July 24, 2023
Evan Orensten & Josh Rubin | COOL HUNTING Studio
A global collection of primetime programs rethinks how TV approaches the design world
2016 marks the beginning of a design empire for Mike and Una Chapman, life and business partners of the global collection of primetime television series on architecture, ByDesign TV. Since airing the first pilot episode in Tasmania six years ago, the collection has quickly expanded beyond Australia and architecture—now covering hotels, interiors, landscapes, and industrial design in increasingly more markets, including America and Europe. With its second season of “America ByDesign: Architecture” slated to premiere mid-August (in partnership with the American Institute of Architects) on CBS, a series on innovation in Europe underway alongside the second season of “Hotels ByDesign” and fifth season of “Australia ByDesign: Architecture,” this production company has clearly been very busy. The key to early success and the goal of the growing collection, Mike Chapman tells us, is filling the gaps in TV’s portrayal of architecture.
As a veteran of mainstream TV production, Chapman has worked on various reality shows—from fishing and cooking to home renovation. It was working on a show on house design where he realized there was an unfilled niche in the industry. “You’ve either got your renovation show or you’ve got some highfalutin show you seek out on Netflix. […] I want to do something different,” he says. “My skill is to make content for primetime TV, on platforms like CBS, and I thought surely, surely there’s a show in there. All the designers I speak to say there’s work to be done in telling the general public about the value of design and what design actually is.”
The first series — “Australia ByDesign: Architecture” — launched in 2017, one year after Chapman had the idea and shot the pilot. It aired on Channel 10 in Australia’s key metro areas: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. This prompted architect Tim Horton (who was featured in the show) to tell Chapman that there’s more to the story. “You do the same with industrial design,” Horton tells him, thus leading to evolving iterations of the collection like Innovation (focusing on industrial design), landscape and hotels.
The show revolves around a host or commentator, including Scott Henderson, Thomas Wong and Ross Lovegrove, that tour a mix of residential, commercial and public buildings with their designers or architects to uncover what makes it iconic. Each season features six episodes exploring different projects alongside a jury composed of industry vets. By the end of the season the group selects a winning project.
The “award show” format, inspired by the Good Design Awards, responds to the company’s goal to more accurately and authentically represent design to the masses while offering them creative freedom. Speaking with designers and staying true to their character was crucial for this. “Una was actually an architect and a project manager in the architectural world, so a lot of learnings came from that project management side. TV is also guilty of being fluffy and a bit Hollywood about the whole thing, and so doing this with Una as the partner made me upend our processes internally,” says Chapman.
“I’m more interested in the passion, the knowledge, the credibility, that Ross Lovegrove brings. I don’t care if you’ve heard of him or not heard of him; you’re going to learn from him very quickly from what he says.”
He continues, “Who are the faces that we put in front of camera? TV is guilty of picking stars, the guy with the with the great chin and big social media numbers. Let’s get him. What does he know about design? It doesn’t really matter; well let’s get some designer behind the scenes to write the scripts and tell him what to say. That is how TV has operated and worked with the topic of design and in fact other topics, too. I’m more interested in the passion, the knowledge, the credibility, that Ross Lovegrove brings. I don’t care if you’ve heard of him or not heard of him; You’re going to learn from him very quickly from what he says.”
While the show makes architecture easy to understand and inspire for those outside the industry, it also spoke to those within. “It was really successful,” says Chapman, “a whole bunch of industrial designers came out of the woodwork saying ‘Oh my god, we’ve so needed a show like this.’”
The awards program format also helps the production company shoot and structure the show on their own terms, as the featured projects pay for the consideration. Like an award program where people “pay to play,” participants pay an entry fee which helps fund the production which then pays for the air time on cable networks. Of course, ByDesign is selective and particular in their criteria for entry, so the featured works are creative and innovative. Bypassing the model of networks funding a show’s production allows the Champmans to tell stories the way they believe to be best. Well-versed in the TV ecosystem, Chapman knows all too well how the industry prefers the Instagram-famous host or watered-down depiction of design.
“In TV, I can see what was going to happen, because I’ve made many, many shows where I’ve pitched the TV network, given them a budget and you’re answering to them,” he says. “I didn’t want to do that. I was listening to that original architect [Horton] in that lunch break, because they’re just so sick of it. Designers, architects, they pretty much abandoned TV as something that’s ever going to help them or be of use to them, unless you’re some show-pony, business-version of architect, not a real architect or designer.”
The Chapman’s have crucially created a way that allows them to retain their creative freedom while reaching the general public on primetime networks. The hope is that the collection will educate more people on the true value of design and potentially inspire future architects. Their future is continued expansion of their programs in Europe, America and the Middle East.