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Separated at birth

These twin brothers have very different ideas when it comes to a design for living

ATHOL -- As she proudly flips through old photos of her nephews Michael and Richard Adams -- a matched set of tow headed moppets neatly dressed in the same rugby shirts for family pictures -- Susannah Whipps can't help but reminisce fondly.

"Do you remember when Michael was a little boy and he really wanted that little hand-held sewing machine for Christmas?" she asks Michael's identical twin, Richard, who is seated next to her at the kitchen table.

A few minutes later:

"Do you remember when you and Michael were playing soccer, and Michael was off picking flowers? I thought your coach was going to lose it."

And, perhaps the best one:

"Their father would take the boys up to the farm. Richard would go out and help his father with the animals, and Michael would go to the barn with the little calves and sing to them and tell them jokes. He even stacked bales of hay into a little stage," Whipps says while she and Richard laugh hysterically at the memory.

Given his history of entertaining farm animals and his childhood dreams of hemming curtains with his very own Handy Stitch , it seems natural that Michael Adams would graduate from Athol High School and go on to compete on Bravo's "Top Design," a sort of "Project Runway" for interior designers that debuts tonight. The 23-year-old former north-central Massachusetts farm boy encounters his fair share of friction on the first installment of the show in which 12 designers compete for a new car and $100,000.

Richard, on the other hand, has opted for a relatively drama-free existence of staying and working on the family's organic livestock farm. While Michael is decorating Richard Thomas's house (yes, John- Boy Walton), Richard Adams is castrating pigs and feeding cows in Athol's version of Walton's Mountain. Richard is the self-described red neck, Michael is the design diva.

"It worked out well," says Richard. "Growing up we were never interested in the same things, so we never really fought over anything. He gave me style advice, and I had his back if anyone ever gave him a hard time. I was like his body guard."

While Richard stayed to work on the farm, Michael attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York . He left school before graduation, impatient with the pace of the program, and started working for a design firm. When Richard meets a reporter, he's wearing a green John Deere henley shirt and is driving an ultra-vivid green truck -- which backfires loudly as he drives to the farm. When Michael meets the reporter a few days later in Manhattan, he's wearing all royal and baby blue. The twins may have their differences, but neither is afraid of a little color.

As Michael explains it, his career path did not include a stop competing on reality television. A friend was auditioning for the show, and he tagged along for moral support. He couldn't resist auditioning himself, and last fall he was flown to Los Angeles to compete, leaving his job in the process.

"I've always been about taking risks and not missing opportunities," Michael says. "I'm young, and I know that if I'm going to make mistakes, this is the time to make them."

While "Top Design" shares similarities with "Runway" and "Top Chef," it is a spin-off of neither. It was conceived by producer Scott Stone, whose previous credits include "The Mole" for ABC and "Pops tars" for the WB.

"One thing I knew I didn't want to do was go into houses and do makeovers," Stone says. "What I wanted to see was the art of interior design, and the way to do that was give the designers a blank canvas. Also, whereas you can make a couture gown for $150, you can't do that in terms of a couture bedroom."

"The idea was not to constrain them so much that it couldn't be about creativity," says designer Jonathan Adler , who serves as lead judge on the show. "It wasn't 'Here , MacGyver, turn this cardboard into a room.' These are serious professionals. It's a pretty high-end show."

Although he has only been in New York a short time, Michael has already worked for some high-profile clients. Once while working for composer/singer Michael Feinstein, he met a pair of women kibitzing in Feinstein's kitchen. He had no idea who they were until they gathered around the piano and started belting out one of Feinstein's tunes. It was Barbra Streisand and her sister.

He can't talk too much about the show ("I don't want to be slapped with a big lawsuit," he says), but Michael rolls his eyes behind his glasses and says that editing gave him the appearance of being more difficult than he is in real life.

Michael, who describes his decorating style as eco-friendly and eclectic, doesn't seem concerned about how he comes across in the show, but back on the farm in Athol, Richard is fretting. He has always been around to help his brother when he needs him. But this time, all he can do is watch as the celebrity judges dissect his brother's ideas.

"No matter how it ends up, I'm happy for him," says Richard. "But it's something that I would never want to do. Cows are a lot easier to handle than people."

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.

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