Nate The Great
Friday, May 16th, 2014
By Amanda Koellner
Images courtesy of Target
When Nate Berkus sat down for an interview with Oprah Winfrey a little more than a year ago, she bluntly asked him, “Can we talk about the show?” After featuring Berkus as The Oprah Winfrey Show’s resident interior-design expert for more than a decade, she was comfortably referring to The Nate Berkus Show—the designer’s short-lived daily talk program, which ran for two seasons before its cancellation in 2012. In that interview, Winfrey revealed that she tried to discourage her dear friend from entering the world of television five days a week. “I also knew that you were in that space and in that moment where you really wanted it," she said. Berkus's response? "I'm ambitious."
That single word quite accurately describes the 42-year-old designer (of both products and interiors), whose résumé also includes author, actor, and, of course, TV personality. “To host a daytime talk show means that you need to try to be everything to everybody, and design has always been my first love and my strongest interest,” Berkus says over the phone from his New York City apartment. We go on to discuss his new primetime design-competition show, American Dream Builders, his recently acquired gig as artistic advisor for LG Studio, his constantly evolving collection for Target, and, naturally, his old pal, Ms. Oprah Winfrey.
“Even though I have all of these things happening—the Target collection, the LG partnership, the launch of the show, the upcoming wedding—strangely I feel like my life has never been more in balance,” Berkus says. “It’s also nice to not have to try to make a chicken every day on TV.”
How did the idea for American Dream Builders come about? What can we expect from the show?
I got together with Universal, and we brainstormed what a design show could and should be. The one thing we felt strongly about in development was that somebody somewhere decided that design was about how fast and cheaply you can do a project. The truth is that design is about resources, creativity, having access to wonderful things that no one else has seen before, and about combining all of that in a way that provides high-level inspiration. The other decision we made was that rather than go out and try to discover new talent, we scoured the country to find 12 people who had really established reputations in their towns or cities. We wanted people who had been published, who had done books, who had product lines, who won awards for building, and who had been recognized on some level for the contribution they were making to American design. That brought the level of quality for every renovation through the roof.
It seems as though traveling and your overall happiness right now had a huge influence on your current Target collection. How have all of your recent experiences played into the designs seen in the line?
My favorite thing about my partnership with Target is that the line is constantly changing, constantly evolving, and constantly refreshed. I’ve been designing products for the home for the past 10 years, and it’s a true extension of how I live my life. I can’t go to an antique mall here in New York or on a vacation without taking a million photos of textiles and patterns and stone floors and furniture and objects from flea markets. For me, the line is the opportunity to take everything that I feel is the best from these cultures, and Peru was a huge influence here. The most interesting ideas for me are the time, the fashion, and the culture that was happening at any given place at any given time. Whether that’s Italy in the 1970s, Peru in the 19th Century, or Manhattan right now, I love to edit that and create something that is a collection that hopefully doesn’t feel like one note because there are so many different influences. I like the idea of people being able to start assembling collections of things that they just like, and living with those objects and letting their eyes land on something that moves them and makes them feel like they’ve done a good job.
Can you tell me about your partnership with LG Studio?
I was actually approached by LG, and I’m now the new artistic advisor for their studio line of appliances. They’re so great with technology, and they brought me in because the appliance end of LG isn’t that bold. They’ve only been in the American market for 10 years, but they’re already an industry leader because people had such a great experience with their LG phones [and because] the brand stands for innovation, technology, and sleek, highly functional design. They brought me in to consult about what I think the trends are for the kitchen, and more importantly, to find out what I think is trend-proof and trend-less. We all sort of reach for the stainless-steel appliance, but what does that really mean? And should we be exploring other finishes? Should we be working with brass? Should we be working with lacquer? How can I bring my background in design to this company that stands for “anything’s possible”? I really, of course, love that philosophy.
When you first came aboard at LG, you asked your fans on your site, “What makes a kitchen beautiful?” What do you think makes a kitchen beautiful?
I don’t like bells and whistles when it comes to kitchen finishes. I’m into white or black cabinetry, mixing metals, unlacquered brass hardware, baker’s marble, honed marble, subway tile with contrast grout, beautifully crafted, highly functional appliances, and great accessories. I have on my backsplash in my kitchen in New York a 16th Century Peruvian painting in a mirrored frame. It’s sitting on a white tile that’s 39 cents per foot. For me, it’s about keeping the bones of the space classic and the portions correct while letting the layout remain as functional as possible. But then you’ve got to bring in bowls that you’ve collected from your travels or hang something odd on your backsplash and showcase photographs in silver and leather and stone frames. I have a beautiful marble lamp from the 1920s sitting on my counter as well. I like the idea of treating that room as another space to decorate, even though it needs to be highly functional.
Are you still doing any work with Oprah?
We’re actually working on something now that I cannot discuss at this time. We’re still very, very good friends, and we’re still very much in touch. I will forever be grateful for the 10 years that I was a part of The Oprah Winfrey Show. It was the most interesting, most acutely educational time for me to work with those people, who were undoubtedly the best in the business.