On one of his recent TV appearances, Entertainment Tonight referred to Randy Florke as "The Male Martha." The New York Times characterized him as a design superhero - "Super Stylist." Oprah Winfrey turns to him for decorating advice.
He laughs - fame isn't what he's after, he says.
"There's Iowa in everything I do. I'm not some guy who gets to the big city and immediately forgets where he came from. I like simple, basic, thrifty things, and that is my palette for everything. There's beauty in humbleness."
Florke grew up in Storm Lake, where his mother Karen Salmen still resides, and graduated from high school in Cherokee, where he attended his 30th class reunion last spring. Still in his teens, he left for New York City to study fashion, but it was his face that initially captured the attention.
Soon he was a sought-after model, signed with the prestigious Wilhelmina Agency - jet-setting to places like Tokyo, Paris, Milan and Amsterdam on assignment. He enjoyed the fast-paced life, but he knew that it wouldn't last forever.
"All of this time, I was looking toward more career-oriented things to prepare myself. I did modeling for nine years, but the way the business is, you can work in your teens into your 20s, and there is a market for more mature people so I could model again now, but in between things really die out."
He was living in Madrid when the opportunity came up to become involved in an interior design project, and felt he had unexpectedly found his calling.
"Fashion design and home design have some things in common - color and fabrics and the thought processes - style is style," he muses. "However, fashion is very fleeting and changes by the season - what I love about interior design is that if you do it well, it is more permanent. If people love the spaces they create for themselves, they can stay forever."
The purchase of a farm in Iowa led him on his first real estate venture. (and made for a good excuse to journey home more often.) He renovated the homestead and collected and displayed locally foraged antiques. The satisfying results of the renovation led to the purchase of a property in New York State, on which Randy again went to work. A real estate business was born. Today his company, Rural Connections, specializes in country second homes - designing, building, renovating, decorating and consulting. Through headquartered in trendy Greenwich Village, Florke's simple company logo features a pig - another symbol of his roots. He is featured on CNN, Discovery Channel, HGTV, MSNBC, Style and other networks as a guru on his style of vintage, recycling-inspired design. He's balanced parenting of three adopted children, six houses, a string of high-end design projects, brokerage and construction businesses, a gig as contributing editor of Country Living magazine, a steady stream of TV appearances, and has authored four books in the past seven years.
His latest, "Simple Sustainable Style: Ways to Make Your House Your Home," will hit bookshelves next November, exploring a personal passion for environmentally-friendly "nothing goes to waste" style.
He is lauded for an uncanny knack of predicting trends without being overpowered by them. In upstate New York he prefers to deal in 19th century working farms flanked by cow pasture rather than cookie-cutter million-dollar upscale beach condos surrounded by high-style restaurants.
In his magazine role, Randy scouts for unique locations, and transforms them, creating interiors sprung from a rural upbringing, yet leavened with the influences of world-wide travel. Randy not only finds his client a weekend dream home but also restores and decorates it from top to bottom, and takes his readers along for the ride.
Realizing that not everyone can find a 200-year-old charmer farmhome, Florke has turned to an unlikely modern solution - designing modular prefab "vintage styled" homes that can be erected in just a few weeks. With classic details like rough-hewn plank siding, wainscoting and recreations of historical-style windows - and of course, classic Iowa-syle porches for gatherings - "new old green" homes can look as though they've been on their sites for generations. Also stressing environmental responsibility, they reduce fuel consumption by more than 50 percent over other modular homes in the market. Florke designs the homes, which are built by his partners with New World Homes. Randy traveled to Walnut, Iowa for a AmVets garage sale to find the old furnishings to outfit his show home.
It is largely his skill as a renovator, however, that lands Florke appearances on the Today Show, features in Metropolitan Home and Country Living magazines, and a market for his lavishly-illustrated books. Still his roots keep him grounded, as do the joys and demands of fatherhood and a relationship that has attracted nearly as much attention as his unique career.
For 20 years, he has been the life partner of Sean Maloney, former White House staff secretary in the Clinton Administration, the youngest ever to hold such a position, and former Deputy Secretary to New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. He was retained as an aide to Gov. David Paterson after Spitzer resigned. As an attorney, Maloney also represented the family of murder victim Matthew Shepard in the nation's most infamous anti-gay hate crime case.
The partners have adopted three children - Jesus, now 22, and their daughters Daley and Essie. With his family and all of his professional ventures, there's no time to waste in his life, Florke says - just the way he likes it. The family's Sullivan County, New York farmhouse also provides for plenty of weekend chores, he says.
He would like to author more books in the future, he says - "though they are a labor of love and not a money-making machine." The books help establish him as a recognized expert, which in turn opens other doors. "Books mean you don't have to type a resume," he laughs.
His many TV appearances have been an unexpected bonus. "I really like TV, mainly because I like helping people," he says, "but I don't want to be just a gimmick. If I'm on TV, I want it to be informative and interesting, and not about trying to make myself famous."
Producers have pitched ideas for ongoing reality TV shows, but Florke isn't locking himself in just yet. "It would have to be the right vehicle, or frankly, I'd just rather not do it."
While design shows such as those on HGTV have become highly-popular, there isn't as much money to be made on TV as people might think, he confides. Randy recently found a way to combine his TV appeal with a business venture by producing his own line of products for Home Shopping Network. He also has a business providing classical touches for home renovations, such as crystal doorknobs.
He enjoys his opportunities to get back to rural Iowa.
"What I hear from people most often is regret for the things they didn't save," says Florke, who still delights in prowling flea markets for beat-up old pieces. "People tell me about the things they owned years ago that they sold, gave away or burned when they got old. The whole point is recycling things - looking at old things in a new way. When you start doing that you may be amazed over what has been right at your fingertips. It doesn't even matter that much what the object is - I'm attracted to anything with a patina of old paint, that's beautiful to me."
A few bits of advice culled from Florke's TV appearances:
* Do your own thing. "I'm anti-keeping up with the Jones'."
* Use primitive pieces in a new way. For example, weathered old shutters can be easily remade into a one-of-a-kind cupboard.
* Freshen up. "A mediocre piece of furniture can be made into something useful and attractive with as simple a project as a fresh coat of white paint."
* Refocus your house. "Give each room a purpose."
* Don't be too concerned with styles. Trying to create a "country room" in an otherwise modern house doesn't work - instead scatter a mixture of styles of loved pieces throughout rooms for an eclectic appeal."
* Philosophy for a successful home makeover: "Color. Comfort. Economy."
Martha couldn't have said it better.