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Michael Adams
On Bravo's "Top Design," Michael Adams will compete. (F. Scott Schafer?Bravo)

'Top Design' too formulaic for its own good

Oh, Heidi Klum , what have you wrought? It seems that Bravo has decided to go factory, churning out clones of its cult hit "Project Runway" for every possible constituency. Thus, on the heels of "Top Chef" comes "Top Design," a new contest for rude, hip interior designers that premieres at 11 tonight.

This is the curse of reality TV; the formulas are far too tempting, which is why every "American Idol" knock off seems to feature three judges, one of them British. "Top Design" is so derivative of "Project Runway," from the setup to the structure of the judging, that it's impossible not to make a point-by-point comparison, with the new show falling short on every level.

Maybe that's inevitable, a problem of concept. "Runway" proved it's possible to build a compelling show about aesthetics, but not all beautiful things are alike. Fashion is a theatrical experience. There's far less drama to be wrung from a room. And while I don't mean to diminish the artistry here, the wonder doesn't always translate. There's something magical about watching someone build a gorgeous outfit out of cloth. It's less impressive to see someone shop for furniture.

That's what the 12 "Top Design" contestants do, transforming blank spaces into rooms, with help from faceless carpenters and seamstresses. Tonight, they're given furniture budgets of $50,000 and told to create a "sanctuary" for an unnamed celebrity. (The trick worked better with TLC's influential "Trading Spaces," where the budgets were absurdly low but the stakes were higher: actual, warm-blooded people to please, plus carpenters like Ty Pennington .)

As in "Runway," the intrigue is meant to come from interpersonal conflict; tonight, much of it rests on the unfortunate pairing of a bully named John and a wispy aesthete from Athol named Michael, who doesn't know how to use a paint roller. Famed designer Todd Oldham shows up in the Tim Gunn "Runway" role, as the expert cheerleader and guide. But Gunn presents a telegenic mix of empathy and credibility; he's not afraid to crinkle up his nose and say, "I'm not getting this." Oldham is so relentlessly chipper that he winds up looking naive -- and sounding like Kenneth the page on NBC's "30 Rock."

Designer Jonathan Adler , as leader of the judges, does his best to channel the sneering Michael Kors . "It needs, like, a huge dose of Zoloft," he says tonight about one room. But in general, the judges seem afraid to be too nice, yet afraid to be too mean. And there's no industry icon like Klum to preside over the affairs, unapproachably perfect and cold as ice.

That 's another problem with a show about interior design: Models can judge fashion, but walls can't talk. Certainly not in German. "See you later, decorators," Adler coos to the losers at the end. It's not even close to "Auf wiedersehen."

(Subsequent episodes of "Top Design" air on Wednesdays at 10 p.m.)

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a review in yesterday's Living/Arts section on "Top Design" listed the wrong time for the show's premiere. It premiered at 11 p.m. yesterday. Subsequent episodes air at 10 p.m. on Wednesdays.)