Feeding an Appetite for Fun
Alumna and Food Network designer talks decorating and detective work
Wendy Waxman earned a degree in urban planning in 1974 from Case Western Reserve University but never intended to work a conventional job. She's succeeded: For 17 years, Waxman has served as director of design for dozens of Food Network programs, including Iron Chef America and 30 Minute Meals with Rachael Ray, now seen in 100 million households. "If I had to work, I wanted to work somewhere I could have fun," Waxman says. "Of course, at Food Network, you have to be very aware of its caloric side effects."
What exactly does Food Network's director of design do?
I decorate sets, design tabletop displays and special events and style cookbooks.
So your visual signature is on the food sets television viewers see?
Yes. It's a collaborative effort, though. We have a team that helps give a show a visual personality in keeping with the talent's personality. We create an interesting environment for the viewer and help the talent feel comfortable in their environment. This is their domain, a place where you're going to join them for a half-hour or an hour. So when you tune in to Food Network we want you say, "Oh, that's Rachael. I think I'll see what she's up to today."
Are you involved with styling food that the chefs prepare?
No. I provide food a complementary surface. For example, I love plates that enhance the appearance of food on TV. I think of food as another kind of art material. The downfall at Food Network is that you can eat everything because it's delicious. So you have to control yourself.
A degree in urban planning seems a long way from what you've been doing for nearly two decades. How did you end up decorating food sets?
I started as freelance in 1993 with Food Network's first on-air taping, which was Talking Food with Robin Leach. They were just starting up and suddenly realized that sets didn't decorate themselves. I already had a full-time job in New York producing television commercials, but I thought it would be a fun weekend adventure.
Growing up in West Hartford, Conn., was there anything that hinted at your creative future?
My mother had a flair for fashion. She loved outfitting me and my sisters. She should have been a wardrobe stylist. I grew up learning about textiles and natural fibers and fabrics. My father had a quirky sense of humor. He was a bacteriologist and had medical labs. He thought I really liked science. I didn't. I just liked looking at things through the microscope. I liked the way things looked more than I cared about how they behaved. The things I saw looked like paisley patterns.
We understand that part of your job is acquiring set props, everything from elk antlers to Rachael Ray's "garbage" bowls. Where do you find them?
All over the world. I love that part of the job. I've always been a detective of sorts. I've always thought that if I didn't do set decorating it would be fun to be a detective, except I don't have the stomach for that. I'd much rather stalk an inanimate object.
Where do you live and can you describe your home kitchen?
I live in an apartment in Brooklyn. My kitchen is really pretty. It has a floor-to- ceiling brick hearth, a tin ceiling and hardwood floors. I wanted to rent a prewar apartment, but I was thinking World War II, and I got more World War I.
In your opinion, what should every American kitchen look like?
The wonderful thing about being American is that there are so many different personalities and cultural backgrounds, and everyone needs to be true to their own self-expression. Everyone needs to look to their inner self and ask, "What makes be feel comfortable and happy to look at every day?" Don't think about pleasing other people. Do what's true to yourself and you won't keep decorating and redecorating.
Have you thought about life after Food Network?
I love being at Food Network. It's a good fit for me. We're always creating things on the cusp. Someone said to me once, "You must know that job backwards and forwards." But how could I? Every day there's a new project, a new chef, a new set to create, and now social technology is creating new possibilities. You have to be a fast-thinking, problem-solving person.
You've been exposed to a lot of great chefs over the years. Can we assume you're a wizard in your own kitchen?
No. I very rarely cook at home. I just don't have the time. But if I did, whatever I served would look pretty.