The Untold Truth Of Ellen's Design Challenge

Ellen DeGeneres' series "Ellen's Design Challenge" is a fun reality competition show that launched in 2015, per HGTV. It asks contestants to create a piece of furniture from scratch, meaning they have to draw and build it. Viewers get to watch designers make something beautiful with the help of a stocked workshop and professional construction workers on hand to give advice. It doesn't hurt that DeGeneres drops by now and then to crack some jokes about the process and lighten the mood. In the end, the winner of the show walks away with an incredible $100,000 prize. The series became a hit because it highlighted the furniture building process, something not typically seen on TV. 

Even if you're a huge fan of the show, there's probably a few things you might now know about "Ellen's Design Challenge." Here's a look at the untold truth of the show. For example, have you heard that DeGeneres is not only a guest star but also a top producer on the series? (via IMDb). She gained her design know-how firsthand while flipping houses for the past 20 years (via Los Angeles Magazine). You can also expect a look at some of the other stars of the show, including host Jay Montepare who sells his furniture on Valmar Craftsman, and Judge Christiane Lemieux, who got her start in the fashion industry. Let's dive in!

Ellen is the boss

"Ellen's Design Challenge" is DeGeneres' baby from start to finish. According to Deadline, she was the one who came up with the idea for the popular series before pitching it to HGTV. Her company, A Very Good Production, planned out the entire series, picking the judges and determining the format of the show. DeGeneres did have some help, however. Her company also worked with A. Smith & Co. Productions. DeGeneres does not only work behind the scenes of "Ellen's Design Challenge," but she is also in front of the camera. She appears on the show now and then to delight contestants with her jokes and design savvy. The star also does a sit-down with the contestants where she asks a few questions about the specific challenge (via HGTV).

The gamble to produce her own design competition series has certainly paid off. The show was the highest-rated series in HGTV history during the first season. It managed to attract a total of more than 12 million viewers and was a top 10-rated cable program in its time slot. The first season was so popular that it was quickly renewed for a second season.

Host Jay Montepare loves to work with wood

Jay Montepare is a Williamstown, Massachusetts native who loves to be close to the earth's natural resources. This "Ellen's Design Challenge" host works with wood, handcrafting furniture like chairs, tables, and bed frames. Montepare has become so successful that he even has his own website, Valmar Craftsman, dedicated to his designs. He focuses on high-quality natural wood objects for function and beauty that can pass from generation to generation.

The family business was founded in 1968 in Watervliet, New York by Montepare's grandparents Val and Mary Montepare. They taught Montepare the value of exceptional craftsmanship and how to make from the heart. The designs on his website include tables, chairs, stools, cabinets, benches, and vanities. There are perfect gift items like cutting boards and knife sculptures. For a look inside his busy workshop, check out his Instagram page. Montepare has also appeared on the show "Find & Design" on Tubi.

Winners of the show receive a $100,000 prize

It pays to have design skills. The winner of "Ellen's Design Challenge" is handed $100,000 in cash and the promise to be featured in the HGTV magazine, per HGTV. However, it takes a lot of work. Contestants must create furniture designs that are eye-catching and unique. They go into a workshop with all the necessary tools and supplies and have to ensure the entire process goes smoothly from start to finish. As Katie Stout told Sight Unseen, "It was really surreal. A highly skilled carpenter helping me out and an incredible shop is not something I have access to in real life. And I didn't have to think about all the logistics you usually have to think about when you're designing and making in New York, like where to keep the work or how much it's going to cost." There are typically some bumps along the way and no shortage of stress, so it's a good thing the successful contestant earns a nice payoff.

Stout won the first season of "Ellen's Design Challenge" in March 2015. As Stout told Dwell, "On the show, I used a lot of plastic. Until that point, I had never used plastic in my designs." Stout is an artist who grew up in New Jersey and lives in New York City these days. Since her win, she has done very well for herself. Her work was exhibited at the Dallas Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara, and the Swiss Institute (via Venus Over Manhattan). In season 2, which aired in 2016, the winner was Vivian Beer from New Hampshire (via HGTV). Her work is modern, and she likes to use industrial materials with a sculptural feel.

There was controversy over the first season winner

Season 1 of "Ellen's Design Challenge" had a rocky end in 2015. Contestant Tim McClellan was originally named on the show as the winner, per Today. Then, fans saw a flash forward to a week later when McClellan was disqualified because his furniture looked too much like a piece made by Simon Schacht, a European craftsman. The winner had to make an original piece of furniture, and the show's producers felt it was not original enough. McClellan appeared on "Ellen" shortly after the controversy and addressed the decision by saying there were some similarities between the two pieces. He also added that he agreed to the decision to take away his win. In the end, Katie Stout won the big prize (via Dwell). Some say it may have been a publicity stunt to get the show attention during its first season, but that is just a theory without much proof (via Washington Post). Either way, the scandal won the show a ton of press for its debut season (via TheWrap).

So what happened to McClellan? He is now thriving. The star exited Western Heritage Furniture in 2016 to create Tim McClellan Designs with his wife, Erika Roberts, whom he wed in 2017. The following year he hosted the first season of "Boomtown Builder" for the DIY Network with police chief Allen Muma (via IMDb).

Vivian Beer won season 2

There was no controversy over the winner from season 2 of "Ellen's Design Challenge." She was chosen and, happily, could keep the $100,000 prize. The lucky winner was Vivian Beer, a contestant from Bar Harbor, Maine, according to HGTV. She won over the runner-up, Sef Pinney, from Los Angeles. Beer likes to work with heavy metal using a big blow torch. On the show, she used a grinder to re-create a famous metal dining table with curved legs and a see-through acrylic top. Her designs are sleek and sexy yet functional for everyday living. For Beer, the best part about being on the show was the collaborative process.

These days, Beer makes stunning industrial-style pieces with her partner, carpenter Matt Blashaw. You can find some more dynamic work on her Instagram page, including one that looks like melted metal with car paint on top. She gives fans a behind-the-scenes look at how she cuts, welds, and paints furniture pieces in her large studio.

Judge Christiane Lemieux used to work in fashion

"Ellen's Design Challenge" judge Christiane Lemieux has an eye for home design. However, she actually got her start in fashion in New York City. Lemieux tried to carve out a career for herself at a fashion house following her graduation from Parsons School Of Design in Manhattan. Her first job was as a fabric assistant for Isaac Mizrahi, best known for "Project Runway Allstars." Then, she found employment as a designer at retail chain The Gap, per Inc. No wonder she has such a great sense of style on DeGeneres' show. She sometimes models print dresses and other times goes edgier with leather slacks.

By 1999, the Ottawa, Canada native turned her attention from the clothes people wear to how houses look and entered the home goods field. She worked at Portico, Dwell Home Furnishings, DwellStudio, The Inside, and then Cloth & Company (via Christiane Lemieux). She is also an investor in the Consumer and Tech sectors. Her company DwellStudio is definitely a success, selling over $20 million a year in textiles like bedding, table linens, and curtain styles. Lemieux told Architectural Digest, "Everyone wants to be able to express themselves through their homes. It's where we live, and take pictures, and make memories that grab your heart."

Ellen shows a new side on the series

On her long-running eponymous talk show, Ellen DeGeneres — a former stand-up comedian — had to crack jokes during her monologue and charm celebrity guests such as Jennifer Aniston and Hillary Clinton. She was never not on, as it was her charisma that set the tone for the entire hour-long variety show.

However, on "Ellen's Design Challenge," the Louisiana native did not have to play the role of the charming court jester. Instead, she could talk seriously about one of her great loves: home design. "Ellen's signature style and wit make her relatable and so much fun to watch on HGTV," said Kathleen Finch, the Chief Programming Officer for HGTV, Food Network, and Travel Channel, per BusinessWire. "Ellen's Design Challenge lets fans see her like they never have before — expressing a personal passion for home and furniture design." DeGeneres is such as natural on home design shows that she even appears on another one called "Ellen's Next Great Designer" with actor Scott Foley as a judge (via IMDb).

There is an all-star cast

There are a lot of shining stars on "Ellen's Design Challenge." The biggest star of all is DeGeneres herself, who has taken home plenty of Emmy Awards and appeared on the covers of Time and Architectural Digest. There are plenty of other big names on the show, such as Jeff Devlin, Brooks Utley, David Sheinkopf, Matt Muenster, Karl Champley, and Chip Wade. They make up a team of carpenters that help the contestants with their designs. The judges stand out, too. They include Dwell editor-in-chief Amanda Dameron, Cloth & Company co-founder Christiane Lemieux, and Matt Blacke Inc owner Cliff Fong.

Some of the contestants, who were all hand-picked personally by DeGeneres, have even turned into design stars in their own right after appearing on "Ellen's Design Challenge." The most popular contestant is likely Katie Stout, who has appeared in T: The New York Times Style MagazineInterview, and Galerie Magazine. She even made the cover of Design Miami.

Chip Wade has quite the resume

This talented craftsman and designer has been on plenty of other TV shows in addition to "Ellen's Design Challenge." The Atlanta, Georgia native starred on the HGTV shows "Designed to Sell," "Curb Appeal: The Block," "Showdown," "Design Star," and "Wise Buys." His most recent show is "Elbow Room" for HGTV and DIY Network. He hosts and produces the series, and also rolls up his sleeves for the tough construction work. His efforts have won the show multiple Emmy Awards. Wade also appeared as a guest on popular TV shows such as "Today," "Rachael Ray," and "Oprah," per IMDB.

Fame came by chance for Wade. He told Design & Living Magazine, "A lot of people think that everyone on television is seeking television out, but it was kind of the opposite scenario for me. I started out as an engineer. I went to Georgia Tech, studied engineering and then one day, as I was sitting in my cubicle doing my engineering, nerdy work, and an email came across my desk and it said there was a show called "Designed to Sell" that was moving to Atlanta, so they were actually looking for people to renovate homes." No matter how famous Wade gets, he likes to stick close to home in Georgia because he has roots in the state. His entire family lives in the state and it's the home of his thriving business.

Judge Amanda Dameron started her career in magazine publishing

Thanks to "Ellen's Design Challenge," Amanda Dameron has become a TV star. She serves as a judge for the contestants on the popular series. Her TV presence is unmissable due to her sage design wisdom and advice that she always backs up with creative examples. As Dameron told The New York Times, "Your home has to be a refuge, the place you come back to after the world has done all the things it has done to you, where you can be truly yourself, power out — refuel."

Dameron started her career as a magazine editor. She first studied English at the University of Cincinnati and then attended Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, per a press release from Cision PR Newswire. Dameron moved right into magazine publishing after graduation. Her first jobs were at Western Interiors and Architectural Digest. In 2008 she moved to Dwell, where she became the Digital Editorial Director, then the Executive Editor, and eventually landed the prestigious role as the magazine's Editor-in-Chief. She has an even bigger role these days as she is the Content Leader for Alum: Dwell, Tastemade, Carewell, and Dotdash Meredith (via LinkedIn). In addition, her writing has appeared in Elle Decor, Travel + Leisure, Robb Report, and Los Angeles Magazine. If that doesn't keep her busy enough, she is also a Board Member of the Council For Interior Design Accreditation.

Ellen used to flip homes on the side

A lot of fans think DeGeneres is only a Hollywood star thanks to her daytime talk show and acting roles in films such as "Mr. Wrong," "Doctor Doolittle," and her voice work in the beloved "Finding Nemo" and the sequel "Finding Dory," per IMDB. However, DeGeneres is also skilled at flipping homes. She gets involved with the remodeling and decorating after she purchases a new property. She has worked on at least 20 homes since 2003 and shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon (via Los Angeles Magazine). Some of her projects include a mid-century modern treehouse which used to belong to actor Heath Ledger. DeGeneres purchased the bungalow in 2004 and transformed the interiors with natural materials, greenery, and zen lighting. Another project involved a home with English Tudor-style architecture with beautiful gardens. DeGeneres sold the home to singer Ariana Grande for $6.75 million, almost twice the original price.

Her attraction to home buying and selling may have to do with her childhood when her family did not have much income. DeGeneres told Good Housekeeping, "We never owned a house when I was growing up. We rented, and we moved about every two years, just far enough to have to start at a new school. Also, my mother was a real estate agent for a little while, so I was always looking at houses with her. We couldn't afford to buy one, so it was a frustrating thing as a kid." Sprucing up properties gives her a nice profit. For example, DeGeneres purchased a Beverly Hills mansion in 2019 for $45 million and sold it in 2021 for $47 million (via Los Angeles Times). That means she made $2 million over two years — not bad!