home had a fairly compact and efficient plan, with three  bedrooms and an open plan kitchen/dining/living area, so a designer may have tried to make the rooms feel larger and lighter. Secret Design Studio may have interpreted the “no white walls” house rule with some warm neutrals that wouldn’t have competed with the artwork for attention.  But due to the competitive nature of this game show, each contestant was trying to outdo the other for attention so it was some fairly intense colour combinations along the way.


It shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that the results were a bit of a mish-mash of different interpretations of “Retro Revival” which were all competing for the judges eye in close proximity to each other.  The contestants would have had a difficult time with the large amount of artwork that they had to re-use as well as all of the vivid retro fabrics, which seemed to have enough colour of their own.

So what are 10 things to take away from House Rules’ Rose and Rob’s Retro Revival makeover?

House Rule #1 – If you get five teams of people to competitively redecorate you home, don’t expect a co-ordinated result. Just look at the lack of co-ordination between the open plan dining/kitchen and living areas.


House Rule #2 – If you have piece of art which is special to you then let it be the starting point, rather than trying to introduce other features so that everything competes against each other, (and that special art is added as an afterthought).


House Rule #3 – Large expanses of intense wall colours will make small rooms seem smaller –( the yellow hallway).


House Rule #4 – If you want a retro feel for your home, work out the time period that is appropriate for your home, and research what style was relevant for your home.  1950’s laundry decorations look out of place in a 1970’s home. Or contact Secret Design Studio for help.


House Rule #5– More is not more, usually less is more. Many of the rooms seem overstuffed and over busy – a careful eye can edit. The ensuite seems to be a lot of competing finishes in a small space – four different types of tile plus a timber feature wall! A more unified colour theme throughout the house would make the space flow better, and the home seem larger.


House Rule #6– Kitchen and bathroom renovations are more of a problem in logistics and project management in a small space than design.  Both rooms take a lot of different trades to complete their tasks in a particular order. These rooms are often not big enough for two different trades to work in at once. Don’t plan on renovating these rooms in a week, as the different tradesmen’s availability will control the speed of the job.


House Rule#7 – Don’t rush decisions, and limit your shopping to the big boys. There were commercial arrangements between the producers and companies like Beacon Lighting, Beaumont Tiles and Adairs, who are all good mass market suppliers.  The contestants were limited by these commercial arrangements and what was in stock at the time.   There are many small local small suppliers who can often source less mainstream products given time.


House Rule#8 – Be cautious of strongly themed rooms that won’t be easy to update.  It’s a lot of fun to have a personalised bedroom theme for the kids (such as the pirate bedroom for the two year old), but how long until the two year old graduates into a Star Wars fan? How long will you be living in the house, and will a strongly themed pirate bedroom put off potential buyers? Secret Design Studio understands that Rose and Rob’s family have already moved out of their recently renovated home into another home, so let us hope another 2 year old is enjoying the pirate bedroom.


House Rule #9 –Allow plenty of time to order tiles.  Even big suppliers, like Beaumonts don’t hold enough stock for all of their products all of the time, and know the quantities you need.  One contestant fell in love with a tile that was on display for the kitchen splashback, but they were out of stock. The contestant persuaded the tile supplier to sell them the display stand as they only needed a small quantity for the kitchen splashback. I don’t think the supplier would have been so co-operative if the TV camera’s hadn’t been filming. Tiles can take 12 weeks to bring in by container from Europe.  If you fall in love with a tile that is out of stock be prepared to wait (or bring in a TV crew and buy the display).


House Rule #10 – Reality shows are not reality. “House Rules” is a fast-paced, entertaining show, with half of the drama being between the personalities, and being heavily edited to fit into the TV time slot.  Renovating a home is not like “House Rules”, with willing and able tradesmen with their utes parked around the corner (out of camera shot) waiting for their cue to magically appear and perform miracles under time pressure. However the key is professional knowledge, good design, careful planning, lots of preparation and completion of all selections prior to work commencing.  Even though Rose and Rob’s house ended up as a bit of a visual mish-mash the contestants (and their tradesmen) completed an amazing amount of miracles with some serious constraints.

If you are interested to see how the other contestant’s houses fared with their makeovers follow the link to the “House Rules” website: