Design Professor Competes for His Own TV Show

Atwood seated in the interior of a school bus that he designed for an episode of HGTV Star. He designed the interior in the form of a time-traveler's lounge.

This Sunday at 8 p.m., Professor Brooks Atwood has a chance to win his own TV show. 

Atwood is one of three finalists on HGTV Star, a reality show that revolves around a design competition. The three finalists must design a suite of rooms in a hotel in Palm Springs, Calif. A panel of designers will select the best design, and the winning contestant will be get a design show on HGTV (Home & Garden Television), a top-rated cable network. Viewers can also vote for their favorite contestant.

The design show premiered in June, with ten designers competing. On each episode the contestants were given a design challenge. They usually had three days to complete the challenge, when winners were selected by the panel. Some of the challenges were individual and for some episodes the contestants were divided into teams. Losers were knocked off the show.

Six episodes later, Atwood has not only survived but triumphed. He has won two episodes individually and was part of a team that won two more. And now Atwood, an assistant professor of industrial design in the College of Architecture and Design, is pumped up and psyched to win the finale.

“I’ve been kicking butt and blowing people’s minds with my designs,” says Atwood, whose love of design and quirky professorial personae have endeared himself to viewers of HGTV Star, which is distributed to 99 million households. “The show is totally nuts and stressful but I’m loving it. I’m confident going into the finale, always confident.”

Atwood never intended to be on the show.  Last year, some of his students heard about a casting call for the show. They implored him to audition. In his classes, Atwood beseeches his students to take chances in their designs and in their lives. So they turned the design tables on him, saying he must practice what he professes and attend the casting call. Or, as Atwood recalls it:

“I walked into studio one day and my students were like, 'Dude this is a funny show and you must go for it!' Since they follow me on the crazy journey that is my studio I said I’d do it for them. The rest has been fun yet stressful insanity.”

Atwood’s personality on the show is that of the eccentric yet brilliant professor whose kinetic energy seems to emanate through his brain and into his corona of hair, whose electric coils shoot six inches into the air, while his salt and pepper beard masks his pencil-thin neck.  

He brings that same intellectual energy to his design classes in the College of Architecture and Design, and his students love him.  He teaches an industrial design studio and an elective design class as well as a class on modeling and prototyping.  His enthusiasm for industrial design is unbridled and he sees his work everywhere in the world around him. Anything you touch in your daily life, he says, is made by an industrial designer, may it be your chair, your coffee cup, your iPhone or your trash can.

On the first day of his classes, this is the first thing he tells his students:

“I want you to design like a rock star and to fail like a rock star,” proclaims Atwood, who speaks quickly and passionately and uses hip phrases from the 1960s. “I want you to blow people’s minds with your designs.”  He then gives his students his phone number and encourages them to call him anytime for help. Soon after the first class ends, his students phone him and never stop calling him for advice and help.

He loves teaching at NJIT because the students are eager to “go on design journeys with him.” He wants his students to have an edge, so he gives them as much real-world experience and exposure as he can.  Atwood is a well-known designer in New York City. He runs POD Design, a design company in Fort Greene, Brooklyn (and yes, his business has boomed since he’s been on the show). And he uses his design knowledge and connections to help his students. 

In recent years, he’s arranged for his students to design the backdrop for Manhattan’s Fashion Week runway.  He’s also arranged for their work to be shown in art galleries in Chelsea, Manhattan’s art district. And he has his students visit top product design stores in Manhattan, where they pitch their designs to the stores’owners. He also has them enter their work in national design competitions, which gives them exposure to the top designs and the best designers in the world.     

“If students come to my classes with a love of design and if they do good work,” he says, “I’ll give them every advantage I can to ensure that get an edge over their competition – design students at other colleges.”

Atwood has taught at NJIT for seven years, and scores of his former students have emailed him lately telling him they are watching him on HGTV Star and voting for him as a fan favorite. And some of those students are delighting in watching their former professor assume the the role of a student on the show.  Whereas in studio, he’d give them design assignments and critique them; on the show the judges give Atwood design challenges and critique his work. It’s a reversal that amuses the students.  

But Atwood is a clever student who is poised to win the finale on Sunday. And if he does win, he plans to create a design show in which he’ll travel around the country on a motorcycle, visiting each state and finding fascinating  design projects that will both capture Americana and enthrall the audience. For one episode, he might redesign a classic stainless steel diner. For another, he might redo an adobe hut in New Mexico. And for another he might redesign his motorcycle.

In the end, for him, it’s all about the rapture of experience.

"I’m a Sagittarius and I believe in going on journeys,” he says. "My dad always told me to never turn down an experience that will translate into a good story. And being featured on HGTV Star and having the chance to win my own TV show is an experience that will translate into a great story.”

(By Robert Florida)