An Interview with Nate Berkus

An Interview with Nate Berkus

Kayne Rourke
Apr 1, 2013

In April, we kicked off our first Design Evening in our new venue - Tribeca Cinemas - with the one and only Nate Berkus. Nate has come a long way since his Oprah Winfrey Show makeover days. In the last few years he has started his own syndicated talk show, was an executive producer for the Disney/DreamWorks film, The Help, and his Chicago-based design firm continues to design interiors around the world. Nate brought his branded line of home goods and accessories to Target this fall and released his 2nd book, The Things That Matter. See the full transcript and video below, and click here for upcoming Design Evening details...

What: Apartment Therapy Design Evenings
Who: Nate Berkus
When: Thursday, April 11, 2013
Where: Tribeca Cinemas I 54 Varick Street, NYC


Maxwell: Welcome, everyone, to our 66th design evening. And welcome to our new space here at Tribeca Cinemas. We're excited about this new, more intimate space, and we're also thrilled to continue our recording of this evening's event for posting on our site and in Meetup.

First, this month's news:

Our 8th Annual Small, Cool Contest starts next month. We had an amazing year last year, with 91 entries and 4.5 million page views. Every entry gets a name, and our US winner was Daniel Kanter, whose space was known as "Manhattan Nest". The International winner was Geoff Bourgeau. What's great about this contest is that we get to see so many spaces that we often see new trends through this contest, often before the retail stores do.

We've been working on our first cookbook - it comes out a year from this fall. We were just photographing it in Portland, OR - many folks who have been working with us already have been pulled for the book. We're really excited about it and we'll keep you informed about its progress.


As always, we're starting out the evening with two kick-off presentations. These two folks have passions relating to the home that they want to share with us. First off, Jeffrey of Jeffrey Terrariums.

I learned about terrariums as a child, and started creating them in science class. I was fascinated by these little microcosms.

I then moved to NYC in the 90's - thought the small space of my apt. was a good setting for a terrarium. I started off with seamless glass vases and cubes I tried selling them on Etsy and had a positive response, so I created my own website.

From there, I started creating more biomorphic shapes for my terrariums. I started working with a glassblower to get the shapes I wanted to compliment the plantings.

The work is very collaborative - I create what I like to call "bespoke terrariums" - this name connotes the collaborative effort that goes into creating them.

For this example (glass with glass stopper) it went through about 5 sketches. This shape, with the stopper, creates a perfect environment for the terrarium.

For this second example, I put in quarters as reference to the planting sizes since the client wasn't there in person.

I keep each terrarium for 3-6 months to make sure it's thriving and doing okay before handing it back to the client. During this time I'm also able to learn about the particular watering and light needs for each terrarium. After its passed to the owner, I'll visit him/her for about 2 months - I stop in weekly to make sure it's going well.

This is a retail store image that includes glass-blown vases on the wall, along with the terrariums.

Learn more at:


Our second presenter was Eliza Blank from

The Sill is your online destination for online home potted plants. We have a singular mission: to make the house plant happen.

Why house plants? I love house plants, and I love NY. Plants clean air, boost mood, productivity. But also, they make you feel amazing. My first apt. in NYC was a 200 sq. ft. 6th floor walk-up, with windows that faced brick walls. This is where I really became inspired to bring plants into the home. However, I didn't know what would thrive, how to drag everything up to the apt, etc. I felt frustrated. And The Sill was born.

It's amazing that in such an inspiring city where we have so many options, why is the standard house plant something that hangs in a plastic container and can be purchased at your local bodega?

Our key offerings are ease, accessibility, design. The plants are hand-potted and delivered to your door. We aren't selling orchids or bonsai, just seasy plants to grow. And we're only online so can shop at any time, and no schlepping to the upper east side to find your perfect house plant.

We also work with a handful of artists who design the planters, and then we also work with designers who create the packaging as well.

And finally, we love to showcase our plants in beautiful environments. I feel that you shouldn't buy a plant without seeing it first in a space. So we have a variety of images on the site to help you envision your new house plant.

Learn more at:


Maxwell: Thank you to our first presenters. If you know of any great resources in NYC, please email us at AT. We want to continue to bring cool new ideas to you all.

Our featured guest tonight is Nate Berkus. In 2002 Nate was invited to make over a small space for "The Oprah Winfrey Show," after which he became a featured design expert for the show and continued to garner national press in publications such as Elle Décor, US Weekly, People, O Magazine, Lucky, InStyle, and House Beautiful. Following the debut of his branded line of home products, Nate's first book, Home Rules (Hyperion) was released in 2005 and went on to become a New York Times bestseller. "The Nate Berkus Show," a daily syndicated first run talk show hosted by Nate, launched in September 2010 and returned for a second season in the fall of 2011 (co-produced by HARPO Productions and Sony Pictures Television (SPT) & distributed by SPT). In 2011, Nate also enjoyed a new role as executive producer on the Disney and DreamWorks film, The Help. Nate's Chicago-based design firm, Nate Berkus Associates, which he founded in 1995, continues to design interiors across the country and around the world. In Fall 2012 Nate brought his branded line of home goods and accessories to Target stores nationwide. In addition, he published his second book, The Things That Matter (Spiegel & Grau). His fabric collection sold at Calico Corners launched in January of this year.

Before we bring Nate out, I wanted to let you know that I first had the pleasure of meeting Nate when I was on Oprah 6 years ago. There was supposed to be a snowstorm and we didn't want to miss the show so we took the train to Chicago. Then that got stuck. But we eventually got there. So we're in the studio, and everyone's shrieking, it's a crazy atmosphere, and then Nate comes out and everyone squeals even more. Afterward when I got the chance to meet him I found him to be so sweet. So, without further ado, please welcome Nate Berkus.

Nate: Good evening, everyone.

Maxwell: Did you hear my intro? I told them when I met you on Oprah all those years ago and how sweet you were.

NB: No, I didn't hear that, but thank you! Yes, I remember when you were on - we were doing a small space makeover and we found you.

MR: I got to sit in the front row. It was pretty cool.

NB: By the way, this is a great theatre. Reminds me of the one where the middle school plays I was in were held. Anyway, thanks for having me.

MR: I've been reading your book this week and I'm loving it. It's an unusual story that you have, and unusual that you presented it in the book. But before we get into that, what stood out to me in your story is that you started your design career very early. Did you go to college?

NB: Yes, I did go to college, but didn't major in design.

MR: Take us back to when you started your own business, since you were so young.

NB: I was 23 and dating someone 10 years older than me who had an event planning company in Chicago. Now that I'm 41 and looking back on it, the thing that I've always valued most is time. At 23, I knew this and knew I had to have my own business so I could control my time. I didn't want someone else telling me about incredible opportunities and not being able to do it. So I could spend time focusing on things, and objects, which I love. I don't think it's superficial, even though the world tells us that - our things tell us who we are.

MR: But that business isn't one you knew would work from day one.

NB: Well, everyone I've met who's started on their own said if they knew what it would be like they wouldn't do it. I believe that when you're ready you do it, and that's what I did.

MR: I have to say, if I had the money to design an apartment, I'm not sure I'd hire a 23 year old.

NB: Right, of course. But Chicago was a great place to start in 1996. I worked at an auction house and learned about all these great things - the people I met then came forward and were, for example, real estate brokers who had clients who needed help with their apartments and didn't want to spend a lot. I also had the benefit to start in a city where there weren't a lot of folks starting design firms. So the press was hungry for images.

MR: Is that different now?

NB: Yeah, primarily because of the internet. So it was a great time for me. I remember the first interview I did for the Chicago Tribune - they wanted to know about the color blue.

MR: So because you were young and hungry you got involved with Oprah.

NB: Actually, FYI when I met Oprah I wasn't "hungry" anymore, I was very well fed. But it, of course, opened up a whole new avenue for me.

MR: I want to say that the food trend is very strong now, and everyone is aware of our food and its quality. And these days, we're all doing lots more quality cooking. Design is following a similar trend. So perhaps your Oprah stint was the beginning of a focus on design?

NB: I wasn't the first designer on there, though. Here's the thing: there has been more of a trend towards design - learning and sharing. People want to be inspired by it. But at the time, design tv almost didn't exist (HGTV was brand new, just getting traction). I'll never forget - the first two makeovers, we couldn't get companies to give us product. They didn't get it. I had to pick sofas 4-5 times before they got it.

MR: And now of course that has changed.

NB: Right. And no one was searching online for the sofas they saw in a tv show, which happens regularly now.

MR: So how did that change your business?

NB: My career has always been split. At my firm we've always worked on high-end residential and commercial projects. But my tv career has always been with the trend in design of easy access, making quick changes. On Oprah, we did over 150 makeovers. We never had a budget, yet we only had access to antique items or quick ship. Now, home design shows focus on the fast, accessible, and affordable items, which is a problem. I'm happy to say that my new show isn't like that.

MR: Right, quality often has a price tag. But that doesn't mean you can't use the ideas and interpret them in your own way.

NB: Right. To be honest, tv was actually detrimental to my design firm, as it was more fast and affordable. My clients started to see me differently.

MR: So the stuff you do for Target, is that a problem? Very public and "affordable".

NB: Now things are a little bit different since my clients have been published so much. So those really in-the-know get the split. But the Target collection has been fantastic, as many of the decorative pieces are based on vintage finds. I have a collection of things and now I can reproduce them through Target.

MR: So they have echoes of vintage and antique.

NB: Exactly. Pieces from my travels are now re-interpreted.

MR: In the intro to your book you describe traveling and hunting antiques, and then you talk about being in Indonesia and being under water. It shocked me - I mean, I know all about the tsunami, but I have never read a first-hand account.

NB: Yeah, so I lost my partner in 2005 in the Indian Ocean tsunami. I went on Oprah 6 weeks later to describe it. The reason for doing this was that Oprah's Angel Network helped raise 3.4 million dollars and allowed me to rebuild the town in Sri Lanka I was in. It was an incredible way to give back after such devastation.

MR: In your description, it's horrifying. You woke up under water, and then bobbed to the surface and were going 40 mph. You saw a telephone pole and wanted to grab it, but moving so fast you weren't sure you could.

NB: Well, you're also thinking at that point what to grab, the pole could be dangerous. So what happened with this book is that I wanted to create something that highlights different interiors where people have thrown out the rules and created something that is really their own. Some are spaces I've designed, some are not.

It's about my philosophy of design. We should all live in spaces that highlight the best of ourselves. So when I did the casting for the book, I cast a wide net. I wanted to see all sorts of spaces that really did that - achieved a personal feeling. "Character" and "Meaning" in the spaces. When I found spaces and then interviewed the people, they really opened up about their lives. They were so open, and I realized my spaces are completely personal as well and built on my own experiences. Growing up with a mom who was a decorator, to losing my partner in the tsunami. People had shared so much. I felt that, to get to the heart of how I feel about spaces, I needed to do the same.

MR: The title seems like a pivot point. Did it change your design direction in 2005? In this book it sounds like you're super busy. Then this thing happened, and it feels like things shifted.

NB: I'm sure some folks here can relate - surviving challenges, being up against hard things in life. For me, it slowed my life down significantly. Outsiders may not think that, but emotionally it slowed me down. I was very frenetic and hyper before - starting a business at 23 and living with a low-grade panic all the time. The tsunami snapped that all in the background and left me in a place where I could think clearly, and openly. It gave me space around my decisions.


This is the cover of the book. It's interesting because when I look at this photo, I remember how there's always lots of discussion about a book cover. I knew I wanted this to be a black and white book, without the "Oprah" smile on my face that everyone knows. I like that I look pensive and quiet - it's how I felt doing this book. It was cathartic, and joyful, and positive on many levels. Since it's come out last October I've had great feedback.

This is my New York apartment - standing next to metal bookshelves that were pulled from a bank basement in Paris. You have to bolt them into the wall so they don't sway. Utiliarian shelving, which I love.

I want everyone here to think about the 5 things they love in their home. Hopefully those 5 become 10, then 20, etc. Then you'll be surrounded by the objects you love. When I look around our home, I'm reminded of all the things that have led to me being in NY.

MR: If you just need a sofa, though, do you mix in?

NB: Oh yes. I'm not a snob about where things come from. You should see what I just took back from Peru. We fought over the "woven piece of corn" I found.

I would never buy a sofa just 'cause I need one. I'd eat Thai food sitting on the floor until I found the right one.

MR: So you're not the type to move into a new place and just get furniture.

NB: No. I keep a running list, but I don't rush it. I think it's important. The furniture and decoration industry is designed to make folks feel bad about what they don't have. You should buy what you love, not what you're told.

This is my New York apartment - both sides of the living room. For me, again, it's about the editing process. I look at that photo and I see a table I found in Mexico, and a fireplace that I found online through architectural salvage places. When I look at my space (which is constantly evolving with travels) I see the story of my life.

MR: You're probably always bringing in stuff.

NB: Yes, constantly.

MR: I think of many designers who have a "look" that just continues for years. And that's who they are. But you are very different. I feel like if I saw your home 3 years from now it would look different.

NB: That's very true. I don't have a look, per se. I believe design should be fluid, and we should change our homes to keep things feeling fresh, and unexpected. What I am consistent with, though, is that if I love a piece, I'll love it forever. I'm only a flighty furniture lover when I buy things by mistake.

MR: What does a mistake look like?

NB: A mistake looks like I'm standing in an antiques market - I see a great table, at a great price, I buy it, and it throws off the whole room at home. So what I've learned it to make those mistakes less. And, if I put the lens on everything I buy, it may not work in the spot I thought, but it will eventually work. That's why I don't think there should be rules besides the practical.

MR: Do you have storage?

NB: Oh my gosh, yes. Now I've done sales on One Kings Lane and other places of my finds. It's hard, though, as most of the stuff I have has meaning.

I'm a Virgo rising, which means I'm extremely organized. My underwear is stacked to look like bricks, it's all very organized. I don't look organized, but believe me, I am.

MR: And you have a closet in your book that looks like a shoe store.

NB: Yes, that's me - very organized.

Yeah, so organization - so many people work at home, and have cleared just a little space for their things. There are so many beautiful patterns and textiles out there, so I thought office products would be fun to work on.

I love natural materials and thought this would be a fun place to go.

This is my fabric collection for Calico Corners, which launched recently. Rather than a brunch for editors at a place, I did it in my home and Maxwell came.

MR: Fabric is a tough one, as people don't usually buy it.

NB: That's what's been interesting. In my almost 12 years of designing product, I usually have a sense of how someone will use that item. But with fabric, you have no idea what people will do. So it's been fun seeing people's finished products on Instagram and Pinterest. Living room tents, to room dividers, to more traditional pillow covers.

MR: Is that a relatively new thing - seeing people use fabric in such creative places?

NB: Yes, it's a new thing and it's great. I think that speaks to the fact that no matter where you're from and where you are in life, there's a universal desire to live a little bit better, no matter what your space is. I believe it's a universal want, and people have become quite resourceful.


Hi, my name is Ed, I'm from Brooklyn. I saw you on the street once and said hello thinking you were my neighbor, then realized who you were. Anyway, you mentioned a new show and would love to hear more.

Sure, I'm executive producing and starring in a show on NBC called Renovation Nation. It's a huge competition show with huge makeovers every week. We're travelling with a whole group of great design folks. We're highlighting the best of American design historically and creating spaces that show what's so amazing about American design. It's not fast and accessible - it's high-quality spaces as we move from city to city.

MR: It's the opposite of a makeover.

NB: Yes. My job is to excavate and find these places. Georgia O'Keefe's home in Santa Fe to the Cranbrook School in Michigan. The contestants are not given a lot of time, but they're given the resources to create something magical.

Hi, my name is Kate, I'm from Madison, NJ. I have a cabinet shop. My question is about your reference to people wanting things quick and inexpensively. So for someone with a high-quality product that takes time to build, where are the people who will pay for these items?

NB: I think it's through designers. And strong marketing. You have to reach people who care. I think the timing for craftsmanship is back. I think we're all tired of things we can assemble ourselves. Just like the "slow food" movement, all the hand-crafted food items that people will pay for. I think the same thing is happening in design. Designers and decorators are a great resource - we're a buffer between client and artisan and can explain why something costs what it does. If I were you I'd collaborate with quality designers and people who care. I think that moment is back - folks don't just want stuff made in China now.

MR: This is a question from Ed Roth, via email. He wants to know if you use stencils in your work, and if you will have a show on OWN.

NB: I don't use stencils, but I have no issue with it. In fact, there's a woman in Chicago who's stenciling on wallpaper now. These incredible pen and ink design that she uses a stencil for. It's amazing and very personal. A lot of it for me is a Victorian reference to stenciling, ornate decoration which isn't my thing. But I look at stencils from William Morris, say, and appreciate them. And no, no show on OWN. I've got the show starting on NBC.

Hi, my name is Rosemary. I lost my house to Hurricane Sandy and I'm struggling with whether I should rebuild or sell and be done with homeownership? Lack of money is certainly an issue. How can I best make this decision? Also, if I do go forward, I feel like I just have no confidence in my decisions - how do I trust myself? An architect is asking me what types of door knobs I want and I have no idea. Before I just put stuff together and it worked.

NB: First off, I'm sorry for your loss. I hope one day you can recognize that this is actually an incredible opportunity. By coming here, first, you are taking small steps to move forward. The scary thing about grief is that it can get us stuck. You see folks who went through grief and are still stuck. If you can find the inertia to get out of it, eventually you will create a space out of love and things you love once again. The fact that you can't decide on a doorknob means you aren't ready yet.

ROSEMARY: Yeah, I don't think I'm ready yet. I think the universe is telling me I'm not ready.

NB: I think you're right. When it sounds exciting again, you'll be ready.

MR: And like you said at first, if you can leave things empty for a while, that works. Where are you living now?

ROSEMARY: I've always had a little apt in NY so I've been living there. It's just really heartbreaking to see all your efforts totally destroyed. Right now, I'm struggling with being excited. I just feel fear and I'm totally overwhelmed.

NB: An idea - sometimes when I'm working with a client who's stuck, I've shown them, for example, the entryway with 3 pieces. I tell them they need to buy these items so we can break ground and start somewhere. You can then start seeing the flooring, and the trim, once you have something that you can literally see. Getting excited about a baby step, the rest starts to fill in.

MR; This is a good place to stop as I just realized we are off the air as of 5 minutes ago. So like most of our Design Evenings, there's a giveaway at the end of a show, and the applause. We'll do the giveaway first.

NB: We're giving away the book, "The Things That Matter."

Congrats to Tracy Woods, the book winner!

MR: I want to thank our beginning presenters, and everyone for being here tonight. Thank you, everyone.

Join us back here at Tribeca Cinemas on May 20th for Lotta Jansdotter! Stay tuned on our site for details.

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