Designer and TV personality Deirdre Whelan talks about her dream job

The open-plan area of the cabin in the woods is calming, with pops of colour for visual interest.

Have you ever wondered how television presenters get their jobs? For designer Deirdre Whelan, now a familiar face on RTÉ’s Home of the Year, it was a phone call last year from Shinawil, the production company behind the programme.

“They asked if I was interested in doing a screen test, which I did, and two weeks later I did another one with the two guys, and that was it,” she says.

The two guys in question are fellow judges Hugh Wallace and Declan O’Donnell who were joined in series one by Helen James, but she bowed out because of other work commitments, leaving a vacancy for series two which Deirdre filled.

‘Home of the Year’ judge, designer Deirdre Whelan.
‘Home of the Year’ judge, designer Deirdre Whelan.

All three come from different areas of design, with each bringing something different to the judging process.

“Originally, I wanted to study architecture,” says Deirdre, “but opted for interior design before going into commercial practice first, and then going solo in 1996.”

Surprisingly, the judges have no say in the shortlist of homes which appear in the programme: The first time they see them is when filming, so how they react on screen is genuine, as is the rapport between them.

“There were no rows in series two,” Deirdre laughs. “We all have different tastes, but we get along together. They’re great to work with.”

And it appears there was similar accord when it came to choosing last year’s winner, the cabin in the woods in Westmeath.

Wall lights in the living area of the cabin in the woods — last season’s Home of the Year winner — highlight objects and create pools of light over the dining table.
Wall lights in the living area of the cabin in the woods — last season’s Home of the Year winner — highlight objects and create pools of light over the dining table.

“As soon as I walked in, there was something special about the place,” Deirdre explains.

“It was quiet, modest and unassuming and sensitive to its location, while being friendly and welcoming.”

One thing that becomes crystal clear while chatting to Deirdre is that the judges are not interested in a show house.

“I’m looking for a home that evokes an emotion and where you’re drawn in,” she says. 

“It’s not about how the house works for us, the judges, but for the people in it. We don’t know who that is, but you pick up little clues when you look around and you can figure out who lives there.”

Originality is also key, but the stand-out aspect for Deirdre was lighting.

Natural light fills the house and helps to connect it with nature.
Natural light fills the house and helps to connect it with nature.

She cites the winning home’s positioning of windows and how it captured light into the house; how at night there’s a mix of lighting on the walls and over the dining table, and how the living room has pools of light and is not littered with spots.

“We figured there were no children in the house,” she laughs. 

“Maybe someone with a design background because of how things were placed, like objects under wall lights. There were different furniture styles, and pieces they would have to save to buy, but they also had a table from Ikea which looked great, so it’s not all about spending money.

“It was all very considered and gave a strong sense of how they wanted to live and what was important to them. Even though it was open-plan, there was a nice rug that pulled the living area together, and there was a delineation between the kitchen, dining, and living areas.”

With filming for series three starting in a few weeks, preparations are underway —which involve Deirdre in meetings with the production team and with the stylist, to pick out her wardrobe. 

The snug bathroom is airy and light filled, thanks to a large window opening fully to the outdoors.
The snug bathroom is airy and light filled, thanks to a large window opening fully to the outdoors.

But when she’s not involved in the show, she’s a busy jobbing designer with Dublin-based architectural practice Scott Tallon Walker where she runs a small team.

“My day starts at around 8am,” she says. 

“I like to get in early to sort emails and things that need concentration, and make sure staff have things to do.”

After that, her time is taken up with meetings, site visits, and working at her drawing board, and, of course after 5.30pm, there’s family life which includes her ten-year-old daughter.

Right now, applications for series three of Home of the Year are under consideration and will be whittled down to 21, three of which will be shown per episode.

Deirdre’s anticipation and enthusiasm for the project are palpable and she’s keen to encourage the public to participate.

“People have amazing imaginations,” she says. “If you have the most amazing home you are proud of, and want to give others a sense of what you can do — do it.”

www.deirdrewhelendesign.com 


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