Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Nate Berkus
Interior designer, New York Times-best-selling author and host of a syndicated daytime television show, Nate Berkus founded his design firm in 1995 but became known to a broader audience after he was a frequent design expert on Oprah and a contributing editor for "O," Oprah Winfrey's magazine. His mother is HGTV's Nancy Golden, also an interior designer. His show, "The Nate Berkus Show," debuted in 2010.
He and his partner, Fernando Bengoechea, were victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. They were vacationing in Sri Lanka when it hit. Mr. Bengoechea did not survive. Since then, Mr. Berkus has talked about how the experience changed him. Along with his book "Home Rules: Transform the Place You Live into a Place You'll Love," he was an executive director on the movie "The Help."
Do you find you do a lot of editing as far as your client's furnishings are concerned?
Always. Edit and organize are always the first two steps to a beautiful space. Also, when I'm editing their things it helps me to get to know them. I typically don't have a lot of time to get to know somebody, especially when I'm doing a makeover on a show. My producers will ask questions from a questionnaire that we developed to help me understand who the people are and how the homes can really tell their story.
But when I'm in the space and I'm digging through kitchen cabinets, underneath dining room sideboards and looking through photo albums and things like that, it's really fun. I think that's one of the distinctions between the interiors that I try to accomplish and many others that can just be expensive or very glossy. I am always reaching for the things that legitimately have meaning for the people that live there.
We have so many aspects to our personalities. Do you find some of the issues people have in decorating their homes are making those aspects blend?
Absolutely. I think one of the things people who watch my show have started to understand, especially in our second season, is that you have to approach a space with an idea that is very well-formed. You have to take the time to pull from different magazines and download images from the Internet and different things that really bring a space together, whether unifying it with a color scheme or with a particular period or style of furniture or a feeling that can come from a movie set or a coffee table book. It doesn't really matter where the overall inspiration comes from, but you have to work into that space the things that have meaning to you all while keeping very cognizant of the theme.
So what happens when a client does not scream for joy over something you've done?
It's happened once in my entire career. It was the first season of my show. We redid a bedroom for a woman who lives in New Jersey. When she walked in, I could tell she was sort of faking it for the camera, and I said "What's going on?" She said, "No, I love it." I said, "Are you sure because I feel you don't feel pulled to this room. I don't feel like your reaction is what it typically can be. Did I miss the mark?" She said, "No, no."
Then she called my producers after the fact and said, " I really feel terribly about this, but the colors that Nate chose aren't exactly what I love and I don't really love the chest of drawers that he put in the room. It's not really my style. I'm so sorry. Can I return it or donate it back so he can use it in another make-over?"
So I invited her to come back to the show, and we told the truth. I said, "In all the years of doing this, this has never happened to me. I thank you for coming back on the show."
We redid the room for her.
Yeah, I believe in being really straightforward on TV. We don't manufacture people's reactions. Every time you see a reaction to a make-over, that is their real first-time reaction. We actually don't do more than one take of that moment because you can't re-create that on television. We aren't working with actors and actresses.
Being consumers is part of our personality as a country. Do you think that desire for new things all the time is taking away from making a home a home?
Yes, I do. The thing is decoration is very similar to fashion in that companies come up with new products all the time and new ideas. Editors and people like myself on TV are constantly showing people new ideas and ways of doing things. I don't believe in answering questions about trend for that reason. It's a question I get a lot. Thankfully, not in this interview.
No, you won't get it here.
I like that because I don't believe in trends. I think they are designed to make people feel bad about what they did last year and feel inadequate about what their homes look like. My show is about giving people the skills and the frame of mind to look at different opportunities in design and create something that will stay and really reflects their personality. So just because Kelly green is splashed across the cover of 10 shelter magazines doesn't mean that is right for you and your home.
We have become so inundated with new products that are affordable and everyone is changing, changing, changing instead of really taking the time to find what works for them and what brings them joy and adding to that. Design is fluid in general -- even my own home I redo constantly. But, I don't rip the walls down and start over with wall covering. I'll walk down my hall and realize a painting or a photograph would look better in another location. Or I'll decide to move a dresser in a room to a different wall. Design constantly, constantly evolves and it's fun.
When you are looking around and you think just because your house doesn't look like something you saw in a magazine or a TV show, that is when you have to stop and ask yourself how it is that you really want to live and how you can get an idea, look or feeling together without being swayed by what everyone else is trying to make you do.
Now, a little bit about you. Anyone who follows you or knows you remembers that you survived the tsunami but you lost your partner. You have said it changed you, but in what way?
First of all, everybody has gone through something. It may not be as graphic or as violent as a tsunami or as public. But that was one of the things that amazed me when I came back. Prior to going through the tsunami, I never stopped to think what the person in line in front of me at the grocery store might have just gone through or might be going through. Experiencing a loss of that magnitude just made me more emphatic.
I've heard it said before and I can't tell you who said it because I don't remember, but when you go through a crisis or a major change or survive a disaster, more of who you are actually comes to the surface. So if you were in therapy and working through some things and not happy prior to it, then that experience would cement that for you. You would come out on the other side still with all the issues you had before.
I was very happy before the tsunami with Fernando and my life felt very, very complete. I was doing what I love to do, and I was around the people that I wanted to be around. I felt 'heard' like everyone wants to be. So I was in a really good place, and I was able to return to that place after going through the grieving process because I had done what I needed to do for me prior to that.
You are openly gay and have talked about how important it is to be true to yourself, yet so many young people find the stigma is still there.
Well, with age, I'm 40. I've become far less judgmental of people that make decisions that work for them in their lives than I was when I was younger. When I first came out I wanted everybody to come out because I experienced this feeling of euphoria in addition to the challenges that presented for me coming out to my family and siblings and all that, which is a very scary process.
I come from a very liberal family. My mother is an interior designer, and I had gay baby sitters growing up. We were always among lots of different people and that was celebrated when I was growing up. Not everybody comes from that circumstance, and part of it is a question of exposure. Part of it is also a question of really where you are, where you are being raised, and what could possibly happen to you and what you are risking by coming out.
So for me, the best I can do is be true to myself and present myself not as a gay man, but as, you know, I'm a bad chef, I'm a good decorator, I'm a good friend and I can be a little lazy. I happen to be gay. I also happen to be Jewish. There's lots of aspects to me just as there are lots of aspects to everyone.
My heart really goes out to people who don't have the freedom and don't have the opportunity and have so much at stake coming out of the closet. I wish it was different.
I read that you were an executive producer on "The Help." What does an executive producer do?
I wrote a check because I was probably one of the first 10 people to read the book before it was published. Kathryn Stockett, the author, grew up here in Jackson [Mississippi] with my friend, Tate Taylor, who directed the film. They were looking to raise some financing to make it into a film. They sent me the book and at the time no one was interested in it. It hadn't been published. I really thought it was such a beautifully crafted story, and it dealt with issues of race in such a beautiful way that I wanted to be a part of it.
That movie was like the little engine that could. It was a book by a director who hadn't done a feature film and a first-time author with a first-time imprint. It was just this incredible group of people who are obviously very talented and pushed something out there into the world that had that kind of impact.
First Published December 12, 2011 12:00 am