Wilfredo Emanuel is a person who makes the most of opportunities. To realize this, all it takes is a quick glance at the award-winning, Naples-based interior designer’s elaborate wardrobe. He has serious élan. And a stroll into his Park Shore studio, which he opened approximately three years ago, leaves no doubts about his passion for conceptualizing and creating the exceptional.
Born and educated in Puerto Rico, Emanuel has called Naples home for 10 years, first working and designing for names like Robb & Stucky and Clive Daniel Home. While he initially studied architecture and still cites celebrated architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier for inspiration, Emanuel was exposed to interior design in college and never looked back.
“I’m from the mountains in Puerto Rico; I didn’t know what design was when I got to college,” he explains. “To me, design is so fascinating because I’m able to start and finish an entire project. I love it because people believe that I am going to make their design dreams come true, and that’s what I do.”
Speaking of dreams, one of Emanuel’s came true in 2021 when he appeared in the inaugural season of HGTV’s Table Wars, a competition featuring design contenders creating extreme tablescapes from conception through execution. Judges include Martha Stewart, Tamera Mowry-Housley, and Chris Hessney, and one contestant is eliminated at the end of each episode until the finale, when the last three designers standing battle it out.
“I always dreamed about being on TV,” Emanuel says. “When they called me to do this show, it was exciting but at the same time, a little bit scary.”
Flamboyant and Fabulous
Emanuel actually had television experience prior to Table Wars. He starred in his own design-driven television segment that aired in the Dominican Republic. Still, when a representative from ITV America, a company associated with HGTV, called him in late 2020, he thought it was a hoax: “At first, I thought it was a prank,” he recounts. “I said, ‘Sure, send me all the information by email,’ and they did. It was real.”
The three-month-long audition process was done completely online and included three interviews aimed at exposing Emanuel’s personality. More than 1,700 tablescapers auditioned. He was one of eight finalists selected for the show, which first aired on November 14, 2021.
What’s remarkable about Emanuel’s selection for the show is the way he was discovered. Emanuel is not a tablescaper by trade. Yet, his creative capacities have prompted various community organizations to request his tablescaping services at their philanthropic events, including at the Naples Zoo Gala and The League Club’s Naples Tables, a design extravaganza raising funds for the organization’s grantmaking program.
“Wilfredo shares our commitment to community, and he’s always been incredibly generous to share his talents,” says club member and Naples Tables Media Director Christina Inslee. “Guests become part of the drama of sitting at his tables.”
Emanuel has produced several tablescapes for Naples Tables, an event featuring striking, dramatic tablescapes from area designers. One of Emanuel’s Naples Tables designs, at least partly inspired by the hit TV series The Queen’s Gambit, caught the eye of Table Wars casting directors.
“Wilfredo first came to my attention after discovering a photo of a chess-themed tabletop he designed for Naples Tables,” says ITV America Casting Director Brian Puentes. “I was immediately excited about his unique aesthetic … Wilfredo won us over with his charming personality and humor—not to mention his chic wardrobe.”
Filming for the show took place over 45 intense days in New York. Cast members reported for wardrobe and makeup at 7:15 a.m., and the day wrapped at 9 p.m. Back in his hotel room, Emanuel held nightly meetings online with his interior design team in Naples. “I was really exhausted,” he says. “I just worked, worked, worked.”
His efforts paid off when Emanuel won two challenges. One win came in episode three, when Emanuel constructed a 1920s-inspired tablescape that would leave Jay Gatsby in awe. Judge Chris Hessney praised the creation with words like “bold,” “decadent,” “flamboyant,” and “beautiful.” However, Emanuel’s personal favorite was a red tablescape he envisioned to encapsulate a winter wonderland motif. The judges remarked that its red roses, red wallpaper, and red window treatments evoked Valentine’s Day more than a snowy, wintry vignette. Emanuel notes that ice and flurries don’t make appearances in all climates—cases in point: Puerto Rico and Naples.
A stressful moment for Emanuel occurred during the “nature nuptials” challenge. His creation involved sand, and he was concerned about the design’s practicality, specifically about the idea of sand getting into food. But, because he had won the previous challenge, he had 30 minutes extra to perfect this design, and he progressed to the semifinals.
Emanuel did not move on from the Table Wars semifinals to the finals, but his imagination and ingenuity carried him well through five of six of the first season’s episodes. “I don’t want to do the obvious or the ordinary; I do extraordinary,” Emanuel says. “I would not change anything I did. Every one of my designs made me proud.”
Emanuel says his mantra is to be himself and to find enjoyment in each day. After undergoing quadruple heart bypass surgery in July 2020 and surviving colon cancer, which was diagnosed six years ago, it’s easy to understand why he radiates joie de vivre.
“Life can change in so many ways—so fast,” he shares. “If you don’t do what makes you happy, you will not enjoy it. I started from zero, and I want to be better for myself—not for anyone else.”