HGTV's Angelo Surmelis Talks About the State of the Remodeling industry
 

In a tough economy, grand plans can take the back seat to more sensible home improvements -- just ask Angelo Surmelis. As the celebrity designer behind Los Angeles’ Swell Space and the host of HGTV’s new program, “Rate My Space with Angelo Surmelis,” Surmelis makes it his business to understand the changing nature of home design.

Residential Lighting: What does the current economic downturn mean for the residential remodeling industry?

Angelo Surmelis: The way that things are economically, people are looking for ways to make a big impact without spending a lot of money. I think that’s always been true -- they want to be able to stretch their dollar -- but it’s more true now. The thing that I’ve always found, whether it’s been economically challenging or not, is that lighting can change the way you feel about a room, regardless of anything else that you’ve done.

You can spend tens of thousands of dollars designing a home [with] the best stuff, the best materials, and if it’s not lit properly, it’ll all fall flat. It just won’t register. You won’t see all the layers, all the hard work that went into it. And vice versa: You can light a room spectacularly and shop for all budget stuff and make it feel like a million bucks. Lighting, I think, plays one of the most important keys in room design.

Residential Lighting: What can lighting retailers do to connect with customers who might be considering a remodel?

Surmelis: I do a lot of home and garden shows across the country, where I go and do seminars, and I see a lot of vendors there. Sometimes there are lighting vendors there, but not that often. It’s mostly construction and roofing and window and door [vendors]. The people that are there, when I go to do these seminars, are hungry for information and are really hungry for product. I’m always asked when I’m at these seminars, “What do you recommend? Who do you think has the best work out there?” And the questions are always broad, from roofing to lighting and everything in between.

The more the lighting companies can educate designers about what it is their product does -- beyond just looking pretty and beyond just a new way to look at a chandelier -- but really educate them about the things that are important to people, [that’s] going to be beneficial, because we’re the ones dispensing that information to our clients.

Residential Lighting: Something like vignettes in lighting showrooms, for example?

Surmelis: It’s not only getting the information to the public -- it’s [also] showing them how to use it. What I see happening time and time again [is that] my client wants the information, and they love it -- and then they reach a point of saturation where they get overwhelmed by it. Then they just want to know, “Is it going to look pretty in my room?”

Having a fixture as a picture in a catalog is not exciting to people. It’s sort of like looking at a car in a brochure. You want to sort of see the car in its environment; you want to feel the car; you want to get to know the car. It’s what designers call the “sexy” element of design. You want to make lighting sexy.

Residential Lighting: The conventional wisdom used to be that high-end customers were insulated from market vagaries, and that it made sense to go after them. Do you see this phenomenon holding?

Surmelis: There will always be a small percentage of those consumers where money is no object, and if you’re looking to target only those people, great. But it’s a very small audience, and they’re very demanding -- and they should be, because they can be. And they’ve seen it all, so you’d better have something really fascinating.

But if you’re looking to appeal to a broader group of people, I think all lighting companies have to take a long, hard look at their product. It may be a fantastic product, but maybe there’s a way to make it better, in terms of how it lasts, what it costs and how eco-friendly it is. People are becoming so conscious of foreign markets and domestic markets and where things are made and how it’s affecting them. Is it costing them more because it’s being shipped from somewhere?

If a retailer can maybe meet those expectations and those questions with a product that is maybe domestically made, that is cost-effective, that is creating job opportunities -- and also giving people what they want aesthetically [they will succeed]. There’s always an opportunity, especially in times like these, where everything feels like it’s unsettled. There’s always an opportunity to show the consumer something different.

Residential Lighting: Any predictions about what might be in store for our industry in the future?

Surmelis: The people who are already homeowners and feeling the pinch are really thinking about what they’re going to do to their house. Do they want to spend money that they may or may not have, or that they might want to save, to do anything in terms of design and construction?

I think that design becomes a luxury item, to a certain degree. So when people are putting their lists together, their concerns are: mortgage, kids, clothing. But there’s a way to change that, and that’s to show them that if you’re going to stay in your home, [how] do you take what you have and make it feel different and new and fresh? You can do that with lighting. So you can stay where you’re at, save the money, and use lighting to impact your space and make it feel new and different.

The consumer's getting even more savvy now in terms of money, and retailers really need to figure out how to give them more bang for their buck.

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