Nate Berkus: Why You Should Break the Rules When Decorating Your Home
By Lisa Kogan
February 08, 2011
Nate Berkus—a guy who knows firsthand what a well appointed space can do for your soul—on his design for living.
We love our stuff, we hate our stuff, we can't live without our stuff. We lust after other people's stuff. We smile politely when relatives offer us their old stuff (anyone for a lovely hand-knit toaster cozy?) and when friends bring us artfully wrapped stuff (enjoy this lovely hand-knit toaster cozy that I am now quietly regifting). We donate our stuff to charity, stick our stuff in a bookcase, auction our stuff on eBay, and then we go out and get...more stuff!
Maybe what we need is somebody who's got the right stuff, a house whisperer who has somehow figured out how to peacefully coexist with a home stuffed with stuff. Somebody like Nate Berkus, the 39-year-old decorator, Oprah show correspondent, product designer, best-selling author, and host of The Nate Berkus Show.
Nate's home is both classic and quirky, rough and refined: a corduroy couch here, a leather rhino head that was a wedding present to his parents there ("This rhino has lasted a lot longer than that marriage," he says). A model of Frank Lloyd Wright's 1934 masterpiece, Fallingwater, built entirely of Legos, shares a shelf with a black-and-white Wedgwood dish and a crusty hunk of pyrite. A sepia photo of a Joshua tree has been sliced into strips and woven back together—made whole in a new way. Prior to being cut, the photo must have been lovely; now it is riveting. It was shot and reimagined by Nate's former partner, photographer Fernando Bengochea, who was killed in the 2004 tsunami while the two were vacationing in Sri Lanka.
Tonight Nate is recovering from an appendectomy. ("Best week of my life. I just lay in bed getting soup and OxyContin.") But he's not too tired to put out a bowl of caramel corn and share what he's come to understand about paring away the stuff that doesn't enhance your life, embracing the stuff that does, and what it really takes to finally be at home in your home.
Next:How Nate Berkus describes his design philosophyNate Berkus—a guy who knows firsthand what a well appointed space can do for your soul—on his design for living. Lisa Kogan: You like beautiful things. Nate Berkus: I do. But even more than that, I like things that remind me of where I've been. Who I've loved. Who I love. And where I want to go.
Lisa Kogan: Wow...my things remind me that I should probably dust more often. Nate Berkus: [Laughs] I'm just saying let's admit that our things mean something to us when they do. But let's also admit when they don't. Let's really look at what we want our homes to say about who we are.
Lisa Kogan: Mine says I like a good tag sale. Actually, I hit a few flea markets after seeing a makeover you did on your show. I spotted the coolest little creamer, and I could hear you whispering in my ear, "That doesn't have to be for serving cream." So now there's a silver Deco creamer on my dressing table, and it's holding a bunch of Q-tips—one of a bazillion things currently cluttering my apartment. Nate Berkus: For a long time I was hell-bent on clutter-free living. I was a ruthless editor when it came to my possessions, to the point where my homes were very sparse, very minimal. Then I realized that's not who I am. I wanted to be surrounded by things that moved me. I wanted to have tabletops piled with books and shells and candles. But it took me a while to let go of this very rigid idea I had, of what my space should look like. Once I started letting stuff in, I really started making a home for myself.
Lisa Kogan: How do you decide what to let in? Nate Berkus: What I've come to understand is that if things have meaning, if they sing a little song to you when you look at them, that's when you can really start breaking the rules, quote-unquote, of design. Why not take a two-dollar creamer with the lid missing and fill it with Q-tips? Who says you can't reupholster your chair with a shearling rug or take the fantastic vintage necklace you never wear and hang it around the neck of a lamp?
Lisa Kogan: Your place is full of wild cards. This chunky pine table next to a sleek modern chaise is a surprise. Nate Berkus: That table wasn't drawn into any floor plan. I fell for it the first time I went to Mexico City and stumbled across an amazing antiques store tucked away in the basement of a building. It was the most impractical thing in the world. But when I look at it, I remember the exact moment I was standing there—too hot, a little hungry, tired from the night before—and thought, "That's a beautiful thing."
Lisa Kogan: I like that your idea of beautiful is something that's got a few miles on it. You're not afraid of the occasional scratch and chip. Nate Berkus: I'm a big fan of the chip. I like it when something's a bit damaged.
Lisa Kogan: That's why you hired Henry and Emma [Nate's two endlessly teething shelter mutts]. Nate Berkus: Exactly. [Laughs] Those two are masters at messing up whatever comes in here. That's why about 80 percent of the stuff I live with is old. I like letting things take on the character they're meant to have by really being used. You know, even some of the finest antiques show some wear and tear. Think of the feet of a chest of drawers from the 17th century—they're always corroded because people used to wash their floors with lye, which ate away the wood. And that's one of the signs that the best antiques dealers look for to see if the piece is authentic. So when you own things that have the imperfections they deserve, that they've earned from a well-lived life, it frees you from feeling as though they're untouchable.
Lisa Kogan: I bought a very expensive zinc dining table about 20 years ago. It was just totally flawless. And I thought, "I should have people over for dinner." Then I thought, "And we could eat sort of buffet-style, standing up...right near the table. Like maybe in the vicinity of the table." Nate Berkus: To admire it, without actually making contact with it. Nice!
Lisa Kogan: Did I mention that it was expensive and, for one brief, shining moment, totally flawless? What can I say? It's hard to keep your stuff from owning you. Nate Berkus: People first. Dogs second. Things last. It's a simple philosophy.
Next:How to surround yourself with things that are genuinely nourishingNate Berkus—a guy who knows firsthand what a well appointed space can do for your soul—on his design for living. Lisa Kogan: I've got a friend who's in my home on a regular basis, and she keeps giving me things that are—how to put this delicately...seven kinds of ugly. I know people have to come first, and the last thing I want to do is hurt her feelings, but.... Nate Berkus: Is there a shelf you can use for those things? I mean, people are more important than things, but things are important. I think it matters what our eyes land on; I think it matters what our butts sit on. It's important how we feel in our homes, because feeling good makes us more gracious. And that makes it easier to welcome others not only into our homes but into our lives.
Lisa Kogan: So what are the things that matter most to you? Nate Berkus: To me it's about the books that are out of print, and the photos in frames. And the letters and notes.
Lisa Kogan: The rest is gravy. Nate Berkus: We all have so much: We open our closets, and so many things still have their price tags attached. We open our cupboards, and there are those dishes that we've never used because they're "too good." Under our sinks we've got the 25 glass vases that held every floral arrangement ever sent to us. Why not recycle the glass? Better yet, fill it with sand and white candles, and throw a party. Take the dishes out and set the table with them every day. I mean, what exactly is an "everyday" dish? Why do we have all these categories?
Lisa Kogan: So people can sell us more stuff? Nate Berkus: Right! I'm the first person to say, "Do not buy everything. Please, buy a new set of sheets if you want. But pair them with your grandmother's quilt."
Lisa Kogan: Okay, but what happens when you're ready for the next chapter of your story? What happens when your home seems to represent who you were a million somebody else's ago? Nate Berkus: I find myself helping people in that situation a lot—after a divorce, after a death. They want to do something new. Sometimes they even want to be someone new, and changing their environment can be part of that process. It's a way to shed your skin. It's a way to move forward.
Lisa Kogan: You have been faced with that situation yourself. Is it ever hard to be with Fernando's stuff? Nate Berkus: He was one of those people you just don't want to sit next to on an airplane—the guy who's always trying to cram a three-foot ceramic pineapple under his seat. Then one day I went to the 26th Street flea market and brought back some African beads and wooden bowls and an English picture frame and a tiny French-to-English pocket dictionary from the 19th century. And he said, "You mean I've been traveling the world, bringing these things home, and they've been sitting on a card table on 26th Street?"
When Fernando died, his brother allowed me to take whatever I felt a connection to. So the majority of his library, I have. And one of the things that he and I always used to do together was sit down and go through these books. He had stuck little Post-it notes on all the pages because he was always wanting me to see something I hadn't seen before—a brilliant quote or some amazing place he thought we should visit or the pattern on a tile wall in Morocco or maybe just an incredible face. Now a part of what he collected lives on and is celebrated by the way I live.
There's something beautiful and very circular about passing by something that was important to the person you loved, or touching something that once meant something to him—that brings me some peace.
Lisa Kogan: And yet it's not a shrine around here. Nate Berkus: I look at people who have lost someone and go for years without changing a thing in the room because they're afraid even the tiniest change would just be too painful. And I always think, "Wouldn't it honor the person more if you used the room for something that gave you joy? Because they're not here. But you are."
Lisa Kogan: You know, there's a great sense of serenity in this apartment. How does somebody use design to create that for themselves? Nate Berkus: Good design isn't just about mathematical proportions and eyeballing and space planning. Good design is about imagination, and it's about surrounding yourself with things that are genuinely nourishing.
Lisa Kogan: And anybody can do that. Nate Berkus: Definitely. People should be proud of the home they've created and the memories that have been made there. You have to ask yourself if the place really does represent who you are. When your eye travels around the room, does it say something about the people who live in that house? About those who came before? Does it really tell the story of your life?