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Image courtesy of HGTV

“What did you hate the most about your ex’s style?” Orlando Soria GFA’07 asks a recently divorced woman in the first episode of his new show, Unspouse My House.

She remembers a husband who didn’t have much of a style, come to think of it, and spent most of his time plopped on a chair watching football and drinking beer. He’s since moved out, but the chair is still there—frayed piping, mystery stains and all.

Ousting it from her living room is only the start of Soria’s plans.

“This is your kitchen,” he says a moment later. “Tell me why you hate it.”

Equal parts blunt, omniscient and playful, Soria doubles as designer and heart-healer on his HGTV series, which premiered June 6 and is now three episodes in.

This isn’t the career Soria envisioned when he came to Penn in 2005 to study painting and graphic design in the Fine Arts program while serving as a GA in the Quad. Back then, he wanted to become an art professor. But after a series of career twists, he’s instead turned into a thriving interior designer with a handful of celebrity clients, a book (Get It Together! An Interior Designer’s Guide to Creating Your Best Life), a blog (Hommemaker), and now his own TV show.

“My thing with interior design—and what I’ve tried to do with my career—is to de-mystify it,” Soria told the Gazette in a recent phone interview.

“I was literally raised in the woods. It wasn’t a community where people hired interior designers,” he added. “Instead of focusing on one-percenter-type clients, I’ve concentrated on creating [design] content that a lot of people see. That’s what I’m trying to do with the show.”

Unspouse My House sends Soria into the homes of newly single people to help overhaul their living spaces. He paints walls and hoists couches and cracks away old tile. He turns dismal garages into perfect playrooms. He even helps one homeowner pare down her overstuffed clothes closet by offering her feedback like “I don’t like looking at that” and “You have to be a rich lady on a boat to wear that.”

Soria recently chatted with Gazette contributor Molly Petrilla C’06 about his career, his time at Penn, and how growing up inside a National Park shaped his design aesthetic. Their conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.

How did this show come about?

It was based entirely on what was going on with me at the time. I’d just gotten out of a relationship and was redesigning my house. I’d been working with a producer to develop my own show for years. We looked around and thought, this is such a good idea for a show because so many people go through this and it’s a great way to help people. The one-liner pitch for our show was ‘Revenge Body for the home.’ We filmed our pilot last fall and HGTV basically bought it immediately.

Why do you believe that interior design is, as you say in the show’s intro, “a great remedy for heartbreak”?

It tears your brain away from ruminating on the past and it forces you to think about the future. Interior design is all about imagining how you’re going to use the space. It’s future-focused. When people do interior design, they’re also thinking about an idealized life. It’s just a great way of thinking about your future in a really positive, idealized way.

As someone who’s now an expert on post-breakup design, what’s your first piece of advice for someone who just ended a relationship and wants to change up their living space?

Firstly, don’t be afraid to get rid of things that are triggering or that remind you of your ex. Second, be really adventurous with the types of design decisions you’re making. You can make design mistakes. You can paint things wild colors. This is the time to explore things that you might not have been able to explore in your previous relationship. I painted my bedroom in my new apartment ballet pink.

What did you learn as an MFA student at Penn that’s helped you in your current work as an interior designer and TV host?

In an MFA program, you learn to receive criticism and let it better your work. You’re also learning how to use the creative energy of the people around you to propel you forward. I see TV shows as just a bunch of nerds creating a collaborative art project together that then goes out into the world.

Another thing I learned about at Penn was color. I did these huge, large-scale paintings and was constantly mixing color. A lot of the strength that I have with color now has to do with the understanding I gained from mixing paint for hours and hours in grad school.

Here’s something I wonder about when you have a job like yours: are friends sometimes nervous to have you over to their homes? Or do you find that people are extra eager to have you over and then pump you for advice?

I do get a lot of people who are nervous I’m going to come over to their house and judge it. But if I go to someone’s house, I’m more likely thinking, Did I bring the right wine? People are egocentric. Don’t worry if you have an interior designer over to your house. They’re probably thinking about their own shit.

As for the advice part, I get a lot of family and friends asking for my advice, but I’ve found that they don’t really want to hear it. They want to just show me a thing and tell me a story about something they’re doing and then do whatever they want. I’m perfectly fine being told a story.

What’s your least favorite interior design trend right now?

I hate fake things, like tile that’s designed to look like wood. There’s a lot of it and it’s going to be the thing in five to 10 years that we’re like, why did we do that? It doesn’t age well. If you want to put wood in your bathroom, put wood in your bathroom. Don’t put in tile that looks like wood.

For some reason I also hate chevron patterns. And I hate that Brooklyn 2012 look of reclaimed wood and Edison bulbs.

I read your blog post, “What It Feels Like to Get Your Own TV Show.” You wrote about the anxiety you felt while filming the show and what it’s like to just give up any control over how you’re seen. Can you talk about how you handled that?

There are a lot of layers there, the first being how I look physically. I just had to get over it. It’s a huge opportunity to tell your story and communicate with people. I had to realize that people aren’t just watching this show to judge and scrutinize my body. The peace came from taking a step back from my own ego.

There was also a certain amount of fear in branding myself as somebody who’s been dumped as a way of making the show relatable. It’s not a super professional or empowered story. But the best way to help other people is to be real and vulnerable.

You said you grew up in the woods. What was the name of your town?

I grew up in Yosemite National Park. There are about 800 people who live within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park. I grew up in a cabin rented from the federal government about a quarter-mile from Yosemite Falls, which you could see out my bedroom window. It would rattle the window panes. It was an incredibly odd, beautiful childhood.

How do you think growing up in that environment shaped your approach to design?

My parents went to Berkeley and UCSF, but always had a sense of humility because we lived in a cabin in the woods. I have a combination of sophistication and a commitment to everyday people and working-class people that’s driven my design career.

Obviously, nature and the inherent beauty of things that are organic and untouched by human hands also inspires me to want to create spaces that feel a little bit more naturally collected over time. I think that comes from being in a natural space for so long and wanting things to feel real.

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