Designing Guy

updated 05/03/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In September 2002 Thorn Filicia got trapped in his Manhattan apartment building's elevator with his beagle-Italian greyhound mix Paco and a woman he'd never met. After an hour of anxious chitchat—he told her about his interior design firm, she said she was a talent manager—they climbed out the top to freedom. Not the sort of episode you easily forget.

Yet soon after, Filicia got this call: "Remember me? I was stuck in the elevator with you? You, me and your dog? Would you be interested in doing television?"

Ten months and many auditions later, Filicia became one of the stars of Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. He's partied with Ashton and Demi (huge fan), group-hugged Oprah with his four Fab cohorts and recently signed on as a spokesman for Pier 1 Imports, replacing Kirstie Alley. "It's a great marriage," says Filicia, 34, of his two-year deal with the home decor chain. "We're both about creating your own style."

Also enamored of Filicia, corporately speaking, is Xerox. The office machines company is pairing with the designer and Entrepreneur magazine to overhaul one lucky small business. "We're going to find the office that most needs a design-and-technology make-over," he says of the contest, the entries for which are due in June.

But don't think this show of big-business love means Filicia is dropping the straight guys who helped bring him to attention—or the fans who tune in Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET, to Filicia's total delight. "We've got the Monday-night football crowd, grandma, grandpa, college students, boys gay and straight," says Filicia. "It's really incredible."

Head of a design firm he founded in 1998, Filicia is grateful to share the spotlight with costars Carson Kressley, Ted Allen, Jai Rodriguez and Kyan Douglas (the fashion, food, culture and grooming mavens). "Going through this by yourself would be very difficult," says Filicia, a practical joker whom Rodriguez calls "the funniest" of the lot. Despite the pranks, he says, "we do get along. If we didn't, there would be an eyeball missing, and you'd know it."

Though not the flashiest of the Fabs, Filicia makes, arguably, the greatest impact: "He has a knack for getting a sense of the individual," says Douglas. When Filicia gets through with a bachelor pad in which a bicycle on the wall once passed for sculpture, he earns gasps of joyful disbelief.

"They're amazed," says Filicia, "at how much effort goes into making their interior a reflection of who they are." And at his good-natured tenacity. While Kressley is trolling Armani and Douglas is supervising manicures, Filicia (and a few helpers) are scrubbing. "One place was so dirty we had to get inhalers," he recalls. "I don't have asthma, but you could hear me breathing."

Filicia found his niche at age 7, when he made over his Syracuse bedroom. "I had a horsehead lamp—it was very of the moment," he says. Raised by an engineer dad, who gave him his first T-square, and a real estate broker mom, who brought him to her clients' homes, Filicia later studied at Syracuse University and honed his skills at three prestigious New York decorating firms.

Now, when he's not on Queer Eye SWAT team duty, Filicia is overseeing million-dollar renovations. Thorn Filicia Inc. (TFI) has brought his refined eye to high-end homes across the country and earned him a "100 Top Designers" honor from House Beautiful. Today, two of his biggest projects are his own apartment and weekend house near Hudson, N.Y. He envisions both as homes for more than just himself. "I grew up in a family with marriage and children," says Filicia, who is unattached but looking. The man who finds successful pairings in wicker chairs alongside posh Baker sofas needs only a similarly suitable match for himself.

Allison Adato. Mary Green in Manhattan

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