Over the past 10 weeks on NBC’s new series American Dream Builders, host Nate Berkus has led us through inspiring interior design makeovers, meant to help a family in need. (Read Berkus's renovation tips here.) Throughout the competition we have seen a lot of crown molding, crystal chandeliers, and catty drama amongst the show’s 12 designers. But there has been one designer that has stood above the rest, Chicago-based designer Lukas Machnik.
Originally from Poland, Machnik, 34, is an interior and product designer and self-proclaimed minimalist. After studying and working in New York, he moved to Chicago where he is part of the up-and-coming design scene that is putting the Windy City back on the map. With an eclectic flair that is not for everyone (or for the faint of heart, given his disposition for skulls) Machnik creates stark avant-garde environments in his clients’ homes, along with restaurants and retail spaces. On the show, his artistic integrity really shines through, showcasing not only his creativity and talent as a builder, but an ability to weave his authentic modern aesthetic into the more conservative confines of the show. His ability to work collaboratively and creatively earned him a place in the finale, as well as the respect of his peers. Machnik is one of two finalists (along side Jay Riordan) in this weekend’s season finale, airing on Sunday, May 25, 2014 on NBC. Read on for our conversation with the designer, as well as a roundup of his best design ideas from the season, and his current work, in the slideshow.
How would you define your style?
My design philosophy is part minimalist, part Bauhaus, part avant-garde. I have a more cultivated style of work. The show helped me to explain my style and help people to understand it better. I’m all about quality verse quantity. I wanted to show that you can create and live in a way that is modern and minimalist and that its not just about fluffy things. Black can be super chic and white can be elegant.
Who are some of your icons and influencers?
For me it a long list, so many influencers have shaped my design. Corbusier was revolutionary, so was Carlo Scarpa. They were so controversial 100 years ago, but they made a solid change in what we value as great design today. And Richard Serra, Michele Lamy, Charlotte Perriand, and James Turrell. His whole philosophy towards light inspires me.
Did you find it hard to work within the conservative framework of the other designers on the show?
I’m a minimalist. For me, it’s more about the Bauhaus philosophy and how furniture fits into the environment. I look at architecture and design as being one. So going into a Victorian home and working in there was quite an experience. But really it was a great learning experience. It allowed me to open myself to new ideas, and try new things, and really challenge myself. It was a good lesson. Working with my teammates was a challenge, because I’m not really about embellished decoration ideas. But I decided, early on, that I was going to do it my way, and figure out how I can include my aesthetic into the project. On the finale, I had everyone working collectively and trying to keep it cohesive. I wanted to rally the troops to win, but wanted to deliver a product that everyone would be proud of.
You seemed to take on big design/build challenges in each show. Have you ever had to work under time constraints like that?
In this competition we had to use what we had to our best advantage. I’m not afraid to explore and get my hands dirty to get it done. I design and I build so I used the Lowe’s materials to create beautiful things. I made 10 tables on the show! It's all about materials and how can I use those materials. In my projects, I use a lot of marble and reclaimed wood. It all goes back to Bauhaus and creating a lifestyle.
What lessons would pass on to other designers?
Don’t ever second-guess yourself. It can be very damaging to you. Don’t follow the trend, set the trend. Follow your instincts, and don’t be discouraged by obstacles, embrace them and learn from your mistakes. I came into the show thinking I knew everything, but I didn’t! (Laughs) It’s a constant learning experience.
What are your favorite types of projects?
I like to go in from the ground up. I like to work with the architect and drive the process and use the architect as the tool to facilitate my vision.
I also work with my clients to collect art and furniture. I see my role as a curator, and quality versus quantity drives my design.
What do you think of the Chicago design scene?
Chicago is going through a contemporary renaissance; it’s turning into New York and making its mark on design. The industrial area there is very favorable to artists and designers. It’s affordable and has grit and character in a way that inspires me. Williamsburg and Greenpoint are already overpriced. I left New York because I wanted to work for myself, which is a harder road to take, because you are the one paving the road. Chicago felt like a good home base. It’s known for emerging artists and designers, this was the city was where the skyscraper was born after all. That was part of my attraction to the city.
I am working on a hotel project right now in New York, which is very avant-garde. I have done restaurants but not hotels, so I’m very excited. I can’t say any more because I have signed a lot of NDAs, but it is a gorgeous project.
What effect has the show had on your career?
It’s allowed me to expose my aesthetic to a larger audience. I feel like I am an ambassador for my group of colleagues. We didn’t have a platform and this gave us a national platform. Being on NBC prime time, having the opportunity on such a massive scale to show people that something else is out there, that people are looking for something out of the box and that it isn’t just about fluffy design. People don’t live in Victorian houses anymor. People want open floor plans and untraditional space. Maybe someone in Wisconsin will see this and think about how they live and open their mind about how they see design.
Alexandra Polier has been a communications consultant for artists, architects, designers, fabricators and philanthropists from New York to Nairobi. A writer by training, a networker by nature, she enjoys communicating the way design shapes every aspect of our lives.