After taping nearly 150 episodes of “Design on a Dime,” HGTV’s $1,000 makeover show, Kristan Cunningham learned a thing or two about money-saving renovations.

So when the interior designer and her longtime boyfriend, Scott Jarrell, moved into a Venice canal district rental last year, they gave themselves a $1,000 budget for a kitchen face-lift and decorated much of the house with finds from big-box chains and vintage shops.

“You either have the do-it-yourself spirit, or you don’t,” Cunningham says, sipping a mug of coffee in her now-cozy, French farmhouse-inspired kitchen. “We knew we were going to be in this house for a couple of years. But since it is a rental, Scott and I tried decorating it with low-cost design ideas.”


Cunningham and Jarrell experimented with contemporary design in their previous home, a 1988 design in Pasadena by the celebrated firm Buff & Hensman. They sold it in 2008 and considered a move to New York City to reduce Cunningham’s travel as a design correspondent for the “Rachael Ray” show. It’s a good thing those plans changed, because the couple is now in development for a yet-to-be-named television show that will be produced in Los Angeles. Cunningham, 32, is also a judge on “HGTV’s $250,000 Challenge,” a renovation competition that premieres Sunday.

Jarrell, 32, worked in marketing and promotion at Fox Television before joining Cunningham’s projects as location manager.

“I’m an honorary designer,” he says. “But in all honesty, I’m the worst do-it-yourselfer on the planet. I’m the planner, and Kristan is the doer.”

The couple is similar in one way, however.

“We always try to meet in the middle, and since Kristan’s taste skews masculine, that makes it easy,” Jarrell says.

Cunningham describes their rental as a 1980s faux-French Normandy. “We chose to keep everything simple, old and French-looking,” she says.

The designer says there’s a sense of pride that comes with knowing how to wield a chop saw or pneumatic hammer. Armed with paint, fabric, millwork, hardware and a $4-per-square-foot budget for new carpeting, the couple attacked the 2,200-square-foot home like a “Design on a Dime” project.


A few compromises, such as a decision to live with the kitchen’s composite countertops, allowed them to stick to the shoestring budget. The couple spent their kitchen design dollars on reviving the dark oak cabinetry and hiding the heavily textured walls.

To give the dark, grainy oak cabinets a fresh, Shaker-style look, they attached 3 1/4 -inch-wide strips of wood (mitered at the corners) to the front of each drawer and cupboard. “We purchased contractor packs of pre-primed baseboards, with 10 or 12 pieces for around $30,” she says. “Once everything is cut to size, we attached the strips to the cabinet fronts with the nail gun.”

The cupboards were sanded and then painted with several coats of semigloss in a palette of creamy white (for the upper cupboards), charcoal (for the lower cupboards) and French gray (for taller pantry storage and the wall oven cabinetry).

Finding affordable knobs for the tiny kitchen’s 50-plus drawers and doors was a challenge, though. “There was no way I would pay $8-per-handle for that much hardware,” Cunningham says.

Instead, she loaded up on matching library and bin pulls during a trip to Restoration Hardware’s outlet store in Camarillo.

The bumpy drywall is now covered with precut V-groove pine boards, creating a backsplash. “I wanted the look of wood at the cheapest price possible,” Cunningham says.


Even when painted with a white satin finish, the boards’ knots and grooves are visible, suggesting the antiquated look she loves.

Cunningham and Jarrell eliminated a set of overhead cupboards by the kitchen window, replacing them with two open shelves made from a $97.80 solid teak board and $4.99 antique bronze brackets from the clearance selection of Rejuvenation .com. Cunningham also removed a set of cupboard doors under the cooktop and stitched a set of tea towels into a pleated curtain to hide pots and pans.

“Taking out those cabinets and doors were two of the best things we did for that room,” she says. “The open shelves and the little skirt help break up all that wood.”

A diminutive love seat, grabbed for a song at a Goodwill store and later reupholstered, fits in the kitchen’s bay window, offering a perch at a plastic martini table, purchased from Unica Home for around $100. Shaker trim added to the back of the kitchen peninsula echoes the cabinet treatment.

The ceiling that seemed to loom high above the tiny kitchen has a new coat of charcoal paint, which visually lowers it.

“It ups the sexy factor,” Cunningham jokes. “Plus, dark ceilings help push out the walls and make any room seem larger.”


Although one knock against TV makeover shows is that designs look better on camera than in person, Cunningham’s aesthetics and techniques hold up in real life, says Scotti Sitz, owner of Inside Space Interiors in Los Angeles. She met Cunningham and Jarrell when the couple bought the Buff & Hensman house from Sitz’s husband, real estate agent John Davidson.

“Kristan has the ability to take something on a budget and reinterpret it as something higher-end,” Sitz says, praising the respectful renovations of the Pasadena property as well as the Venice rental. “She mixes periods and styles, she collects and cultivates pieces -- all for a more interesting look.”




A look at the kitchen costs

Contractor packs of V-groove pine for the backsplash, purchased from Home Depot: $107.88

Contractor packs of primed baseboard for cabinet door overlays, also from Home Depot: $179.94

33 bin pulls (lower cabinets), Restoration Hardware outlet, Camarillo: $82.17

13 finger pulls (upper cabinets), also from Restoration Hardware outlet: $25.87

Six knobs for tall cabinet, Home Depot: $20.94

36-inch rod for curtain, $40

12 rings for curtain, $76

Three dish towels sewed into curtain, Linens ‘n’ Things: $4.99

Four brackets for open shelves, $19.96

Teak cut into shelves, Anderson Plywood, Culver City: $97.80

12 gallons of Behr paint, Home Depot: $289.84

Total: $945.39