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Berkus lives his life by design

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ate Berkus is wandering through Douglas Rosin, a decorative arts-and-antiques shop here in the River North neighborhood, when he comes upon a Chinese-inspired chaise from the '60s.

"How much do I love that?" he asks.

A lot, it seems. He throws himself on the $3,200 Baker reproduction to try it out.

But Berkus doesn't rest for long. He leaps on to other objects.

A pair of Cedric Hartman lamps -- "Aren't they great?"

A 1910 sterling silver clamshell bowl -- "Wow!"

A sleek gold-leaf mirror -- "Look at that!"

And then he's gone. Out the door, into an SUV, and on his way to another shop. His mission: to find that one object he can build a room around. The Chinese chaise is in the running.

Berkus' life has been equally frenetic of late. Keeping up with him means not only jumping in and out of SUVs, but also attending a series of book signings, TV tapings and appearances at Linens 'n Things, where he just introduced a line of products.

And all the while, he fields calls on his cellphone and sends messages on his BlackBerry, thumbs dancing over the keys.

At 34, Berkus is the newest golden boy in the interior-design world, all thanks to a woman named Oprah. He's the artfully disheveled and unshaven guy seen remaking homes across America for Oprah's adoring audiences. And now his. Yes, he has his own fan clubs.

And, oh, he also is author of the new Home Rules: Transform the Place You Live into a Place You'll Love.

Could there be a new Martha in the making? Or is he just another pretty face?

First, back to the antiques shop for a moment.

Berkus likes Douglas Rosin because the store's merchandise is "so well edited. They have a true appreciation of the maker's craft. It wouldn't be in here if it was a piece of junk."

Berkus is big on editing, focusing, keeping his eye on the prize. But it hasn't been an easy year for a guy who likes to be in control (yes, he's a Virgo). In fact, he says, it has been "a roller coaster."

It started the day after Christmas, when his partner, photographer Fernando Bengoechea, was swept away by the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia while they were vacationing. Bengoechea's body has never been found. Berkus talked about the ordeal on national TV with Oprah.

The year is ending on a better note. More than 300 fans showed up just before Thanksgiving at the Mall of America in Minnesota for a book signing, asking him everything from whether a round table fits in a square room (yes) to how to deal with a long wall (paint it all the same color).

He's similarly quizzed during the in-store appearances at Linens 'n Things, where a fan even asked him about a paint color he used in a project years ago. (More on that later.)

"It was a year of important lessons for me. A year of tests, both personally and professional," he says. "I'm doing what I'm meant to do. If I hadn't chosen this career, I don't think I would have been able to get out of bed."

Berkus is an affable fellow, casually dressed in a sweater and T-shirt, jeans, boots, leather jacket and sunglasses, even though the day is gray and overcast. There's not much not to like.

It doesn't hurt that he's easy on the eyes.

"He's such a cutie pie, isn't he?" asks store partner Barbara Rosin.

Berkus says his success has more to do with his soul than his million-dollar smile.

"The work I do is not ego-based. I really love what I'm doing," he says. "I'd love it without the money and without the fame. I'd do it on a Sunday morning. I think people are drawn to that kind of energy."

Seems to be working. In person and especially with his fans.

"Not only is Nate a great designer, he also has a wonderful personality that just exudes from the television set every time he's on. He's the guy that everyone likes -- charming, witty and warm. And on top of all of that -- wow, OK -- so he's gorgeous!" says Bill Stevens, the self-appointed president and founder of the unofficial Nate Berkus Fan Club on his website (

Designing by 'connection'

Gushing aside, Berkus' style is similar to his appearance: Relaxed. Unpretentious. Easy.

He says the biggest mistake people make is they "decorate to impress other people and not themselves." As a kid, he was known for rearranging his parents'-- and the neighbors'-- furniture.

"In my home there is nothing I don't connect with on some level," he says. "I even bring rocks home from vacation if I like their shape or color."

With the quick wave of a hand he buys two glass-topped chrome tables for his new apartment in New York City. "I like their simplicity and how it's not new. Seventies, probably. I love things like this because it can ride home in the car. It's just a side table. It's not a financial or emotional commitment."

Berkus is equally pragmatic about his life at the moment. And his future. Chatting in the back of the SUV as he is driven from shop to shop, he ponders where he might be 10 years from now.

"I don't know. I like where I am today," he says. "If other opportunities come, I'll think about them then."

He and TV were meant to be.

"He's going to last a very long time," says Nancy Glass, a TV veteran who produces a number of home shows for HGTV.

"Oprah has such a sense of who's going to work. Nate's not at all trendy. He's got just enough snap. He's fresh. And he comes across as very accessible ... and his style is very attainable."

Berkus says he likes how quickly everything moves along in TV, as opposed to how long a decorating job can take in real life. TV is three days, tops. A decorating job can last more than a year.

Not that he doesn't still do individual jobs. He does. Potential clients can see his work on

So, given his hyperactivity, does he have attention-deficit disorder?

"No, I'm just very, very focused. I'm a better editor than I am a decorator. I know what should stay and what should go."

And if you're thinking about buying anything for his home, that's sweet, but don't. His friends and family have learned the hard way.

"They know not to give me anything I haven't picked out myself," he says.

His Gold Coast home, by the way, is very simple. Everything in it "has meaning to me. There's not a tremendous amount of color" -- mostly grays, blacks and muted tones.

'Live well' -- that's what it's all about

Berkus, like Oprah, has a vision: to give people a better life than what they have now. All the copy describing his merchandise at Linens 'n Things, for instance, ends with the same two words: Live well.

He says he signed up with the company because he got along well with the creative people there.

"They were people who I wanted to have lunch with." He said he was both "flattered and nervous" by their desire to work with him; Glass says Berkus is "very smart" in branding himself through the line.

"Oprah has always believed in the importance of home," he says. "We share that belief. It's not about money or necessarily even beauty. It's about valuing yourself enough to create a space for yourself to make yourself happy."

As for the paint color a Long Island fan was seeking from an Oprah show makeover three years ago, Berkus had the answer on the spot.

"It was Benny Moore 941."

And that Chinese chaise way back at the first shop? It's a go now that he has seen a 19th-century French limestone mantelpiece at Salvage One, a local warehouse filled with architectural artifacts.

He's quite smitten with the massive $16,875 piece.

"Put that with the Chinese daybed and we're done!"

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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