Metro Weekly

Well Designed: An Interview with Trading Spaces’ John Gidding

John Gidding is smart, disarmingly humble, and passionate. If you don't love the Trading Spaces designer, chances are your cats will.

John Gidding — Photo: Joshua Thomas

John Gidding had been on track to becoming the architect he’d always told people he wanted to be. But a funny thing happened on his way to Harvard.

“Somebody came up to me on the street and said, ‘Hey, we’re doing a [modeling] shoot. We’re looking for college-age kids,'” says Gidding, who didn’t let his real age at the time — mid-twenties — stop him. “I went to it and the photographer gave me the number of an agency. That’s what led to the TV stuff, because I did a bunch of castings and one of them ended up being for a TV show that I got.”

That show — 2003’s Knock First on ABC Family — quickly led to others, snapping into action Gidding’s unexpected career as a go-to designer and style guru on the small screen. You’ve likely seen Gidding if you’ve watched a home-design or how-to reality TV show in the past dozen years or so, from HGTV’s Curb Appeal to Logo’s Secret Guide to Fabulous to Fox’s Home Free. He’s also a regular design guest on Rachael Ray’s syndicated talk show.

Last year, Gidding joined the revamp of a show that essentially pioneered the genre nearly two decades ago. The 42-year-old is one of three new faces rotating with a half-dozen “legacy” designers featured on Trading Spaces, whose next season will air on TLC in “early 2019” — likely in April, or a full year after the reboot’s premiere.

It’s not hard to see why Gidding, who stands at 6 feet 2 inches, was scouted for modeling. He fits the classic description: tall, dark, and handsome. What made him even better suited for design TV, though, is the fact that he’s also smart, sharp, and sophisticated, as well as multilingual, multicultural, and open-minded. On top of all that, he comes off — on screen and in interviews — as polite, genial, and disarmingly humble, with charm to spare.

An American of Turkish and Greek descent, Gidding’s British surname was “picked off a list at Ellis Island” by a paternal Jewish ancestor believed to have immigrated from Poland. Gidding is conversant in French and German and fluent in English and Turkish, which was his first language.

“I grew up in Turkey until I was 15, and then I went to Switzerland for boarding school — as you do,” Gidding says. “Then I came to the states for college and never left.” He went on to earn degrees from both Yale and Harvard — though the ever-humble Gidding mentioned neither during an hour-long phone interview, simply referring to “architecture school” and “grad school” instead. In the U.S., Gidding has mainly rooted himself in New York, with multiyear sojourns to Atlanta, while he worked on HGTV’s Designed to Sell, and to San Francisco, where he’s currently overseeing a major, non-televised renovation of a client’s home.

Gidding also travels extensively to take part in home shows, such as next weekend’s Home + Remodelling Show at the Dulles Expo Center. There, he will lead several discussions focused on “how art can work inside the home,” and more broadly to inspire people to “think about their interior space as an artistic expression of their own personality.”

These home shows are a great opportunity for me to see what people are thinking about for their own spaces,” he says. “They are also a great way of seeing what new products come out, which definitely helps my day-to-day job as well.”

Gidding is hoping to find insight and inspiration in other ways while in town for the show. For starters, there’s the Women’s March on Washington being planned over the same weekend. His last trip to D.C., in fact, was for the massive 2017 women’s rally that royally eclipsed Trump’s inauguration.

“Now that I know there’s another women’s march, I would love to try to get involved,” he said.

Then there are the many fetish festivities associated with Mid-Atlantic Leather. Gidding, who, as it happens, is a recent divorcé, sounded sold and ready to go upon his first-ever hearing about MAL at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill. “That sounds fun,” he says. “And I just bought a harness! Maybe I’ll meet you there?”

John Gidding — Photo: Joshua Thomas

METRO WEEKLYLet’s start with Trading Spaces, which ultimately helped pave the way for your career. It must be a bit of a heady experience, now working on the seminal show.

JOHN GIDDING: Yeah, it’s surreal. It was the show that introduced me to design television along with the rest of the country. I remember waiting in line for hours trying to get an autograph from Vern Yip ten years ago. When I was first watching Trading Spaces I was in grad school. I thought I was on the traditional architecture track, but that turned out not to be the case.

MWWhat changed exactly?

GIDDING: Well, my first job out of grad school was a TV job. Even though I went back into architecture for a while afterwards, once you do a little bit of television, that kind of stays in the ether. And I got pulled back in a couple of years later and never looked back.

MWYou do still dabble in architecture, though.

GIDDING: Yeah, I’m currently building a house for some clients in San Francisco. It’s a beautiful residential project. It’s a Victorian house, as is classic for San Francisco, but the back of the house is very modern. So, yeah, I still have a foot in the world of architecture. I’m not a licensed architect. I just do some from time to time when the right client comes along.

MWGrowing up what did you want to do?

GIDDING: It was always architecture, but it was more of an answer just to keep whatever adult was asking me the question happy rather than anything that had sort of welled up from within. I was good at math, I was good at art, and someone once told me that architecture would be a good fit for me. So that’s kind of how the self-fulfilling prophecy started. And then that’s just what I kept telling people.

Graduating from architecture school, you get a lot of interior design jobs as your first commissions. So I was already doing interiors, and then when TV came along, it sped-up the process. In the real world it takes months, sometimes years to complete projects. On TV, it takes days, sometimes weeks. So I got addicted to that faster pace. It’s a much better pace for me.

MWYou grew up in Turkey. Do you go back often?

GIDDING: I was just there over the New Year, actually. I try to go twice a year because my mother still lives there. She loves it there. She really thrives in that country. It’s her home country. It’s weird. Sometimes the politics can be a little tricky trying to get back. I remember about six months ago they were unhappy with various things that the [Trump] administration had done, and I decided not to go back. It just becomes one big conflated mess at some points. But in all, it’s a super-friendly country, and I have few concerns.

MWDo you have dual citizenship?

GIDDING: I don’t. American only.

MWWhen did you realize you were gay? I’m imagining coming out was a struggle for you in Turkey.

GIDDING: I knew probably early childhood, but I didn’t have words for it per se, especially in Turkey, which does not have the most progressive outlook on this. In middle school it became clear to me, and then in high school even clearer. But I didn’t actually come out of the closet until graduate school. I was a late bloomer in that regard partially because of my cultural background and my family being more conservative, and [me] wanting to play a certain role specifically for them more than myself. I think that a lot of growing up gay in Turkey has to do with trying to reconcile how you’re gonna fit your life in with how your family wants you to live your life. But eventually I was able to break out of that. It took five years of being in the states for me to do it, but I got there.

MWDid you grow up in a religious family? A conservative family?

GIDDING: I grew up Jewish, but not religious per se — culturally Jewish. There was a certain level of conservatism. It’s a hard question to answer. Yes, I would say, although we were also liberal in many ways. My mom, for example, had lots of gay friends, but when it came knocking on her door she was less excited about it.

MWWhen did it come knocking on her door?

GIDDING: Grad school is when I came out to the world. I think the whole concept of pride had finally sunk in. When it dawned on me that I was gonna come out, I did it to everyone very quickly — within a few weeks everybody knew. We didn’t talk, my mom and I, for about a year afterwards. And then 9/11 happened. Nothing like a traumatic event to make you realize what’s important in life. My mom and I actually started talking on 9/11 because one of the planes had taken off from Boston, and that’s where I had been at the time. “Okay, let’s put this petty stuff aside and reconnect.” I wouldn’t say that my mom has fully come around, but she’s gotten much better.

MWDid you come out to her by phone?

GIDDING: No, I went to Switzerland. We were visiting family for New Year’s, and I told her face-to-face. I wanted to do that for her, or for myself maybe. She and my dad, I went to tell them both face-to-face. I thought it was important. My dad took it very well. He had already written out a little piece of paper in his pocket. It was waiting. So when I told him I was gay he pulled it out of his pocket and quietly handed it over to me. This was at a time when The Lion King was very popular. And it just said, “Hakuna matata.”

MW“No worries.” That’s rather nice.

GIDDING: Yeah. In his own way.

MWHow would you characterize your experiences in Turkey?

GIDDING: I was actually just mentioning to a friend of mine the other day, I have kind of a schism between my childhood and my adulthood, where my childhood is kind of in a haze. I would always speak Turkish — and I don’t have siblings, so there wasn’t a lot of reinforcing of memories from that time.

And then I kind of became more Americanized especially in middle school and high school. I’d never been around so many Americans as when I matriculated into an American school in Istanbul. And from that point on I was the Turk in an American school even though I had American citizenship. I didn’t really speak English. So for the first couple of years, it was a struggle trying to learn English and pretend to be American and try to assimilate.

This has come back as a question often because, especially now as a designer, I have a lot of eclectic influences that I appreciate. I was taught modernism in school, and if anything my interior design was kind of minimalist when I first started because everything had to be about function before form. But my Turkish background kind of made its way back into my design work, and these days I would say I have a strong inclination towards ornamentation and decoration.

MWIs there a sizeable Jewish community in Istanbul?

GIDDING: Yes, but percentage-wise it’s minuscule. There’s definitely a group of Jewish ladies that my mother knows, and I do, too. But it’s a tiny group.

MWDid you feel bias or prejudice because you were Jewish?

GIDDING: No. In that regard Turkey is a great mixing pot of cultures, religions. And Istanbul is really a luminary in terms of cities that have embraced various religions. It’s always been that way. When Jews were expelled out of Spain, for example, five, six hundred years ago, the Ottoman Empire welcomed them in.

To this day it’s not a city that I would say is unwelcoming to other religions. But of course things are changing. It’s becoming a bit more right-wing, it’s becoming a bit more conservative. There are a lot more mosques being built, and that has its consequences I guess. But I would say most people feel welcome there in terms of different religions.

MWThe gay thing, that’s a bit more problematic, though.

GIDDING: For sure. There’s a lot of homophobic rhetoric on television, which is unfortunate.

It’s also highly hypocritical because Turks love trans performers. They love transvestite and transsexual singers, performers, dancers, actors. It’s always been a part of Turkish culture to exalt even some of these very visible trans singers while at the same time using terrible homophobic slurs for people trying to live their lives as gay men.

In Turkey, homosexuality is less of an identity and more of an event that might happen. Two men might, behind closed doors, do something, and that can be forgotten about and compartmentalized. And it’s shocking to them that that would impact their identity. They don’t want that to happen, so they embrace these outdated tropes of how negative homosexuality is as an identity. In Turkey you’ll find men holding hands and kissing frequently. It’s not a problem at all. It’s showing brotherly love. But that has a hard time coexisting with homosexuality as an identity.

The words for homosexual and gay are either clinical or derogatory. There isn’t really sort of a neutral word for gay, and therefore the gay community in Turkey has adopted the [English] word “gay” themselves. And I think it’s picking up more steam as a kind of neutral term these days.

John Gidding — Photo: Joshua Thomas

MWFrom your vantage point, has the gay scene in Turkey changed at all?

GIDDING: There are gay bars now. There are gay communities that assemble. It’s a little more welcoming. I don’t know too much about it, to tell you the truth. When I go to Turkey it’s just me and my mom, and I see it as my family’s purview. It’s their home turf, so I try not to make too many waves when I go.

MWDo they acknowledge and accept your sexuality now?

GIDDING: Within the family, yeah. At this point I’ve hammered it in that I’m not gonna pretend to be straight, so, yeah, people ask me about my boyfriends, et cetera. But it’s all within the compound, within the family home. It’s not really expressed outside of it.

MWAre they aware of your work in TV? Are they able to see it?

GIDDING: Yes. I send back DVDs and stuff, but it’s hard to stream American content outside of America, so they usually have to wait a while before they can see it.

MWSo you’re not known in Turkey at all.

GIDDING: No, not at all.

MWWould you like to be?

GIDDING: I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think part of my neutral coexistence with Turkey is being relatively anonymous with my stuff. It helps certainly my mother and the conservative side of my family deal with it. You can tell it’s conflicted. It’s not the easiest road for any of us, especially as the world shows us it’s not necessarily arching towards justice everywhere equally. There’s still a lot of danger out there.

You hear terrible news of murders or beatings, and it’s just the reality in Turkey. I remember last year when I visited, an out and gay Turkish entertainer was critical of somebody in the government, and the Turkish community came down hard on him. I think he was beaten up at an airport trying to escape the country, and then they didn’t let him escape. It was dark. These are the kinds of things that the conservative groups in Turkey like to expose and publicize so that people don’t get too comfortable.

MWThose sorts of things, have they motivated you in any way to speak up or become an LGBTQ or human rights activist?

GIDDING: My main motivations politically are here in the States. This is where I live. This is my home. This is the country that I’m trying to create the change in. Turkey is where I go to visit my mother, and that’s it.

MW: On that front, do you get recognized on the street in the U.S.?

GIDDING: Not really. Part of it is that my biggest shows were four or five years ago at this point. I was on the show Secret Guide to Fabulous on Logo, and I got some recognition in New York, but it’s not like that show was a huge hit all over the States. It’s kind of an urban show. And now with Trading Spaces, there’s some recognition that happens. For example, at airports now and then somebody will say something. But I have so many different hair styles and facial hair styles that it takes a lot for somebody to be able to recognize me.

MWYou change your look a lot?

GIDDING: Yeah. It’s part of the joy of being a guy, I feel like. You can just grow some facial hair, try something else out. It doesn’t help my recognizability, but to tell you the truth the lack of privacy that comes with having a television presence rubs me the wrong way. I like my privacy, and I don’t know if my different looks is a defense mechanism or just because I like costuming, but I’m not as recognizable [with] that. I feel like in the future people are gonna be wanting 15 minutes of anonymity rather than fame. People will be dreaming, “Oh my gosh, when will my 15 minutes of anonymity be?”

MWHow are you looking right now? Are you sporting a beard or a mustache?

GIDDING: Fully bearded. So bearded in fact that when I came home with this massive beard, my mom said, “Are you gonna trim that?” The implication being that it looked like a Muslim beard for her. Because in Turkey, for many Muslims, the beard is a religious expression. It’s weird, just the cultural sort of flavors of your looks can be so different country to country. You don’t want to be seen as too religious in my family.

MWI wanted to ask you how you’re dealing with your recent divorce. Are you dating or seeking out love or intimacy?

GIDDING: The marriage thing was an interesting experience for me. I would say I’m still reeling from the divorce. It’s been three years since it began, three months since it was finalized. Not that it was a bad divorce but I got swept up in the enthusiasm for marriage once it became legalized and hadn’t really thought it through, I would say. Now I am a little more cautious. I used to kind of leap into things. Long story short: I’m single and dipping my toe in dating.

MWAside from the occasional date, what else do you do in your free time?

GIDDING: I play the piano quite a bit these days. I have reconnected with this instrument, which I used to play in my childhood. It’s great. At 35, I bought myself a piano in New York. I just shipped it to California. It was the only thing I shipped actually — that and some clothes. And two cats. That’s what I came to California with.

MWHow old are your cats?

GIDDING: They are now 16. They’re rescues. I got them from Petco in Brooklyn. It’s these two sister cats, Kansas and Utah. Petco had named them that way, and I thought that was really cute. They don’t look senior at all. They’re healthy little cats.

I have a new project in my life that has everything to do with cats, actually. I’m going to people’s homes, and I’m designing cat houses for them. You know, you see where people have designed their whole house around their cat? Not quite that bad, but something inspired and artistic — not just levels and scratch pads and ramps but kind of an artistic approach to what a cat residence can be. I’m going to try to create a YouTube channel around it.

MWYou mention YouTube. Are you an active user of other social media sites?

GIDDING: I’m on Instagram and I’m on Twitter, but take two very different approaches. I don’t do Facebook because of what a mess that turned into — I haven’t been on Facebook in over a year, maybe more.

Instagram, I think, is very inspirational, and I have a great time with it, both following the artists and creators that I admire, but also sharing a little bit of my personal life. Nothing crazy, but I wouldn’t say it’s a business Instagram account. It’s a personal Instagram account.

Then Twitter is my political outlet. I feel like Twitter is a great place for politics because it’s so current and immediate. It’s also a dangerous place for politics because the sources are never fully cited, so you kind of have to make sure that you’re curating well for yourselves. It’s also a great place to build an action committee of your own. I have 10 friends that I immediately reach out to when I feel an important thing has occurred, or when funding needs to go to a certain candidate, or when we need to call our senators before a certain vote.

The other thing I like is the snark, to tell you the truth. The reading of politics can be so dense that I have now come to rely on certain voices that digest what’s happening well — for example, Preet Bharara, who was the Attorney General for the Southern District of New York. When Trump fired him, he started a podcast called Stay Tuned and it’s brilliant. He’s such a hero to me because, after he was ejected from the system, he turned into such a calm, measured voice who can actually speak in full sentences. It’s such a rare thing that I yearn for the insight that he can bring, week after week, to the things that are going on.

MWWhere are you registered to vote these days?

GIDDING: In California now.

MWSo Kamala Harris is your senator. That’s exciting.

GIDDING: That’s right. It is exciting. She’s great. I hope that she’ll run.

MWIs that who you are championing to run for president — at the moment, anyway?

GIDDING: I’m championing any and all. An extended primary is not a bad thing. I’m super into Elizabeth Warren running. I feel like she’s a real scrappy fighter. She has some interesting takes on social media. She’s got a really smart brain and she’s been fighting for people’s rights her entire life. I feel like she’s going to put up a strong fight against Trump early on. And of course he’ll attack her.

MWDo you think she can beat him, though?

GIDDING: I don’t know. Somebody recently tweeted that the first female president might very well be Republican, in the form of Nikki Haley. We’ll see. We’ll see what happens in the next few months as Trump’s world unravels around him and Elizabeth Warren starts fighting back, hopefully with some real teeth. Who knows what that dynamic will be like?

I think a third of the country is always going to vote counter to what, I would say, is a good way to vote. But with the kind of turnout that Democrats pulled off in the midterm elections, it could only increase. I don’t think that that third of the country is going to be the deciding voter bloc.

The real problem is going to be this interference we’re getting with Russians and how reliant we are on social media for our news. If [Mark] Zuckerberg is able to alleviate some of the problems that his platform has caused, we might be able to save the country.

MWI guess that’s the mess of Zuckerberg’s Facebook that you were referring to.

GIDDING: Yeah. It’s a profit-minded bullshit enterprise, frankly. As you look into it, it just shows that it’s a pit of iniquity. These people, they’ve created a moneymaking machine using metrics that have nothing to do with reality. Making money hand over fist and hoping to do it for as long as they can until they start getting regulated.

MWOf course Instagram is now a part of that.

GIDDING: For sure. They’re owned by Facebook. But it’s harder to take advantage of — the advertising system in Instagram isn’t quite as corruptible, I don’t think. You can’t push advertising towards demographic groups. It’s also so visual that, it’s more of a creative place than Facebook.

MW: Do you ever think about getting into politics yourself?

GIDDING: More and more lately, but I don’t know. I’m turned off by it, too. The other day I looked at the Elizabeth Warren volunteer page, but I didn’t end up signing up. So I’m flirting with it. I wouldn’t be the face of it, but I should definitely be more involved, at least volunteer. How can I not? We’re on the precipice of global meltdown. I feel like we have to be involved. We’ve got an ex-coal industry lobbyist [Scott Pruitt] leading the EPA right now. That alone should be enough reason for everybody to get involved.

MWDo you hope the reboot of Trading Spaces continues for several more seasons?

GIDDING: The thing with Trading Spaces is, there are so many of us. And because they correctly give more episodes to the OG designers, I only get one episode per season. But I am hoping it continues and I can do many more, because it’s so fun and it totally ties in with my concept of considering the space you live in as an art project, rather than an interior design project. I love having to design using unexpected materials that are easily found and very inexpensive. It’s really an art project show more than an interior design show.

MWDo you have your own product line like Vern Yip, among others from the show?

GIDDING: Actually, I do, with window dressings. Blinds Chalet has a line of John Gidding blinds that I’m pretty proud of. They’re based on men’s fabrics and sweater knit techniques. But, no, I don’t have a fabric line or anything like that.

MW: Is that something you would like to consider cultivating?

GIDDING: Never say never, but I haven’t been drawn to fabrics. Furniture, perhaps. I do a lot of custom furniture for my clients. They’re hard to recreate — difficult techniques to build. I like fabrication techniques that are technologically minded — therefore, they come with a bit of a higher expense right off the bat, so they’re hard to mass-produce. But maybe in the future, if I can find some manufacturer that I like to work with.

MWMaybe a line at IKEA.

GIDDING: Yeah, that’d be great. I’m telling you, though, it’s going to be the cat thing that launches my product line. I’ll be in Petco before I’ll be in IKEA.

MWAnd you’re cool with that? Of becoming known as The Cat Man?

GIDDING: 100 percent. The Cat Dude. I love it. Honestly, I love it.

The Home + Remodeling Show is Friday, Jan. 18, and Saturday, Jan. 19, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday, Jan. 20, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., at the Dulles Expo Center, 4320 Chantilly Shopping Center, in Virginia. John Gidding will appear on Friday, Jan. 18, at 4 p.m., and Saturday, Jan. 19, at noon and 3 p.m. Tickets are $9 to $12 per day. Call 703-378-0910 or visit capitalhomeshow.com.

Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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