If you’ve been watching Design Star: Next Gen on discovery+ or HGTV—the six-episode series is successor to HGTV Design Star, the highest-rated franchise in the network’s history—then you’ve surely noticed Eli Hariton, the New York City restaurateur turned lead interior designer at Denver’s TVL Creative, whose renovations showcase ingenious solutions and grand gestures in equal measure. We caught up with Hariton before the show’s finale on March 31 to learn more about his approach to design, his experiences during the competition, and just what he’ll do with the grand prize—$50,000 cash and his own show—if he wins.
5280 Home: You owned and designed restaurants in New York City before moving to Denver to pursue design full time. Have you always had a passion for this work?
Eli Hariton: I have always had a deep passion for design, and I pursued fine arts at a young age and a degree in industrial design in college; throughout that time, it was a dream of mine to apply design to a restaurant setting. A love and appreciation for food is deeply rooted in my family, so creating spaces to gather and share food with friends and loved ones holds a bit of a special place in my heart.
I was a partner in a restaurant group in New York City that owned and operated three spots between Manhattan and Brooklyn. While owning and designing don’t necessarily go hand in hand for all restaurateurs, it did for our group because many of us were super passionate about design and creating our spaces.
What brought you to Denver?
It took FOR-EV-OR to get here. I tried coming out for school, but there were no industrial design programs. I tried moving out here after college, but could only find work in New York. After years of being so far removed from nature and the outdoors, I realized that New York no longer felt like home, so Denver was an easy move into the next chapter of my life. Six years ago, I made the journey out here in hopes of opening my own restaurant, but realized after a year of working in Denver’s hospitality industry that I was more passionate about the design of restaurants than the operations.
How does your background in restaurant design inform your residential designs today?
Restaurant design has a certain custom aspect and orientation that I bring to my residential projects. Whether it’s inlaying brass into a kitchen island or custom-building unique shelving systems for a wine cellar, there is a unique, one-of-a-kind approach that tends to cross over naturally.
[Restaurant design] also specifically informs residential kitchen design. I have designed a number of bars and restaurants, and even though those spaces tend to be designed for gathering many people within more open plans, I always strove to elevate the intimacy as much as I could. In residential design, kitchens are naturally the heart of the home, just at a smaller scale. I create spaces to gather that are warm and welcoming, while also focusing on making a highly functional workspace to drive togetherness.
What made you want to apply for Design Star: Next Gen?
I was initially really hesitant about applying. When they found me and asked me to audition, I didn’t quite get why they were interested in casting me since the original series was so décor-based, which really isn’t my strength. They assured me that everything I knew about the show was about to change and that I did in fact fit the mold of what they were looking for as they entered the “next gen” of the series. I was in the interview process from February 2020 through September 2020, which is when I finally got the call confirming that I’d been selected to be in the cast.
What was your reaction when you learned you made the cut?
I immediately called my boss and exchanged a series of elated profanities that are likely not fit for print. I also had an ear-to-ear smile and a certain levity I have never really felt before—I was excited and more scared than I’ve ever been.
Were there any ways in which you could prepare for the competition?
They told me the show was about leaning into “your brand,” and I didn’t really have one. I don’t like to be put in a box, designing the same things all the time, so I had to spend a lot of time dialing in my own personal style that I wanted to represent on the show. To do this, I created a ton of mood boards and honed in on specific elements that I wanted to carry over from project to project.
Each contestant has a private, house-inspired design lab, plus a design center, construction workshop, and furniture workshop to use during each of the challenges. What was that like?
We had so much at our disposal, which made for such a unique and amazing design experience. I felt kind of like I was back in college, but with much higher stakes. Though we had a lot to work with, I still had to build a lot of stuff to ensure that everything in my space was “on brand” and aligning with my overall vision.
Did you enjoy that?
I like to build, so this was where I was really able to shine. A lot of the other contestants had to rely more heavily on our amazing carpenters, but I was fortunate enough to manage lots of larger-scale builds, like building the bar in the caboose or the blocks for the sculptural seating in challenge 2. This specifically is what really set me apart from the other contestants.
So your background in restaurant and industrial design was an asset.
Absolutely! My education in industrial design taught me how to think quickly about the resources I have in front of me and to come up with creative and practical solutions to solving problems while grounding me in the language of design. Restaurants taught me how to work with people and especially how to lead and manage teams. [As a result], my design teams could always expect me to not only generate the ideas, but also to join them in the trenches to bring the designs to life, speak their language, and help them troubleshoot along the way when any surprises came up.
Let’s hear about some of those surprises.
Editing is a funny thing since so much happens and you never know what they’ll keep in for the sake of the narrative. I honestly had a ton of mess-ups that I was able to recover from within the challenges and thought more of them would make it to the episodes, but they never did.
My favorite was when I tried to use a potato to make stamps for a terrazzo-looking countertop. The knife was so dull and the potatoes were so hard that I couldn’t cut clean shapes and the stamps ended up looking more like sponge marks than chips. I could see my camera girl laughing at me while I was messing up yet another one of my failed DIY attempts. Her reactions always let me know when I was doing something entertaining.
What was it like meeting the judges? Any superfan moments?
There was one in particular that was super cool for me. They had asked me in the first challenge who some of my favorite designers were, and the first person I named was Karim Rashid. Then, we came on set for the third challenge and who else walks in? Karim Rashid! It was an absolute privilege to have him critique my work and talk design theory with him.
If you were to win, what is your vision for the design show you would create?
The show I pitch on Design Star: Next Gen comes from an idea I’ve always wanted to do. The temporary title is Motel Makeover, and the idea is to choose a variety of cross-country routes and renovate motels along the way. We’d be restoring a slowly dying part of the hospitality industry, creating jobs, and leaving behind beautiful spaces for people to stay in along their journeys.
And how would you use that cash prize?
New Ford Bronco! Kidding… The prize would allow me to step into the next chapter of my career by starting my own business. I’d be able to lean even more into the aspects of design that I truly love and don’t currently have the opportunity to work on. The $50,000 winnings would give me the foundation to launch the brand I have always wanted.
What would that brand look like?
In a perfect world, I’d like to apply my creative lens to a variety of different mediums: design for TV, private clients, art installations, restaurants, retail, hotels, etc. I’d also love to lean into my love for outdoor sports and food by partnering with local brands, like Big Agnes and Huckleberry Roasters, to create lines of products or fun packaging. Beyond those commercial endeavors, I plan to continue to find ways to give back to the local community through partnering with local businesses and nonprofits as a volunteer and with pro-bono projects.
The series finale of Design Star: Next Gen begins streaming on discovery+ on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.