One of the most recognizable faces in design, Nate Berkus has spent most of his adult life in the industry. After growing up in Minnesota, he opened his firm at age 24 and quickly became a household name with his 2002 Oprah debut. Now, he’s celebrating 26 years in business, during which he’s starred on even more TV shows (most recently HGTV’s Rock the Block), penned best-selling books, created coveted retail collections and designed countless interiors. With a growing empire, including 20 employees and a million Instagram followers, one thing remains true: his belief that every home should tell a story.
On Getting Personal
There has been a pivot to authenticity in design unlike any other time frame I’ve ever lived through. My brand has always stood for crafting deeply personal stories and layered interiors, but never before have I witnessed such an extremely emotional connection to home. One of our younger clients started their renovation pre-pandemic, and their influences were all coming from Instagram and Pinterest. After quarantining within their own walls, they shifted away from wanting what other people have done. The conversation went from “Where do I get this?” to “How can I make it my own?” I think this is a time of deep creativity.
When my brother and sister went to the University of Michigan, my mother would drag me to the Ann Arbor Art Fair every summer. It’d be 700 degrees in the shade, with macramé planters, weird fountains, and river rocks with sayings on them. I’d be like, “I’m hot. I hate all these things. There’s literally nothing to buy. When are we having lunch?” Now, auction houses around the country are devoting sales to craft alone. There’s a renewed interest, and I’m seeing a stronger pull from clients for items that are one-of-a-kind and made by hand.
On Antiques Then and Now
We’ve reached a full circle moment where top antiques dealers are competing with eBay, Etsy and Chairish because people are at home and have more time. Clients are more informed and engaged. They’ll find a table at auction in Belgium or Italy and bring it to us. They’re reaching for better pieces and mixing them with things made, printed or woven by hand, like putting hand-blocked fabric on a headboard from Etsy.
On Fast Vintage Finds
All these online marketplaces are getting so consumer-friendly and advanced in their searching and shipping. It used to be like the Wild West; you’d buy a piece of turquoise in Arizona and get it 70 years later when you’re over it. Now, you can give your FedEx number and ask for something to arrive the next morning. Then all of a sudden, boom — you’ve got a wicker 1960 lampshade to put on the marble lamp you found on a different online store. It’s become much easier to start assembling collections of vintage and antique objects. And I don’t believe a room is finished without that.
On Socially Distanced Guest Rooms
The idea of being able to build an office, studio or guesthouse in a separate structure has never held more appeal. I think that’s why the small space we built in Montauk resonated with so many people, because we all wish to say, “Sure; come stay for the week!” and have a space perfectly turned out and set up for all you need, yet you’re not underfoot and I don’t have to worry if you cough.
On Cleaner Living
I’ve been a germaphobe since before my bar mitzvah. I’m seeing these sanitation rooms with mechanics to keep your home cleaner and safer — transitional entries that sanitize everything on your body as you pass through with extreme infrared lighting that kills 99% of bacteria. That appeals to me because I do have a bit of a Howard Hughes gene in there somewhere.
On Social Media
While there’s a return to authenticity in design, social media is also moving in that direction. I was a late adopter. I had a meeting with Oprah and Ashton Kutcher when Twitter started and said, “This is embarrassing; I’m not going to discuss with strangers what I had for lunch.” I still don’t! But I turned a corner the first time I interviewed someone and looked at their Instagram profile before I read their résumé. I want to know what somebody is seeing, what they’re drawn to. The thing I really like about my Instagram following is that it’s real. It’s people who like me and my family or who actually care about design or about the social issues that matter to me. It feels like a very authentic dialogue.
On History Lessons
I’ve always felt as a designer that you’re really only as good as your references, and it’s our responsibility as creatives to expand those references. I’ve been doing this for 26 years. I’m a real designer with a real team of people who have dental insurance and 401(k) plans. I’m not going to compete with the 22-year-old who’s just reposting beautiful imagery. I appreciate and follow that, but I don’t want to be that. I want to share what I’ve learned from all these years in this business: the wins, the challenges, the mistakes. In launching History Lessons on Instagram, I want people to know where things come from, what was happening in the world at that time and why it matters. I started digging into the Vienna Secession, for example, which was largely funded by the Jewish elite, patrons of Klimt and other designers in the movement. Then I dug into who was working in Vienna in 1910 — Josef Hoffmann. Well, I have Hoffmann lights in my kitchen in New York City! It’s one thing to simply be drawn to beautiful things, but I also like knowing the story behind them.
On More is More
Right now, we’re in an age of “more is more,” but I don’t necessarily think this equates to more money, more homes, more real estate. Even my wealthiest clients aren’t spending with abandon. The way I define “more is more” is more sentiment, more practicality, more thoughtfulness. It’s about really getting the most out of a space. It’s: I want a chaise near that window for reading. I want a desk that looks beautiful when I’m not on my computer. It’s about: What will fit this new lifestyle? Because I don’t know if I’m ever going back to the office for 40 hours a week or if my children will still be remote learning. The thing is to make my house rise up to greet me — for whatever my needs are right now.