‘Design Santa’ Nate Berkus discussed his new show, a disastrous elementary school home-ec project and his boring conversations with Oprah
As the bossman to a dozen contestants trying to woo him with their best remodel, Oprah’s longtime gay pal and talk show sidekick steps back onto TV after the cancellation of his gabfest, The Nate Berkus Show. Berkus recently chatted about American Dream Builders being a better fit for him, how the first thing he ever designed was so bad it ended up in the garbage and the boring home stuff he and Oprah talk about.
Dallas Voice: Gosh, these contestants mean business, Nate. Nate Berkus: They really do.
Are all home designers really this cutthroat? When you take 12 people who are leaders in their industry from around the country, who are used to having the final say in everything they do in all realms of their lives, and you put them in a competition setting, they definitely have a curve on how to get along. The truth is, we had an embarrassment of riches when it came to the drama because it started in the very first episode and continued all the way through the last one.
What about American Dream Builders attracted you? I really wanted to come back on television in a meaningful way that really centered on design and the design space, and in order to do that I needed to work with a network that would allow design on television to be what I think it always should have been: true creativity, great resources and transformation. I think a long time ago, someone decided that design on TV should be about how quickly and how inexpensively you can renovate a space, but I really never believed in that. So this was an opportunity to take 12 experts, give them — at their fingertips — those same things that they would normally have in their own private practices and set them loose to renovate two homes a week and focus exclusively on the quality and design.
Those shows you mention — are you referring to the ones on HGTV? I’m not saying that specifically, but if you look at the trends in design over the years, these are the shows we all watch because that’s what’s been on so far. But American Dream Builders is something new. It’s massive in scale. When you’re doing high-end design you have to have antiques, you have to have architectural salvage, you have to have vintage, you have to have one-of-a-kind items, you have to have real paintings and contemporary art and photography and great construction materials. This isn’t what you can do in a half hour or in an hour in your own home; the whole show, from the very beginning, is about high-level inspiration.
After the cancellation of The Nate Berkus Show in 2012, how does it feel returning to TV? I really enjoy hosting this much more than I enjoyed hosting my talk show, and I’ll tell you why. The truth is, when you’re doing a daytime talk show, it’s on every single day, so it’s your responsibility to fill that hour with all sorts of different kinds of content that fit within the lifestyle realm. With this show, it’s a Sunday night primetime show, it’s once a week and it’s purely about design. We have a fantastic cast, but my focus is creating an enormously scaled design show that I can be a part of, that I can call on my contacts to get involved with. I can hand select these 12 people from around the country and say, “I’m gonna watch what you do every single week, and I wanna be shocked, I wanna be surprised, I wanna be blown away, I wanna rethink how I feel about design, and I’m challenging you by showing me just that. And if you can do it, one of you is gonna win, and if you can’t then, you know, that’s it.”
So you’re basically the Tim Gunn of interior design. I hadn’t thought of that!
How often do random people on the street ask you for home advice? Oh my god, constantly. I always get the same thing: “Come to my home.” I’m the design Santa when I’m walking through an airport.
But it’s great, because I’ve been doing design on TV for years now — it’s been 13 years — and so I think that people associate me ringing their doorbell with a transformation that’s about to happen and a really positive change in their lives, so I really wanted Dream Builders to represent that as well. It really is, for me, an extension of what I’ve always been doing, but it’s a way for me to showcase the talent of people who deserve to be in the spotlight.
What’s the first thing you ever designed? A hamburger pillow in fifth grade home ec with sesame seeds, and it had ketchup dripping down the side. Mine was by far the worst one in the entire class.
How did that happen? How was I so bad? I still can’t sew.
You used one of those pillow kits, didn’t you? Because I did, too! But mine was a tiger cub, so it was much gayer than yours. Yeah, a hamburger — I guess I was predicting my future dietary habits.
Regarding your spring wedding to Jeremiah Brent: being that you’re both designers, is there any clashing going on as far as planning the big day? Not at all. We don’t fight about design. We literally fight about who gets the last piece of pizza and who has to walk the dog — that’s what we fight about. The two of us can furnish a room together in an hour on the computer because we reach for very similar things. We use them in different ways, but we have a very good connection with that.
What’s the best party you’ve ever had at the Brent-Berkus residence? I don’t really do wild parties at home because I don’t want people to break anything. Like, really. Not at all. But I do a lot of dinners for small groups of people. Dinner for six, dinner for eight, maybe dinner for 10, and it’s always really good friends. We sit around the table really, really late and sometimes I’ll bring in somebody to cook because I’m terrible at it, but, when it comes to entertaining, those are for me my favorite nights at home.
Your advice in your 2012 book The Things That Matter was to let your home tell your story. What room in your house tells the best story? The truth is, the whole home does. Everywhere I look in our home reminds me of where I’ve been, who I’ve known, what memories I have of being that age in that place, who I was with. Design really is an opportunity to build a collection of things that chronicle the life that you’ve led, who you’ve loved, who you’ve lost, where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, who you’ve met along the way. That for me is really what the house represents. It’s a great way to live, because when I look around our home, everything has meaning. Some things are there just because I think they’re cool, or because he does, but in the end, everything really does tell a story of who we are as people.
Do you think that being a gay man has anything to offer to your own work ethic and design aesthetic and inspiration? Whether being gay has to do with my creativity — not really. I think that that’s one part of who I am, and it’s always been a part of who I am and it’s something that I’ve always been very proud of, but I know lots of creative heterosexual people as well. It’s definitely one part of who I am, but I don’t think that has really any influence over my professional work.
How often does Oprah call you for design advice? She does not call me for design advice. We do have extremely long conversations about things that other people would find incredibly boring, like hinges and doorknobs. But Oprah really loves design. It’s something she’s always been really passionate about, which is why 12 years ago when I started with her on her show, we really both enjoyed being together doing the before-and-after segments because it’s just something she’s also really passionate about and interested in.
What inspired the latest Target line? Celestial design and how influenced we are by space and colors, which I’ve been working with for a long time — black, deep blues and clear acrylics, and those sorts of geodes and stones and metallics. It’s something that’s very modern right now, but I also think it mixes well with a lot of different styles.
I work with a great team of people who are based in Chicago on every new collection, and we talk about what’s really happening in fashion and what’s happening in design, but we also talk about what will make a home feel updated with one purchase. In the current collection, my favorite things probably are these brass table lamps. That to me is the perfect example. You put it on a side table in your living room, and all of a sudden the room takes on a completely different note.
Can you shop at Target without getting mobbed? Actually, yes! I usually go to Target when I’m coming back from Soul Cycle, or coming back from the gym after a really long day, and I buy a lot of my own things. I have a sample closet, obviously, but I keep that primarily so that I have reference of what I designed before — and what my team and I are going to design going forward — so I try to not take the samples as often as I can, but I mean, I shop at Target constantly. I grew up in Minneapolis. I bought my Halloween costumes there and my school supplies, and it’s a very funny moment for me to look up and see all of my collections that are sold at Target. It’s fun. I mean, it’s really fun! It’s funny because I don’t know anyone who doesn’t shop at Target, and sometimes I can get by totally undetected even when I’m checking out and they’re ringing up things that have my name and picture on them.
No way. It depends on whether I’ve showered. If I come from Soul Cycle, no one has a clue. They’re like, “Do you want paper or plastic?”
Which room do you keep the hamburger pillow in? It’s in the school trashcan. I don’t even think I brought it home from elementary school!
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 25, 2014.
Your Home & Garden Guide
Nate’s not the only out expert at fixer-uppers. In Great Spaces, our annual LGBT home and gardening supplement in this week’s issue of Dallas Voice, we get advice from handyman Mitch Matlock about how to redo a kitchen, suggestions on sprucing up your space from remodeler Reilley Lawrence, suggestions for how to start a vegetable garden in your backyard from Brumley Gardens and more. Plus: Preview the Turtle Creek Association’s annual Home Tour of the fanciest high-rises (and one house!).
Click title below to read additional Great Spaces articles.
Great Spaced print edition published April 25, 2014.