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Sarasota designer Jason Champion shows off his clean style on 'Design Star'

SARASOTA — Designer Jason Champion lives by his philosophy that everyone deserves good design, regardless of budget.

His living room features a ceramic horse from Neiman Marcus next to a glass vase from a yard sale. On his walls hang paintings that cost anywhere from $3 to $1,500.

Every item in Champion's south Sarasota home oozes careful style and originality without being too overdone or whimsical. His style, in his words, is clean, functional, colorful and fun.

That simple yet bold attitude earned him one of 11 spots on the fourth season of HGTV's reality show, Design Star, which airs at 10 p.m. Sundays. The grand prize? A TV show to air on HGTV for a season. So far, Champion has survived two rounds of judges' eliminations.

Champion's home offers glimpses into his design mind. Built in 1965, the mid-century modern house was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, with a flat roof, symmetrical lines and an abundance of natural light.

Champion, 33, and his partner, Jim Delrio, 49, fell in love with it instantly.

"There's a spirit about that house that drew us in when we first saw it,'' Champion said. "Nobody has done anything to dismantle it. The character of the house is there. For being the age that it is, that's almost unheard of.''

They bought the house in 2007 for $227,500 from a Ringling circus performer named Kandy, who trained pink poodles. It was one of just three homes architect James Padgett built in the Gulf Gate neighborhood of otherwise nondescript, concrete block ranches.

Nearly all of the original design elements of the 1,900-square-foot home remain intact, from the terrazzo flooring to the louvered doors. Even the kitchen waxes nostalgic, with its light yellow 1960s Frigidaire stove, brown laminate cupboards and white Formica countertops.

Champion and Delrio repainted throughout, added a wall to create a third bedroom and redid the upstairs bathroom with a new tiled shower and a vanity from Ikea. They also tore out the brown and beige shag carpeting in the master bedroom, which is still a work in progress.

The couple kept accessories to a minimum, letting the home's architecture dominate the decor. The result is a living space perfectly suited to their lifestyle and zest for entertaining.

"The house just says, 'This is what it is,' '' Champion said. "It's convenient, easy and comfortable, but there's not a lot of stuff. I like clean living.''

• • •

Born in Phoenix and raised in rural Mississippi, Champion began interior design work in Atlanta, where he lived before moving to Florida about four years ago. He did mostly residential and commercial work but eventually shifted to outdoor design. Last year, he launched a line of patio furniture, Jason Champion OUTDOOR, notable for its circular and square designs in bold yellow and red.

A loyal viewer of the Home & Garden Television network and contributor for Garden Design magazine, Champion applied for Design Star in January. In his audition tape he is seated in his living room, on a beloved 1950s sectional he bought for $100 and reupholstered with light-green outdoor fabric. It weighs 400 pounds.

Four months later, after a 14-hour whirlwind tryout in Los Angeles, Champion was living with his fellow designers in a Hollywood house occupied over the years by Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra. Right away, the Will Ferrell look-alike was pegged as the "chatty gay guy.''

Filming for the show started in April and lasted six weeks. Champion and the other contestants were cut off from TV, phones and the Internet. Even pens and pencils were taken for fear the competitors would try to write their own scripts. They wore microphones 24 hours a day.

"Cameras put you to bed, they woke you up,'' he said. "And their favorite shots are of you brushing your teeth.''

For each episode, the designers tackle a style challenge, either in groups or individually, under a tight deadline. Champion's favorite was the kitchen redo, where he enjoyed swinging a sledgehammer for the demolition work. HGTV judges rate the finished products and send the weakest contestant packing.

• • •

For Champion, watching the shows has been surreal. Like viewers, he is seeing the episodes for the first time when they air, and he has no idea how they were edited. Judges scolded him in the first show, questioning his use of hand-carved white oak heads of a deer, a gazelle and a ram in a bedroom design.

"You're sitting there getting judged by three people who are your peers and the only difference between you and them is they're sitting on that side of the desk,'' he said. "You're like, 'Whoa. That was a kick in the teeth.' ''

Champion received no money for participating in the show and is under oath not to reveal the ending, which airs Sept. 27.

No matter the outcome, the exposure has been invaluable, he said. He has gained residential design clients and interest in his patio furniture line, soon to be made in St. Petersburg.

"I'm very happy that I got recognized by a national network saying, 'Hey we believe in your work. Come do it for us,' '' he said. "That's huge.''

The show has gained Champion instant fame in Sarasota, where he has lived for about three years. People recognize him in Publix and at the local bowling alley. A 16-year-old girl asked for his autograph.

"She was just, 'Oh my god oh my god oh my god,' '' he said. "I'm like, 'Okay, this is not American Idol. We're not doing brain surgery.' ''

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com.

>>TIPS

Be a good host

Here are a few of designer Jason Champion's tips for throwing a party and hosting guests.

• Add fresh flowers or live plants to the party areas and guest rooms. Never use fake ones, even if it means going without. You don't need elaborate, expensive floral arrangements. Liven up a table with a chain of daisies or put a bright green leaf from your yard in a glass vase.

• Spruce up silverware with ribbon and a sprig of greenery or other embellishment.

• For weekend visitors, put fresh towels on your guest bed with copies of your guests' favorite magazines or catalogs. Kick up the welcome factor by including small shampoos, lotions and other toiletries you get for free at hotels.

• Give your guests a token gift as a reminder of the party, such as a shot glass or cloth napkin monogrammed with the guests' initials. (The possibilities are endless with a little creativity, a Bedazzler machine, hot glue and duct tape, Champion says.)

On the Web

Check out Champion's outdoor furniture and more at jasonchampiondesign.com.

Sarasota designer Jason Champion shows off his clean style on 'Design Star' 07/31/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 5:30am]
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