For seven years, Nate Berkus contemplated the meaning of home as a living, breathing space.
The interior designer with the refined aesthetic, first invited into our collective living rooms by Oprah Winfrey, would nestle into the sofa of his New York apartment, shoes kicked off, and write and write and write until his story quietly emerged, told through beautiful objects, memories, the spirit of love and the wounds of love lost.
That’s how The Things That Matter (Spiegel & Grau, $35) was born, a narrative as much about making homes authentic and deeply personal as the formal discipline of design. A fluid blend of personal and professional — part memoir and part celebration of life — Berkus treats the concept of design as a journey, a way of self-discovery that manifests in furnishings, accessories, art.
“My hope is that [the book] will free people up … that it will give them permission to create spaces that they truly love and that show who they really are. Your home should always tell your story!” said Berkus, 41, owner of an eponymously named interior design firm. He comes to Miami Saturday for Miami Book Fair International. “I want people to be confident in their choices and to know that if you love something you can always find a way to have it in your home.”
Berkus, who recently launched a Target lifestyle collection and for two seasons hosted the Nake Berkus Show, shares some of his favorite interiors whether he helped design or simply admired them: a rustic Hudson Valley cottage, a modern high-rise perched in the Chicago sky; an art-centric townhouse in Marfa, Texas.
More than anything, the dozen homeowners are bound by the concept that their spaces say — whisper, scream — something about them.
In that way, the foundation of the book is built upon the idea that the things that matter are those objects collected that reflect great travels, meaningful relationships, precious family moments, even possibilities.
In exploring how we live with our possessions, Berkus offers his own chapters: his full childhood; the emptiness of losing his partner Fernando Bengoechea, swept away in the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia; the healing; the eventual move from Chicago to New York City; a new love and the process of them together transforming a new space into a home.
He calls home a 19th century Greenwich Village duplex, with soaring white walls and awash with shards of the city’s light.
“My space reflects the life I’ve lived so far, and it’s filled with stuff that has been with me for years, stuff that reminds me of where I’ve traveled, who I’ve loved, and where I want to go next,” he writes in the final chapter of the book.
Two weeks ago, as Berkus passed through a Los Angeles airport, he exhaled long enough to chat with The Miami Herald about the new book and his next chapter.Q. Why did you decide to write The Things That Matter?
I wrote it for a couple of reasons. One of the most important reasons is I felt that so much is said about design that people have become more and more confused. There are television shows, magazines, websites. Everyone is writing about design and telling people what they should do and I think in all that, we have lost our connection to our own things or our own personal style. I wanted to showcase interiors where the people threw out the rules and created a space that truly reflected their own personalities.Q. What are the design lessons, the life lessons that readers should come away with?
I think the most important lesson is that we should decorate for ourselves, we shouldn’t be concerning ourselves with what other people have to say over what we truly like. If you see something you love, then realize that there is a place in your home for it. It may not be the first place, but eventually you will find the right place. Respond to the moment. If you bought it for the right reasons, which is that you felt a real connection to it, get it and realize it may work somewhere else other than where you planned. It’s important to take the pressure off yourself when decorating. The best rooms should feel layered and assembled over time.Q. In terms of how the book came together, what came first: the idea of sharing your personal story or sharing your design sensibilities? Or are the two inextricably linked?
I didn’t set out to be autobiographical but what happened was when I reviewed the spaces and did the research for the book, I asked people to share their stories, to answer where they came from, where they had been and why they had made their design decisions. I was getting such heartfelt honest interviews, it felt ridiculous for me not share mine.Q. Ultimately, if our home is a collection, a mosaic of things we love; if it is the sum of who we are, can there be such a thing as bad design?
I think you run a lot less risk of bad design when it’s truly reflective of your personality. Again, take the pressure off and allow it to evolve. Yes, there can be issues with scale, pieces that can clash or not sit well with other things. You can get a professional to help you achieve [good design]. If you are doing it on your own, you need to experiment with your own possessions. Q. In some ways, your book is a love story as you share some of the most intimate, revealing moments with your late partner, Fernando Bengoechea. Can you speak to how relationships organically inform personal design or design choices?
I think that when we are in love, it just makes everything better. We feel artistic and creative and free and open. That is a scenario that I am very fascinated with. If you look at some great artists, some of their most prolific periods are when they were having madcap affairs.Q. Conversely, what is the effect of love lost?
That’s a tricky question. Everybody grieves differently, and I would never try to judge that process. But what it meant for me was the ability to realize the gifts that I had been given and the treasures that were my own memories and that they could be part of my home. My favorite items from Fernando are two woven photographs that will always be part of my life. Q. You write about re-arranging rooms and loved items. Is it about the journey or the destination? And is it OK to return to what we know, to the familiar, maybe even comforting?
For sure, the journey. The idea is to try it. You can always go back.Q. You have had a design career full of movement and growth. Looking back, do you remember that singular, cogent moment when you knew you wanted to transform spaces for a living?
To be honest, that moment for me was not based on a creative spark or level of self awareness. I was working at an auction house in Chicago, and I just knew I wasn’t designed to work for a corporate company. I am not corporate by nature, I didn’t want someone to tell me what to do at what time. On the weekends, everybody knew they could find me at antique stores or flea markets. But I didn’t initially connect that with what I should be doing.Q. What are the elements of successful design?
Fearlessness. Confidence. Education. Exposure. The best design comes from seeing things, understanding things of quality, things of risk, from adventures and traveling.Q. Share with us the arc and bookends of your design aesthetic.
My designs have evolved as I have seen more things, met more people, been more places. As part of that evolution, I have [developed] a love of crafts and things that are handmade or locally made. A fine piece of furniture can often be paired with something finely made by hand, whether it’s a woven basket in Mexico that cost 10 pesos or a hand-woven textile from Southeast Asia that cost less than six dollars. Q. You recently introduced a home collection at Target. Tell us about it.
I have never gotten over the rush of finding a great item for a great price. Target as a company has always been attractive to me because it has so much energy, a fast pace and it’s fashion forward. It took me two years to design the collection with over 150 items. It’s long-term, not a capsule collection and will be refreshed constantly. It focuses on natural materials. The goal is for [customers] to turn the corner, walk down the aisle and find something in the collection that they can pair with something they already have at home.Q. What is next for Nate Berkus?
I am going to have to wait and see.