This interview is courtesy of my friend Robin Callan of Room Fu for her blog, Fu for Thought.
All of the bitterness I’ve felt after watching last night’s episode of HGTV’s Design Star evaporated after speaking with this week’s castoff, Trent Hultgren. At the risk of getting all kumbaya on you, his heart and mind are in the exact right place, and his positive attitude is infectious. Before the season started, I picked Trent to win because I was so blown away by his work. Then when the episodes started airing, he came across as distant and reserved…even melancholy. I wondered, are we missing something? Why was he selected to compete for a TV show? It turns out, we were missing Trent altogether. Between the contentious, competitive environment that stifled his creativity, the editing process, and those trucker hats that threw a wall up between Trent and the viewers, Trent’s charismatic personality and wide-ranging passions never saw the light of day. If the Trent I spoke with this afternoon had revealed himself on camera, chances are good he would be a contender for Fan Favorite, if not the whole shooting match.
How does one go from missionary and pastor to interior designer?
I’ve always followed my passions since I was a kid. I got a degree in Theology early on. After about ten years in ministry, I just decided to go and try another passion of mine. I jumped into design and really loved it and have had a blast with it ever since. It’s been about ten years now.
Where did that come from? It’s hard to imagine you as a kid out on the cattle ranch, dreaming about decorating.
I’ve always been inspired by my travels and the beauty of what I’m seeing. My mom was always really good on the cattle ranch, about dialing into the house. Every month it would be different. I think that rubbed off on me. I’ve always walked into a house or a restaurant—and I still do this– I’ll redesign the whole thing in my head. That said, it’s always about way more than design. I really love people and it’s been an opportunity to really get into people’s lives and help them. I recently had this amazing conversation with a new client. She started crying and she really shared her life with me. For me, the link between the ministry and design is very, very close. Design is so much more than just aesthetics. It’s about meeting that person and who they are, finding the best environment for them, and filling that hole in their home.
Do you still get behind the pulpit on occasion?
I really have a passion for getting more into motivational speaking and really encouraging people to live life. I think I’m going to do that in the near future. I love speaking–love to challenge people to move outside of their box and take risks. Even this show was a huge risk—you don’t know the factors and what’s going to be involved. Peter walked on water because he got out of the boat. It’s the same for anybody in life. Whether it’s design or whatever your passions are, just get out there and do it!
What inspired you to audition for Design Star?
For ten years, since I started doing design, I’ve always wanted to share my passion for design and really help people. Especially in Middle America, where they don’t have all of the stores that help you have an amazing place on a small budget. I’d just gotten back from traveling for six months through seven countries and saw something about the audition online. So I set my camera up, turned on the recorder, and jumped into it. It was very last minute and it was a wild ride after that. I feel like this is just the start of it for me.
I think you have some really amazing work in your portfolio. Why do you think some of your teammates questioned some of your design ability?
In hindsight, the biggest challenge is that you have to be outspoken and push yourself forward. For me, design is about fun, about doing what you love. When it gets into pushing for your stuff and fighting—that’s just not who I am. That’s when I realized that this was not the avenue for me, even though it was an amazing opportunity and I’m so grateful for it. My whole passion in life is to build people up and when I saw people getting torn down, I realized that’s probably not the best place for me and my designs.
However, you could’ve been the voice for change.
For me–and I just have to speak from the heart—I’ve spent so many years working on being in a positive environment and putting myself in healthy environments. When I found out it was just going to be all this tension, I realized my creativity is stifled in those places and it just isn’t the best place for me.
You didn’t anticipate it being a really competitive atmosphere?
I thought it’d be competitive. In past seasons there was a bit of friction, but when they were working in teams, it was really like, “let’s work as a team and have fun and make this a great project.” This season, it wasn’t quite like that. It was more argumentative and particular people really pushing forward their ideas.
Was there friction off-camera or was it just when they were shooting?
I think it was both. I tried throughout the process to just really focus on the positive. I said this throughout all of the interviews, I wouldn’t talk bad about people and I never will. I try to see the positive in everything and take responsibility for myself.
Do you think it would’ve been different if you had been selected to work with the women?
In that challenge, they made the right decision, because Dan (Faires) is really gifted in construction. That’s not my strong point. But if things were mixed up a little bit more and I wasn’t put on the same particular team, it might’ve had a different outcome. This was a huge opportunity for me—even this interview–to just encourage people. Things don’t always work out the way you want them to. Take risks! Life is an amazing adventure and I feel like it’s all positive and it’s all good. If I look at myself, that’s when life gets good. When you start poking your finger at everyone else, that’s when it becomes a mess. That’s the same in the church, too. You have to leap forward and look at the big picture. If somebody could get that out of this interview–that in life, jump out of the boat and take risks—keep moving on and keep your focus. That’s the heart of it for me, I guess.
Did you bond with any of your castmates?
Absolutely. Quite a few of them. Dan was awesome—I love that guy. We really became the best of friends. Because of time constraints, you don’t see a lot of that happen, but we had amazing times. There was a lot of laughter. I’m close with a lot of those people. Julie (Khuu) was amazing—she’s got a heart of gold. I have so much respect for Tom (Vecchione) and his background. I thought Alex (Sanchez) was great. So many people on there were amazing. I have respect for all of them. Michael (Moeller) and I had differences of opinion, but I have such respect for Michael and his gifts and talents. Even Nina (Ferrer) is getting a bad rap—underneath all that, she’s got a real soft heart. I tried to encourage her to show that more.
From left: Alex Sanchez, Michael Moeller, Dan Faires, Courtland Bascon, Trent Hultgren, and Tom Vecchione.
If you’d been in charge of the overall patio design, what changes might you have made?
New York is a concrete jungle, so my whole push—even though there wasn’t a huge selection, because it was New York in the winter—I would’ve done a little softer approach and really made it relaxing and comfortable. I would’ve used as much greenery as possible to liven up that space—it was all really harsh. I would’ve used colors that were a little bit softer, more inviting. But looking back, design is all perspective. Even reading the blogs, everyone has their own take on design. Stepping back from the big picture, you learn to respect that everybody has a different taste. That’s part of this competition. Everybody has different styles. It’s definitely a challenge to mesh six different people and their tastes into one overall look.
Who created the radiator screen element and what was the design rationale behind it?
Hmmm, you’re good! That was Michael and Courtland (Bascon), and I’m not sure. It was more of a design aesthetic, I guess.
Who do you think has the best chance of winning?
I think everybody has a good chance. As far as my own personal taste, I didn’t get to see a lot of individual design, so it’s kind of a hard question to answer.
Who do you think would make the most engaging host?
Emily (Henderson) was an amazing host in that first episode. She’s just funny, and she’s got a sense of humor about herself, takes herself lightly. I was really impressed with her hosting.
Left to right: Stacey Cohen, Nina Ferrer, Emily Henderson, Casey Noble and Tera Hampton.
So what’s the deal with the hats?
I’m now known as Trucker Hat Trent and I totally embrace it! I’ve worn a hat forever. I don’t always wear it, but I’d say 99% of the time, I do. It’s my M-O!
Trent Hultgren’s on-camera signature look: the trucker hat.
This is a hat I can get behind!
Very “Brat Pack.” From left: Josh Higgins, Trent, Zach Miller, Erik Bergsagel. Premiere party night.
Did anybody try to talk you out of wearing them? They really do hide you a lot.
I know! Everybody was saying, “you have such great eyes, why don’t you show ‘em?” Until you see the actual episodes, you don’t realize how the lighting and those hats will shade your face. They told us, “We want you to be who you are—that’s why we picked you. You all have unique personalities and the way you dress represents who you are.” So they were like, “Come as you are!” In hindsight, I would’ve thrown that sucker off.
When I originally saw some of your work, I pegged you as a hospitality designer. Do you have any plans to pursue that side of design?
I would love to. I really love to take existing small hotels and just turn them upside down. Do makeovers. I love that you said that because with all of the traveling that I’ve done, I’m always inspired by resorts. People leave the chaos of life, they find a vacation spot that makes them feel the way they want to feel 365 days a year. Unconsciously, that’s always influenced my design. I really like making a bedroom like a plush place in a hotel—with all the amenities. Honestly, anybody and everybody can do that in their own house. You can go to Marshall’s and get great towels for nothing. Candles and big duvets—all that stuff makes you feel amazing when you come home. I really like every aspect of small hotels—from what people are wearing, to how people are greeted.
Outdoor oasis designed by Trent Hultgren.
You describe yourself as a travel junkie. What’s your favorite destination?
The one that will always stick out is the Okavango, in Botswana, where they filmed most of Planet Earth. That was unbelievable. It’s a private reserve. You fly in on a dirt strip and it’s two people in a plane. You get out and there’s a safari vehicle with a guy in the front with a gun to protect you. They take you all the way in and it’s an open terrain. It’s the most amazing thing—you do a four-hour safari in the morning and four hours at night. We followed a leopard for two hours and there’s just every kind of wildlife imaginable. You take a shower outside and you see a hippopotamus, you hear lions—it was extraordinary. After that, the Seychelles Islands, off of East Africa. Conde Nast voted it the number one island in the world—it was amazing. Australia, Fiji…I could go on and on. I love Central America and Asia blew me away. Europe…Paris is my favorite city.
You seem so engaging, but on the show, you came across as shy and reserved.
I know! That was the weirdest thing. That was probably the thing that bothered me the most. You didn’t get to see us up in the house talking and laughing. In those environments where there’s conflict—I just don’t work in that environment, I don’t live in that environment. I don’t even have it in my own personal life. I tend to pull back in those situations and become more quiet. That’s just who I am. In my everyday life, I pretty much know everybody in my city. I know every person that owns a store. I’m very, very, very outgoing. I like to travel by myself and I’ve met thousands of people. Throw me in a room and I’m the happiest person in the world. I’ll know everybody in there by the time that I leave. But I found that in that environment, that I was losing myself. That process—it just isn’t for me. That’s a bummer, because I don’t think people got to see me for me. Even when I did the hosting. I was just disengaged, in a sense. I wasn’t really able to show myself. That was probably my biggest regret.
So you live in Venice…are you in a relationship?
No, I’m single and free! But I have a good time.
What are you working on now?
A bunch of stuff—I’m doing a wedding in August for a really cool couple, in a backyard. I’m working on two projects in Orange County, in Newport Beach. I’m going to be doing a loft in Seattle. I love doing events and makeovers. I’ve done a lot of projects from the ground up. I really enjoy doing quick flips, where I go into an existing house and just turn it upside down. I don’t know if you know this about me, but my clients can’t see anything. They leave for a few weeks, they walk in and the entire house is done. In one example, I custom made every piece of furniture in the house. When they walk in–down to the bookmarks, the flowers on the table—everything is done by me. I hold their hand and take them from room to room—that’s probably the coolest part about what I do. I’ve never had anything returned from any client. I do all of the accessories, sometimes the landscaping–everything. Helping people live a better life—in their soul and in their space—that’s where my attachment is.
What advice would you give someone who was considering putting themselves in this environment?
In hindsight, if I were to do it over, I’d think, “okay, I’m really here for design,” and just focus on design. Let go of everything else. Really think through, if you’re not that forceful kind of person, how are you going to handle that kind of situation? It really represents life. Life isn’t always predictable. There are a lot of things that happen that we may not like, but it always has to do with your perspective. There’s always the unknown, but if you go after what feels right, you’ll always come out a winner.