Liane Bonin
December 06, 2001 AT 05:00 AM EST

A game show starring speed-decorating contestants? Sounds like a Martha Stewart nightmare. In fact, such a premise has proved a programming dream for TLC, which has a hit in ”Trading Spaces” (weekdays at 4 p.m.) — and perhaps most unexpectedly with the ‘N Sync set. The game, which pits two pairs of pals or relations against each other, challenges the contestants to transform one butt-ugly room in the other pair’s home in just two days, armed with $1,000 and a professional designer. Nobody wins, and the only prize is a refurbished pad the players may loathe, but that hasn’t turned off either contestants or audiences. Currently shooting around the country (aspiring contestants can get details at TLC), ”Spaces” attracts more teens than Comedy Central, E!, FX or VH1. talked to exec producer Denise Cramsey about the show’s sexy carpenter, crybaby contestants, and pouty designers.

Teenagers and decorating don’t exactly go hand in hand. Why do you think so many are watching?
Have you seen our handsome carpenter Ty Pennington? He has a huge impact. But I think to them we look like a bunch of friends who have fun and laugh and fight and work hard, then hang out afterwards, and that reflects their own lives. The other age group that loves the show is, believe it or not, young children. Their parents will bring them to our locations to get autographs. My 6-year-old nephew told me he liked the show because we make magic happen. It takes a long time to do and is very expensive, but I didn’t tell him that.

There must be some rooms that can’t be helped no matter how much chartreuse paint you spread around.
It’s hard to find an impossible room, but a lot get disqualified because of our minimum size restriction [which is 14” by 14”]. One time we broke the rules for a 12-year-old’s bedroom, and our cameraman spent two days sitting in this little girl’s closet. He was not a happy man.

How do you choose contestants? Judging from the show, it couldn’t be charm or skill with a staple gun.
Enthusiasm mostly, plus being expressive and having a strong personality — even if you’re, say, geeky. And you have to be a good sport.

Has anyone ever cried upon seeing their new decor?
Some people have been pretty horrified. In one show, we made a lot of wainscoting for a room. The homeowner took one look and said, ”I see a lot of firewood for winter.” The couple ripped it down the very next day.

What happens if one of the designers can’t finish the job in time or goes over budget?
If someone croaked, I’d have to make an extension, but otherwise you do what you can. There are a lot of items that get held together with duct tape just to meet the deadline, but we tell the home owners how to fix it when we’re gone. And if a designer goes over budget, he has to pay for it himself and admit it on camera.

Have you had any contestants break the rules?
Two women decided not to do their homework on their room and went out on dates instead. Then they got their friends to help them catch up, which is technically cheating. It was very strange. But that kind of behavior adds an element of drama.

By the time exhaustion sets in on the second day, people seem to get pretty punchy. Any memorable moments?
My favorite was when designer Frank [Bielec] and a woman were doing the tedious work of stenciling tiles onto her kitchen back splash. All of a sudden Frank looked at her and said, ”You know what’s really frightening? What if the hokey pokey really IS what it’s all about?”

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