As seen on TV

Nate Berkus talks new show ‘American Home Builders’

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“Before the homes get pretty, the competition gets ugly.” That’s the clear-cut tag line for the new NBC reality show American Dream Builders, which maybe should be renamed American Nightmare Builders.

Hosted by interior designer Nate Berkus and premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday, ADB has been described as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition meets Hell’s Kitchen, with 12 contestants split into two teams, renovating a house. After their work is evaluated by Berkus and two other judges (NFL great-turned-landscape architect Eddie George and Monica Pedersen from HGTV’s Designed to Sell), somebody on the losing team is sent home — but not without back-biting, bleep-outs and drama. Worth the hassle? Yes. The winner leaves with $250,000.

We chatted with the Chicago-based Berkus on a recent conference call:

The featured personalities are all pretty different. What type of individuals were chosen to participate?

The dozen designers and home builders were absolutely, unequivocally booked on their design talent alone. The fact that we got very lucky and have some really varied, extremely competitive people competing was really a by-product. But first they had to be able to design within an inch of their life because we wanted week after week the audience to be able to see cover-of-a-magazine-worthy makeovers and the highest possible level of inspiration.

How cutthroat do things get?

Obviously when you take people who are consummate professionals, who are very established in their fields, and you put them in a competition setting with not a lot of time, and they’re divided into teams which are not necessarily of their choosing, you get a lot of the interpersonal dynamic between the designers and competitors on the show.

Will we get into their personal lives at all?

There really isn’t a tremendous amount of time to dive into their lives. Each hour is so packed. It’s the most ambitious design show that’s ever been done with two full-scale renovations per hour. So you do definitely get to know the characters, and we certainly want people to know them and be rooting for them and connect with them if they have something in common, or just connect with their taste.

How do you put aside your personal feelings about specific designs?

We don’t. The three of us fought the whole time too [laughs]. I mean, design is very subjective. There’s not one way to do anything, but I think all three of us brought a different perspective. There are many times that Eddie and I didn’t agree, many times that Monica and I went sort of head to head. It’s about our authentic opinion and wanting all of them to succeed. We weren’t looking to be mean or to be demeaning or negative. But to be a judge, you’re inherently judgmental.

How do you know when you’re being too harsh?

It’s not personal. You’re judging what they were able to do and what they were able to accomplish. I think Eddie, for instance, was very focused on how they were functioning as a team. I was very focused on what design ideas I had seen before anywhere. My advice to them was if I’ve seen it before, if I’ve heard of some trick or tip — that means the audience has seen it. So what I’m looking for is diehard creativity. And if you cop out and do something just because it’s the easy way out, you’re not going to win, from my perspective.

How are you juggling everything: judging, hosting and executive producing?

What you do is you make sure that you’re working with people you think are the best in the business because no one can possibly do all of those things. So as the executive producer I was involved in the concept of this show long before any cameras were turned on. That involved the casting and location scouting and reviewing people’s portfolios. It also meant using my relationships to make sure that the designers had fantastic vendors that would give them access to vintage and antiques and salvaged and fine contemporary art and all the things they need. As host, a host is a host, and I hope I did OK.

Madeleine Marr

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