Clean lines please the eye. Aaron Foster designs a peaceful room.

Refreshing look at home decor

By JJ Gonson - June 1, 2006

Aaron Foster never planned to be an interior decor specialist, or an artist, or the host of a design show on HGTV. His college roommates are still bewildered about how the guy who used to leave piles of dirty dishes in the sink is now someone who preaches minimalism and whose opinion about mantelpiece arrangement is taken seriously.

Eight years ago, when the California native and a friend started a wholesale furnishing business in Atlanta, Aaron's life goal was to be an actor. The first art piece he created was a map of the US made out of old license plates. His business partner liked it, they hung it in their showroom and the response was good. Five years later, with his creations gaining popularity, he moved back to Los Angeles, happy that he could sell art, rather than wait tables, to support his budding acting career. He still had no notion about pursuing a life in interior decoration.

Like anyone, and everyone, trying to get a foot in the show biz door in L.A., Aaron was always on the lookout for an opportunity. He was contacted by a home design show interested in using his art work and he mentioned that he was an actor with experience in design, and that maybe they might have a use for him. But the demo that particular conversation led to never made it to the air. Then his old business partner mentioned to a producer friend that Aaron might be what he was looking for, and, happily for him, she was right.

Aaron Foster, host of a design show on HGTV.

The resulting show on HGTV, called FreeStyle, is based around the idea of redesigning a space without spending any money. The crew digs through a home-owner's garage and attic looking for things they can repurpose. They find unique ways to use art, and colors, in ways that the residents of the homes may not have thought to do themselves.

FreeStyle doesn't work from a script, which gives Aaron a lot of freedom to do what he wants. Before a show begins filming he goes to the house they will be working in and meets the owners, to get a sense of them and their space. He spends time looking through their things and together they choose a room to focus on; they won't repaint, and to some degree they will simply reposition items that are already in the room.

Aaron says the goal is to make the redesign personal to the residents. "The Mona Lisa is an amazing painting," he comments, "but I wouldn't want to hang it in my home. That's the approach I take: who are these people and how do we make the art reflect who they are?"

By the time Aaron and the crew go back to shoot they have a fairly good idea of where they are going to start, but they are often surprised by the shape things take when they actually begin to move pieces about. They start by emptying out the chosen room, and as they work they keep an exchange going with the residents to get a feel for how they are liking what is happening.

Following the current trend towards strong simplicity, Aaron says that his main approach is to find a few key pieces that are very important, but not too many. "If you have 45 things on your mantel they get lost," Aaron remarks. "If you have four they can be appreciated. We're not doing anything permanent. We've had some tense afternoons, but we've never had a show where they say, 'Put it back!'"

The hardest show Aaron recalls making was with a couple in Minneapolis who had just refinished their basement with spectacular new furnishings; very modern and clean looking. They had moved their old stuff upstairs, and found themselves distressed that they were spending all the time in the new basement room, and no longer using their living room. Confident that it wouldn't be a popular idea, Aaron chose to take apart the basement room and bring their new personalities to the upper level.

"It was a very tense couple of hours," he admits. "In the end they loved it, but it was more like a therapy session than a design session. It was tough: the husband was unhappy until the very end." But, all's well that ends well, and moving the couple away from clutter to a simpler style proved to be a successful choice.

With 55 shows in a season, shooting in New York, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, FreeStyle keeps Aaron very busy. That doesn't give him much time to do the things he loves, like mountain biking, and leaves him even less time to visit his mother, Wendy Ward, a nurse at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital, and her husband, who have lived in Vineyard Haven since 1990. Perhaps if he develops a Martha's Vineyard fan base, FreeStyle will come to the Island to redecorate a home, and Aaron can get a chance to have a proper visit. Check out FreeStyle on HGTV, Adelphia channel 33, Friday nights at 9:30.

JJ Gonson is a photographer who currently lives in Cambridge and often contributes to The Times.