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Interior Designer Nate Berkus's Blueprint For Life
Design expert Nate Berkus, who debuts a new collection at Target this month, shares tips for low-budget spruce-ups, easy makeovers, and other strategies for getting the most from your space.
Nate Berkus is about to make a big, defining pronouncement. Ready? “The living room is obsolete,” proclaims the 41-year-old interior designer, who became a household name through dozens of appearances on Oprah.
You there—yes, you, reading this story while lounging on a couch in your living room—are you now feeling totally confused?
That is not Berkus’s intent. He means that the notion of the living room as a formal space reserved for occasional entertaining is outdated. Living rooms should be used for living. “We want to read there, to eat there, to entertain, to play games on the floor,” he says. “I don’t believe in having spaces in the home that don’t get used. We pay so much for square footage that to waste it is criminal.”In fact, he would go further than that: “Take those shackles off in terms of the designated names for your spaces,” he says. “Look at how you like to live instead.” In other words, while the builder’s floor plan may call it a living room, you don’t have to furnish and decorate it as such.
Knowing how people like to live has made Berkus one of America’s most popular home design experts over the past decade. His boyish enthusiasm, Midwestern modesty (he grew up mostly in Minneapolis), and lack of pretension are all evinced in his No. 1 tip for improving home decor: “Clean your house, people. It costs nothing!” After gaining fame on Oprah (for his first appearance, in 2002, he did a makeover on a 319-square-foot studio apartment), he was host of his own syndicated TV program (its two-year run ended recently); wrote a best seller, Home Rules: Transform the Place You Live Into a Place You’ll Love (his new book, The Things That Matter, will be published next week); and created several signature lines of home products, the latest of which launches at Target on Oct. 21.
Berkus recently sat down with PARADE in Manhattan, but only after carefully folding several sweaters and shirts he had brought with him to the photo shoot. “I used to work at the Gap; I know how to fold,” he says, before chatting easily about himself, home design, and how it affects the way we live today. “A universal priority for Americans is to be comfortable,” he says, noting that our homes have become progressively more casual over the past half-century, both in layout and in furnishings. Walls have come down between kitchens and family rooms; sofas and chairs are no longer rigidly straight-backed and hard-seated. That’s all good, he says. “When your space really functions for you, your life is easier.”
Also making our homes more user-friendly is technology. Berkus says someone from 50 years ago walking through an American home today would marvel at our big-screen TVs, sophisticated music systems, automatically temperature-controlled rooms, and multiple computers and devices. In the not-too-distant future, this technology will be used to track our tastes even more closely, he adds. “Computers will register when our eyes land on a TV ad and send us messages via our phones that say, ‘You seem to have liked that lamp. It’s on sale, and you’re pulling into the parking lot right now, so check it out.’ That scares me a bit.”
The cornucopia of information and products available online is actually a double-edged sword, he says. “What’s good is that everyone has access to things that only designers had even just 10 years ago. What’s bad is that we’re truly overwhelmed with choices.” Buying online also removes the tactile part of the shopping experience. “We’re not handling things anymore before they arrive on our doorstep,” he says. “I like to feel how thin porcelain can be, run my hand over a textile, see if I want to sit in a chair.”
In our rush to embrace the new, Berkus fears we are leaving the old behind. He advocates mixing the two, furnishing our homes with a judicious blend of vintage pieces, found objects, and personal treasures that have been passed down through family members or acquired during travels, along with the new stuff we buy because it’s useful and we love or need it. “Everywhere your eye travels in your home, it should land on something that resonates with you,” he says.
One thing that resonates personally with Berkus is a large tortoise shell that his mother, Nancy Golden, an interior designer who now creates leather jewelry, brought home to Minneapolis from her 1974 honeymoon in Mexico with Berkus’s stepfather. When the newlyweds noticed a pile of discarded shells behind a restaurant that served turtle soup, Golden requested one, taking it home on the plane with her. To this day, it hangs above the fireplace in the family room of Berkus’s childhood home. (He recalls with horror, however, that his mom neglected to fumigate it first. “The house was infested,” he says, “[with] whatever was living in it. So disgusting.”)
Berkus used that souvenir as inspiration for a key piece in his Target collection, a 19-by-15-inch lacquered faux tortoise shell (selling for $40 and available in green, yellow, and cream). “It personifies everything I love about design and creating new things,” he says. “You can take something that’s iconic and natural and has a pattern that’s instantly recognizable and put it out there in a new way. I could see a row of them along a wall.”
Berkus was interested in design early, bringing home treasures that he found at garage sales; when he was a teenager, he obsessively rearranged the furniture and possessions in his basement bedroom. “That was my design lab,” he says. At the ripe old age of 24, he opened his own design firm, Nate Berkus Associates; seven years later, he got the call to do Oprah after meeting one of her producers at a social event.
Today, Berkus lives in Manhattan but frequently visits Chicago, where his design firm is still based. In addition to the Target collection, he is nurturing a new movie project (he was a producer on The Help, a venture he joined early thanks to his friendship with novelist Kathryn Stockett and writer-director Tate Taylor). But first he has his new book, The Things That Matter, to promote. “I wanted to provide people with a new way of thinking about decoration: How can we get back to personalizing our spaces?” he says. “I was seeing too many homes that didn’t reflect the people who lived in them.”
He also writes about his life in the book and offers photos of his duplex apartment in Greenwich Village. The most personal tale that Berkus, who is currently single and dating, tells is how he loved and lost Fernando Bengoechea, a photographer who died in the 2004 tsunami that hit parts of Asia and Africa. The couple had been vacationing in a remote village in Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit, waking them from sleep; they became separated as the water swept them along in its fierce current. Berkus miraculously survived, but Bengoechea was never found. “It made me more able to embrace my vulnerability and care more about having true, legitimate connections to other people,” Berkus says quietly of the experience.
Today, two large photos that Bengoechea took of a Joshua tree hang in Berkus’s New York apartment. “I always want objects in my home that have a connection to me or something I’ve loved,” he says. “It’s still stuff, but it’s stuff that has meaning.”
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