Her hair was red and her shoes — that day, at least — were pink. Her dress was spackled flowers of every hue that looked like paint spatter from a distance. Her eyes, the darkest brown, are what happens when every color is liberally mixed. Her name, Gray, quite the juxtaposition to her style, fits her in some strange way. It’s as if it challenged her to go out and color her world. If there’s any truth to that, she took that challenge to heart.
Earlier this year, Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Network launched a new reality series highlighting a color-happy designer, her handy husband, loveable-but-grumpy father, two adorable kids, and a handful of quirky staff. Filming from the historic district of Charleston’s little sister, Summerville, “Happy to be Home with the Benkos” showcases the restorations and glow-ups of historic Lowcountry homes. And. We. Are. Here. For. It. Why? It’s not only another home improvement show, and it’s not just because this is our backyard. Those are reasons enough when weaving in the charms and nostalgia of the antiquated Charleston homes into the mix, but we are romanticizing the new program for another reason: Benko herself. She is the “x” factor. She is inspiring everyone around her to be authentic, to be bold in choice and to literally color their worlds. This is a girl boss we can get behind, even if we end up with a little paint on our skirts.
To know this show is to first know Gray Benko. My first clue into her personality was that she invited me to her quintessential Southern home for the interview. She didn’t ask to answer questions over email or meet for the standard late-morning coffee. She asked me into the place where she raises her family with her craftsmen husband, where she first experimented on her own walls, and where she lays her head at night.
When I arrived, I expected the sun would shine out of her front door. Instead, I found two adorable dogs — one who sat in the bend of my leg during the entire interview — two barefoot kids running around, and one uninvited Palmetto bug on his back, legs kicking. My first thought was, “Even Gray Benko gets Palmetto bugs. Thank God.” And I felt at home immediately.
Invited to kick my shoes off and curl up on her plush pink couch that sits in front of her Insta-famous rainbow bookshelf, I enjoyed a conversation with Benko and her project manager Chelcie Eastman. Benko is the creativity and Eastman is the force behind the work. They sat bantering with one another, Benko poking fun at Eastman for “pretending” to be humble when she knows what powerhouse she is, and Eastman giving it right back, joking about Benko’s ability to take lightyears to make a decision — obviously because of all the world’s pretty colors swarming her head. Then the ribbing tapered off, and all one had to say about the other was out of pure admiration. Benko said, “Chelcie just gets things done. She’s the driving force of the projects.”
To that Eastman offered, “What you see is what you get with Gray. It is literally the same. Everything that’s in her head is what she’s showing to you. You walk in and plop down on the sofa. Nothing is too precious to be actually used. Everyone is welcome.”
It felt like a girls’ afternoon, and I just wished I’d brought the mimosas — but off-beat mimosas with blood oranges, passion fruit, and maybe some other juice from Thailand I’ve never heard of before. That was the vibe. Color. Uniqueness. Good times.
I started off with a question I often ask women due to the fact it shows me who they are faster than anything else. I asked Benko what she liked to play when she was a little girl.
“I just remember being outside a lot with Lincoln Logs, building houses for my fairies all the time.”
Bingo. I smiled at her, and replied, “I think you’re still designing fairy houses. You need a little magic in a home, don’t you?”
“Absolutely.” Benko looked me in the eyes seriously, then let out a knowing laugh before she mentioned fairies seven more times in about 5 minutes.
Benko went on to describe the longing she felt for that kind of “magical” character in her home, which is what lured her from a cookie-cutter house to her family’s home in the heart of Summerville’s historic district. In a twist of fate, the house she bought turned out to belong to a long-lost family member — though Benko was from Ohio. It seemed meant to be that this is where she and her family would end up. Personally, I think it was the doing of the fairies — and I’m still not sure she isn’t one herself.
The house, like her hair and dress, was garnished in florals, reds and other bright colors. It was impossible not to keep looking around at the carefully curated creations that could have been chaos in the wrong hands.
Benko said of her design choices, “Some people have the wrong idea about the show. They think we’re changing these properties, but historical homes were full of color. We are conserving as much of the historical significance as possible.”
“There is more restoration than people realize,” her right-hand gal Eastman added.
The goal of the show isn’t only for Benko to have a place to project all her creative energy, nor to simply entertain. It is also meant to pay homage to the history of these sacred properties, while respecting the owners’ dreams and userships of those properties. It is about drawing out the color of the past and launching it into the future by a group of people who understand exactly how to do that.
The great news is that all the fun playing with color isn’t over. Though season one has wrapped up filming, the team is looking for more beautiful homes to work with in the future. Homes from across the Lowcountry, not just downtown Summerville, are now under consideration. If you would like to see your historic house or guest house remodeled, restored and revamped, you should reach out to Info.GrayBenko@gmail.com to apply. The team is actively seeking projects now, so don’t hesitate to get the chance to work with a truly unique team to find the hues you never knew you had in you.
For those who haven’t yet seen the show, tune in to the Magnolia Network or HBO Max to binge watch. It’s sure to “brighten” up your day and maybe even your living room. Get ready for all the “Gray” you’ll ever need in your life.