The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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June 20, 2012

The Very Versatile 'KC'

It’s the same old story of small-town girl (who considers West Virginia “more home to me than anywhere I’ve ever lived”) becoming one of the most recognizable faces in popular design. You’ve never heard it? Then, you haven’t met Kristan Cunningham.

Having spent her “formative years” in Sylvester, the former HGTV Designer’s Challenge star, charter member of the Design on a Dime family and Rachael Ray Show resident designer has her OWN show now, literally. As host, judge and mentor of Super Saver Showdown, set to debut July 20 on the Oprah Winfrey Network, and with impressive industry chops to date, Kristan continues to advance her mark in the world of design for every budget.

Temporarily forsaking Los Angeles to retrace the country roads she once called home, Kristan is speaking Thursday as the featured guest at the Tamarack Foundation’s Ladies’ Luncheon, with proceeds benefiting the foundation and their continuing support of West Virginia artisans.

“I always feel like I’m having a conversation with an old girlfriend,” says Kristan of the graceful reception that is the hallmark of women from the place she calls home. “KC” considers it recreation to return to the Mountain State, which she does regularly with fiancée and fellow West Virginian Scott Jarrell.

“(On visits) we wake up and want to go straight to Tamarack. I always want to find my one lovely, my one pretty …”

What more could you expect, from the adolescent who asked for Architectural Digest instead of Seventeen, except design preeminence? Kristan studied her art at the University of Charleston, a discipline she reveres as calling.

“I always wanted to be a designer,” she admits, speaking from her L.A. home. “There was never a backup plan.”

Utterly void of the zealous drive that propels many would-be television stars on a cross-country trek, Kristan’s main motivation was to go to California in support of Scott’s musical pursuits. Her portable interior design degree and natural skill quickly found status in prestigious L.A. showrooms and ultimately landed her in a very high-end design firm. She was censored when her affinity for saving clients money showed. “That’s not what we’re here for,” they would tell her.

It was there among the mind-blowing, unimaginable excess that she realized her true design niche.

“I came from a household where we didn’t have that kind of disposable income. Working in a business where so much money was being spent … it didn’t feel personal to me.”

Helping clients to have a home in a place where they seek refuge, she describes, no matter the size of their bank accounts, was her utmost desire. “There was probably little chance I’d be a Dorothy Draper or a designer who makes a mark changing the design landscape. I’d never be the first behind a trend or a new design aesthetic.” But what she was good at was taking folks to a place where they felt warm, safe and inspired, be it a hotel on a vacation remembered, or a magazine image that evoked a sense of home, recreating the same feeling in their daily spaces.

Her personal sense of style at home is surprising. Featured in the Los Angeles Times, “It is very masculine,” she describes. “My home is very black and white and I’m a big fan of patina and texture. If it’s decrepit or nicked, scratched leather or wood and metal, I think it’s the warmest look you can do.”

Kristan credits her preferences with having been in a partnership that’s 50 percent male her entire adult life. “I have a partner as design savvy and focused as I am. I think our house is a reflection of us as a couple.”

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“Ready, set, save!,” charges Kristan as host before the carts take off to task on the forthcoming Super Saver Showdown. Staying true to her knack for the affordably chic, she approaches her newest design platform as critic and mentor to its contestants.

“I have the ability to take contestants and tell them, this can’t be pulled off in 48 hours, or this painting is not going to work out because I have been doing the work for so long that I can be sympathetic and candid.”

While portrayed as hoarders in other productions, couponers on Kristan’s show turn up the benevolence in helping families emerge from distressed situations to celebrate big moments.

Two super savvy budget-balancing contestants compete to see who does the best job planning and executing their assigned events.

“The families are in need to some degree,” Kristan explains. “Dad might’ve lost his job and the family needs to throw a send-off party for the first girl in the family to go to college. Or they may be welcoming a soldier-son home.”

The challenge is to carry off a milestone event on what might represent the typical grocery budget alone — a mere $200. The winning soiree organizers of each episode receive a $10,000 prize.

“You are seeing real solutions and real products. The contestants use their skills with things like bartering. In the end, everybody wins because two families get to celebrate a life-changing moment. (Super Saver Showdown) really shows the positive side of couponing.”

Additionally, says Kristan, it’s nice to travel to small towns across America that remind her of Sylvester, pairing her skills with those of the contestants to bless grateful families. An invitation to Sunday supper, inside Kristan’s newest endeavor, is only as far away as the next Showdown town.

Still, her motto “Live life a little lovelier” comes most alive when she remembers the state where she grew up.

“West Virginia is my touchstone,” she says. “To go home for something like this (at Tamarack) is a huge honor. What they do is the brightest light that can be shown — to focus on real craftsmen and real art.”

The brightest light isn’t always shone from outside upon West Virginia, but every year, believes Kristan, there are more great examples of the “fantastic people” from her childhood home making their mark here and elsewhere.

“Tamarack is a shining example of what West Virginia can do and what its people can create.”

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