Since 2000, Atlanta resident Vern Yip has been most recognizable for saving homeowners and others from disastrous décor in his role of a design interventionist on such TV shows as Trading Spaces, Deserving Design, HGTV Showdown, First Time Design, Bang for Your Buck and HGTV’s Design Star.
In 2010 he became a UNICEF ambassador — another interventionist role, but now he’s helping save some of the world’s most vulnerable children. He’s fundraising, educating and advocating in support of the organization’s work in more than 190 countries.
He became involved with UNICEF for very personal reasons. His father, a biochemist, and mother, a child psychiatrist, left China during the Cultural Revolution (1965-68). They moved to Hong Kong, where Yip was born, moving to the United States when he was 2 months old. His father became a busboy and his mother washed floors at a bank. Over time they worked themselves into better jobs and became successful entrepreneurs, opening several businesses. But they never returned to the careers they had in China.
“They made this huge sacrifice so my sister and I could have access to the best education, the best medical car, and the best chance at having a really successful and productive life,” Yip says. “I have always been so appreciative of that.”
His appreciation grew more after a return trip to China.
“I saw all these faces that looked like mine, but they just don’t have access to the type of opportunities that we take for granted in this country,” Yip explains. “We turn on the faucet and water appears. We get sick and go to the nearest clinic, doctor or hospital. We go to schools to get an education. We think all of this is natural and normal — and it should be — but that is not the situation for so many of the world’s children.”
Yip is passionate about children’s ability to get an education but also understands the importance of making sure they can survive.
“Survival means access to vaccines, water, nutrition. You have to satisfy those basic needs.”
On a UNICEF trip to Mongolia in September 2012, Yip learned that schools don’t necessarily exist in rural areas of the country. At age 6 most children spend nine months a year away from their families, at school in more populated areas. Some schools and dormitories lack plumbing or heat, even though Mongolian temperatures can drop 40 degrees below zero.
“Imagine being a child and having to walk outside to the bathroom, which is basically a hole in the ground, in that kind of weather with no light,” Yip says. “When asked about an education, they say, ‘It is important because it is my future and I want a better way of life.’ ”
A design background is one of the skills Yip brings to UNICEF. Since 2009 he’s designed the organization’s Snowflake Ball in New York. He incorporates elements of the organization’s field work into the design, once draping, for example, mosquito nets in the décor to remind attendees that malaria is the leading cause of death for African children under age 5. In 2010, 22,000 lights decorated the ballroom, each representing the number of children who die every day of preventable causes. (UNICEF says that rate dropped to 19,000 in 2012. The goal is to make it zero.)
Although design was in his destiny — as a child he created steel and glass furniture for his bedroom and an addition to his house — he almost became a doctor.
“I always loved design but I come from a culture where your parents encourage you to go into something with which you know you are going to be able to support a family,” Yip says.
He was on a premed track in school and, during breaks, worked at the National Institute of Health. Instead of focusing on the medical work researchers did, however, his thoughts turned to questions like “Why is the lighting so bad in this room? Why are the walls painted that color?”
Two weeks before starting medical school, he told his mother that he was, “put on this Earth to design.”
The two consulted a family friend — I.M. Pei, the renowned master of modern architecture. His advice: Go to Georgia Tech. Yip did, earning a master’s degree in architecture and an MBA for “something to fall back on.”
In 2000, he was named Southeast Designer of the Year. A magazine touting his achievement landed on the desk of the production company putting together “Trading Spaces” on the cable channel TLC, and he was offered a job.
Yip will bring some of his UNICEF work back to Atlanta in late April at Mason Murer Fine Art, when he hosts the UNICEF Experience, a family-friendly event at which attendees can experience some of the organization’s field work. Details HERE.
“This gives families access to the field. They can touch and see mosquito netting, see a school-in-a-box or carry a jug of water to experience what many people in the world have to do to have water just to survive,” he says. It also gives people a chance to get educated about what happens daily with some of the world’s most vulnerable children.
Bo Shurling is a freelance writer whose work includes celebrity interviews, restaurant reviews, movie reviews, press releases, film production notes, newsletters, brochures, and TV and radio spots. He also works in public relations and publicity.