Southfield native makes design debut on 'Trading Spaces'

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
Mikel Welch, who grew up in Southfield, joins the "Trading Spaces" cast as a designer.

Southfield native Mikel Welch had a routine in high school in the mid-'90s: come from school, plop down on his family's sofa with a box of Cheez-Its and watch one of his favorite shows, TLC's "Trading Spaces."

Little did he know that one day he'd actually star on the beloved decorating show.

"It just blows my mind," said Welch, now 39.

On Saturday, Welch, a 1997 graduate of Southfield-Lathrup High School, will make his "Trading Spaces" debut as one of its designers. He'll work with a pair of homeowners who swap homes with their neighbors to decorate a space in each other's houses.

"I'm on Cloud 9," said Welch, who now lives in New York and has done design work for everyone from comedian Steve Harvey to "Real Housewives of Atlanta" star Sheree Whitfield. "I’m coming home Saturday and I'm doing a big premiere party at my parents’ house (in Southfield). My mom is going to kill me but we're having about 80 people over."

The episode is a coming home of sorts for Welch, known for wearing his trademark bow-ties, because it also features esteemed designer Vern Yip. Yip was one of the judges on HGTV's "Design Star," which is where Welch got his big TV break in 2011. He finished fourth.

"It was like the student versus the teacher," said Welch.

Welch says it's still not real to him that he landed on “Trading Spaces.” He admits it was a bit intimidating to join the show, which just returned to TV last year after a 10-year hiatus. 

“I felt like a fan boy when I had to come on set,” said Welch, who filmed his episode last fall in North Carolina. “I’m standing next to Ty Pennington and Vern Yip. I’ve watched these people for years. I’ll be honest – it was scary. I had to have a talk with myself, ‘You are on the same playing field now.’”

Mikel Welch, second from right, is a new addition to this season of "Trading Spaces."

Yip said it was thrill to have Welch join the “Trading Spaces” cast and work alongside him as peers. He said as talented as Welch was on “Design Star,” he’s grown so much as a designer since then.

“I think fans of the show, viewers, will be blown away at what he can produce in 2 days and $2,000,” said Yip on Friday. “It isn’t an easy task. It’s a unique animal.”

It's been a long journey into the world of design and TV for Welch. On his website, it notes that as a child growing up in Southfield, he loved constructing sofas and dining tables for imaginary houses. His mom, Kathy Young-Welch, says even as a kid Welch had an eye for architecture and unique design.

"We might be going for a drive as a family and any type of building that was architecturally different he was always drawn to those," remembers Young-Welch, a retired broadcast news journalist and public affairs specialist. "He would say 'When I grow up, that's the kind of house I want to live in.' And it was always something that was extremely different." 

But Welch says it never occurred to him that design could be a career. Instead, he earned a degree in marketing from Morehouse College in Atlanta.

After graduating, he returned to Michigan where he worked for Chrysler Financial for a stint. But he wasn't content.

It was a conversation with his mom that eventually helped him change course. Young-Welch encouraged her son to find his passion.

"She said you need to find your passion," Welch remembers. "She said you’ll know what it is because you’d be willing to do it for free."

Later, working a job at Bloomingdale's in the Atlanta area but spending lunch breaks at places like Crate & Barrel, it hit him what that passion was: design.

"It was my Oprah 'Aha' moment," said Welch. "I just started thinking about the stacks of magazines I had in my apartment, all these accessories I'd purchased from TJ Maxx and Home Goods. Those were things I just did. I just thought it was a hobby."

Still, it took a bit to for the self-taught designer to turn his hobby into a full-time career. He worked jobs at The Container Store and CB2, a subsidiary of Crate & Barrel. A friend told him about auditions for "Design Star." 

He landed on the show -- an experience Welch calls "nerve-wracking" -- which eventually led him to another gig as a set stylist for the "Steve Harvey Show." He transformed Harvey's dressing room into a masculine, luxurious "man cave."

And one of his most high-profile projects was finishing Whitfield's basement, notoriously known as "Chateau Sheree." Her unfinished basement was a plot-line in "Housewives" during a previous season.

"They brought me in to correct it," said Welch.

But on Saturday's episode of "Trading Spaces," Welch said he had to adjust from designing big-budget projects to working on a budget and a tight two-day timeline. He said viewers can expect some serious fireworks between him and the homeowners he worked with who didn't see eye-to-eye as they worked to make over a recreation space.

Welch says permanent markers -- and writing on the wall -- are one source of conflict.

The episode "has a lot of drama," he said. "For the season finale, they (TLC) have to bring it. And I think they gave them everything they wanted."

And yes, Welch keeps his signature bow-tie on from beginning to end. 

"I never lose that bow-tie," laughs Welch.

And while TLC hasn't announced yet if the "Trading Spaces" reboot will return for a third season, Welch has several other projects in the works. He'll debut his own candle line this fall and be featured in an upcoming issue of Traditional Home magazine for a bedroom he designed for last year's Hampton Designer Showhouse.

He describes his style, which he says continues to evolve, as primitive modern.

Known for designing sophisticated, luxurious spaces like this living room in Chicago, designer Mikel Welch says "Trading Spaces" was an adjustment.

"It’s like Fred Flintstone meets the current age. I like things with character and fusing them with more modern (elements)."

But he'll loosen his style for a bit for Saturday's premiere party at his parents' house, the same one where he watching all those "Trading Spaces" episodes years ago. That means no bow-tie.

"I’m going to relax," he said.

Twitter: @mfeighan

"Trading Spaces" Season Finale

  • 8 p.m. Saturday on TLC
  • Features newcomer Mikel Welch, a Southfield native
  • Episode is called "The Honey Don't List"