Mikel Welch has had a whirlwind career. The New York-based designer got his start by creating spaces at no cost for clients he met through Craigslist and has since built an impressive portfolio on camera and off, starring on shows like HGTV Design Star and Trading Spaces, working alongside Emily Henderson and Shea McGee, and designing for celebrities like Michelle Obama and Oprah. As part of our series, My Design Journey, we spoke with Welch about making connections, his “primitive modern” style, and his goal of becoming a household name.
On Realizing His Passion for Design
As a kid, Welch fashioned furniture for imaginary houses out of Legos, but it didn’t occur to him that interior design might be his calling until later in life. After obtaining a marketing degree from Morehouse College, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next, so he got a part-time job in the men’s department at Bloomingdale’s. While on a lunch break, he had what he calls his “Oprah aha moment.”
“I remember looking up at the clock, and I had spent 40 minutes of my 45-minute break at Crate & Barrel," Welch recalls. "I realized I didn’t even have time to eat. I said to myself, ‘You like design. You don't know what that means, but you need to go figure it out."
He started by working in a logistics warehouse for a furniture store before applying for a job staging model homes as a design assistant. A two-man operation, he got a crash course in both the business side of design and the art of conducting a consultation. This gave Welch the confidence to strike out on his own.
On Working for “Free”
To build his brand, Welch says he “bucked the system.”
“I put an ad up on Craigslist that was essentially, ‘I’ll design one room for free as long as you pay for the furniture,’” Welch says. “Then, I had a friend who was just starting out as a photographer take pictures of all my little Craigslist rooms to include in my portfolio.”
Technically, he was doing the work for free, but Welch didn’t see it that way. “There are a lot of people who won’t do anything for free,’” he says. “They get so caught up in the word free and don't look at the big picture. I look at it as gaining exposure. And some of my biggest jobs have come from what was initially ‘free’ work.”
On Making Bold Moves and Moving On Up
After building a client base in Atlanta, Welch wanted to move to a bigger city and set his sights on New York, Los Angeles, and Miami.
“I put the same ad on Craigslist in each one of those places and told myself that wherever I got the most hits, that’s where I was going,” he says. “I had 20 responses in an hour for New York City, and that was my sign.”
He moved to New York in 2008, envisioning what he calls a Carrie Bradshaw-esque life. But, then reality—and bills—set in, and he needed a job. He spent nights unloading trucks at The Container Store before eventually winding up at CB2. That’s where his next “aha moment” happened.
“One day, a guy comes into the showroom, and he has 10 assistants pulling vases, pillows, everything," Welch remembers. "It’s a lot, so nobody wants to ring up that order, but I volunteer. I said, ‘Sir, what do you do? You’ve got to help me learn whatever it is you do so I can get from behind this register.’”
As luck would have it, he was a set decorator for the show Dexter. He told Welch that if he was ever in L.A. to call him and he could work on an episode to see if he liked it. Welch wasted no time. After handing over the receipt, he went downstairs to his boss and asked to transfer to a sister store in Los Angeles.
I love television, because no is not an option. Producers don't care what the reason is, they have a deadline and are going live so you need to figure it out.
“Of course, when I got up there a month later, that man never picked up the phone, but it was okay. I said ‘You know what, God has you here for a reason. And you need to stop the same way you did in New York and spoke to that man and speak to everyone who has a portfolio or anything in their hand, anyone that looks like they're shopping for someone other than themselves,’” Welch says.
Within that first week, he introduced himself to everyone that fit the type, telling them “I don't want to get paid. I just want to learn.” It worked. He scored a gig designing pop-up shops in a mall in Orange County for Teen Vogue. Then, one man named Orlando Soria shared that he worked for a new designer named Emily Henderson, who had just won season five of HGTV Design Star. They were looking for interns—and Welch jumped at the opportunity.
“They paid for lunch and that was it, but, again, I was learning and getting exposure," he says. "Now I’ve got HGTV on my resume and I’m putting myself down as a design assistant on Emily’s projects. Two months in, I heard that the Style Network was looking for a set decorator in New York. I applied and they hired me on the spot.”
Roughly 90 days after setting foot in L.A., Welch packed his bags again and returned to the East Coast. His friends thought he was crazy.
On Building a Career On Camera
Welch worked as a set decorator for a few shows before deciding to apply for HGTV Design Star himself. More than 2,000 people showed up for the audition, and he had only a few minutes to win over the casting director.
“She asked if I had a design degree, and I said no," Welch remembers. "She then said to me, ‘All these people standing in this line, and you don't have a design degree? What makes you think you're the right candidate? I said, ‘You may have 2,000 people in this line, but I guarantee you, no one has my experience.’ She looked at my portfolio, she looked at me, and she said, ‘I like your attitude.’”
Welch’s confidence and robust portfolio—comprised mostly of those “free” projects—got him a spot and his work ethic got him to the final four on Season 7. After he was eliminated, he received a call from producers at the Steve Harvey Show in Chicago, and he would go on to design everything from the talk show sets to Harvey’s office to custom green rooms for Michelle Obama, Oprah, and other celebrities. The green rooms, in particular, brought out Welch’s resourceful side.
“Production says to me, ‘Look, we want it to look good, but we are not spending money on a room that they’re gonna only be in for three minutes,’” Welch says.
He was only given a budget of $2,000-$3,000, but he made it go further by asking stores to loan him furniture. After the show, he would return everything and then get to work planning a personalized look for the next guest, searching for pictures of their home online, and noting even the smallest details.
“With Oprah, I knew her favorite color was purple, so I incorporated a lot of muted purple tones into the space," he says. "I also knew she loved to read because of Oprah’s Book Club, so instead of a typical sofa, I did a really cute daybed with tons of pillows. Later, I heard she only sat in the chair because she said it looked too pretty and she didn’t want to mess it up.”
Welch was savvy enough to document each look for his portfolio.
“I would go get $15,000 worth of stuff, deck that room out, and have my photographer come take photos," he says. "Then, as the celebrities were coming out—it was rare that I got to speak to them—I would make it a point to pass by and ask how they liked their room,” Welch says. “Oprah said, ‘Oh my gosh, that was amazing. What was that?’ Now I have photos and a quote from Oprah to include in my portfolio.”
Oprah said, ‘Oh my gosh, that was amazing. What was that?’ Now I have photos and a quote from Oprah to include in my portfolio.
After the Steve Harvey Show ended, one of Welch’s former co-workers called him with an opportunity to star on the reboot of Trading Spaces. This was, Welch says, a “full circle moment.”
“I remember being in my twenties watching endless amounts of Trading Spaces and now these same people were my co-workers and judges,” he says. “That was such a huge moment for me.”
Welch’s current project is also binge-worthy and like nothing he’s done before. Now streaming on Roku, he co-hosts Murder House Flip, working with families who (often unknowingly) bought houses that are former crime scenes. Welch provides comic relief, but says it can be spooky.
“These families don’t even want to walk into the room where the crime happened, and I get it—up until that moment we change out the floors, redesign it, and make it feel like a different room, I don’t want to be in there either,” he says. “But, what I like about our show is that we’re using design as a form of therapy. It’s a complete give back.”
On Lessons Learned and Defining His Style
Designing for TV taught Welch a lot, including that you always need a backup plan.
“I love television because no is not an option," Welch says. "Producers don't care what the reason is, they have a deadline and are going live so you need to figure it out. I carry that same mentality into designing my clients’ houses now.”
The variety of projects he’s tackled has made him a bit of a chameleon, but when it comes to his own personal style, he describes it as “primitive modern.”
“I always joke I’m like a current-day Fred Flintstone going out to get a piece of rock and bringing it home to Wilma like, ‘We have a new coffee table!’” he says, laughing. “I love objects with patina and unfinished materials paired with sleek modern elements.”
One of Welch’s most prized possessions is a Chinese coconut fiber raincoat he got off Craigslist for $200. He displays it on the wall as a work of art.
This same aesthetic is infused in his furniture line, the Mikel Welch Collection for YHD. The collaboration came about because of a chance encounter with YHD’s vice president of design at a furniture market. She overheard Welch talking about what he would change about an object in the booth and the rest, as they say, is history.
“It was one of those kismet things, a very organic moment that I could not have planned,” he says. “Most of my life is like that.”
On Networking and What’s Next
Welch’s casual networking skills are one of his biggest strengths, and the key, he says, is pretty simple: “People want to hire people who they want to have a drink with, and everyone is fighting their own battles, so why be nasty?" he says. "Just be nice.”
His extensive network came in handy during the pandemic when he started an IGTV series called “Smoke + Mirrors.” In each episode, he interviews a fellow designer about their career and asks for their best hacks and advice. Topics range from how to style a magazine-worthy bed to a discussion on imposter syndrome with Shea McGee.
Eventually, Welch says he’d love to have his own daytime talk show.
“It will focus on design, but also just be an overall feel-good type of show where I can have dialogues about a variety of life topics,” he says, adding that he’d like to retire on Good Morning America or the Today Show. Welch says this last part somewhat in jest, but he’s also not one to shy away from big goals.
“I would like to be the first black male interior designer to become a household name, like a Martha Stewart or a Nate Berkus,” he says. “I would like to see my face in Target or QVC. It doesn't have to be high end, but that's my goal in the next five to 10 years.”
Knowing the speed at which Welch moves, don’t be surprised if it happens sooner rather than later.