Posted by: Daryl & Wendy Ashby | April 24, 2011

The Jillian Harris You Didn’t Know

In 2009, Vancouverite Jillian Harris won the hearts of North American TV audiences as the first Canadian to star on ABC’s reality show The Bachelorette. Now she has returned to her first love: interior design. The perky 31-year-old remains unmarried (she split with her fiance, Ed Swiderski, last summer) and on ABC reality television, but this time she is a designer on the extremely popular Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

For Harris, it’s “just the coolest job in the world.” Now in its eighth season, the program features a cast of designers and carpenters who work with builders and volunteers in towns across the U.S. to renovate or rebuild the home of a family struggling with hardship. They have a mere four and half days to complete construction.

Her favourite part of the show occurs off camera, hanging out with the family in their new home and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “When I’m about to leave, for them to hug you and just say thank you, to know that you’ve really just changed somebody’s life, I think is the best part of it.”

She is touched by the number of people who want to help others. Most of the show’s materials and furnishings are donated. Harris sources as much as she can on location, but will bring in special items, like a gold pouf she’d seen at The Cross and wanted to use in a little girl’s room. “They overnighted it from Vancouver to South Carolina. It must have been expensive to get it there overnight, but they never batted an eyelash,” she says.

Harris has wanted to be a designer since leaving Peace River, where she grew up, and moving to Calgary in 2004. Too impatient to study design at school, she started her own company, Jillian Harris Design, even though “I didn’t really know what I was doing. As an interior designer, I thought I had to actually go in and physically paint people’s homes.” She was also waitressing at Cactus Club, where restaurateur Scott Morison took her under his wing to help him design restaurant interiors. She moved to Vancouver and worked with him for about five years. “He used to say, ‘Little grasshopper, you’ll grow up one day and you’ll learn.’”

From Morison, she learned not only about design and architecture, but also to have the self-confidence to “just go for it”—as she did when applying to be on The Bachelor. “I never even thought they would call me, but before you know it, Bachelor leads to Bachelorette and all of a sudden there’s just living proof of how you can go through this big roller coaster and end up in this amazing place — like I dreamed that I would have a job that good.”

Design-wise, she has also been influenced by the Hollywood Regency style of L.A.-based Kelly Wearstler (who has also designed restaurants) and the classic design of Canada’s Sarah Richardson.

Her own condo, purchased when she moved to Vancouver seven years ago, is a mix of urban chic and Peace River practicality. The apartment is small, so storage is a priority with as many built-ins as possible and lots of little baskets and chests. One of her favourite pieces is an old chest with her initials on top that she found in Chicago where she lived with Bachelorette beau Ed Swiderski. The sofa, from Vancouver’s Carmel Designs, does double duty as hideaway, and there is a chest of drawers and garden shed out on the patio.

Harris is not afraid to get her hands dirty, literally taking a sledgehammer to her kitchen last fall. When her engagement fell through, she was unsure whether she would stay in Vancouver. “I thought, if I stay, I love to entertain and I love to cook so this kitchen is not going to work. If I decide to sell it, I’m going to need a new kitchen, and if I decide to stay, I’m going to need a new kitchen.”

She demolished most of it herself, and her parents helped her rebuild. They blew out the wall, moved the sink and extended the counter and cabinets into the dining area. The cabinets and range hood are from Ikea, but she splurged on handles from Cantu and Carrara marble countertops.

Harris believes in investing in items like built-ins, fixtures and seating: her dining room chairs were about $500 each, but she got the table in Ikea’s as-is department for $120. “I’m not one of those people that would spend $400 on a pillow ever unless I was obsessed, obsessed, obsessed with it,” she says. “It’s just like how you dress. You invest in a pair of jeans, but you get a pair of earrings from Aldo.” She picked up the Kelly Wearstler-style porcelain dog in her hall at HomeSense for $35. She had bought one for Pinkys Steakhouse and longed for one of her own, but the regular $600 price tag was too steep.

“If I could say to anybody, how do I make my place really feel like home, it’s really thinking about what means a lot to you and figuring out unique ways to put it on display. I love my art collection because it’s not worth millions, but it all really means something to me”—although she does have an original painting by Joan Miró received as a gift. She initially rolled it up and stashed it under her bed. Three years later, she came across a Miró exhibit in a San Francisco gallery, realized the painting’s value and had it framed as soon as she got home. “Nobody likes it except for me, but that’s fine,” she says. “Original art is so important if you can afford it, but if you can get a little locket or a key from your grandma’s first house or a postcard that you found, just framing it or the way you display it can make all the difference.”

Grouped on her wall with the Miró is a drawing of her as a child and several pieces she picked up on a post-breakup trip to Europe last summer with a couple of girlfriends. Each bought an antique key from a Venice street vendor and had it framed as a memento. Another memento on the sofa beneath the artwork is a cushion that reads: “My whole heart my whole life.” She bought it when she became engaged, but still loves the pillow.

Between shooting Extreme Makeover and visiting Chicago for appearances and charity functions, particularly Big Brothers Big Sisters, Harris returns to Vancouver about once a month to work on Jillian Harris Design projects like updating the interiors of Rocky Mountaineer rail cars. “I love being busy and I love things changing all the time and I love it when things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be,” she says.

It’s not that she enjoys crisis: “That would make me a drama queen.” It’s more about being open, which she feels makes her a better designer. “My life has never really gone as planned, but I have a better life than I ever dreamed I would have. I always thought I’d be married and have kids by now, but I never ever dreamed I would be on a prime time TV show [where] I get to design homes that change people’s lives.”

ABC plans to air the remaining episodes of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition April 17, May 8 and May 15, although dates are subject to change.

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