Nate Berkus: Decorating shouldn’t be perfect

The design expert shares 3 reasons to follow your instincts
Nate Berkus
Nate Berkus

Rainer Hosch

Nate Berkus has a paradoxical outlook on the objects that furnish people’s homes. Before opening his own firm in Chicago, the star designer/author and friend-of-Oprah interned at a major fine art auction firm, where he witnessed grand estates get dismantled. “The auction world is very macabre,” he explained to me during a recent stopover in Atlanta. “It’s about the 3 Ds–death, debt, and divorce. Seeing those houses get disassembled affected the way I value things.” But if that experience made him less materialistic, it also reinforced his passion for objects with personal meaning. “The way we tell our story is through our things,” he noted.

His keynote presentation was spot-on for last week’s audience at the 2015 Design Bloggers Conference at the Grand Hyatt in Buckhead. As several attendees noted, their followers often don’t have the means to buy a new sofa, much less purchase an exotic art object to serve as dramatic focal point. So how can average homeowners hope to create inspiring interiors like the ones they see in magazines? Berkus had this sage advice:

What is your feather?

Berkus once decorated the home of a widow who lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. After her husband died, she started keeping feathers that she discovered along the street as a sort of totem from her departed spouse. She had filled an entire box. Berkus took one of those feathers, framed it, and hung it in a prominent spot between two windows. Although the memento had no real value, it was full of symbolic power for the homeowner. Ever since, Berkus said his design firm often asks themselves, “What is your feather?”

Embrace imperfection

“Let’s replace the word perfect with the word permission,” said Berkus. “Give yourself permission to be honest about what you want and need. Imperfections are where the real story is. Put yourself out there. Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity.”

Collect what’s not in style

This philosophy is why Berkus uses mostly antiques and vintage finds, he explained to me after his presentation. He also noted that smart buyers can save money by collecting whatever’s not currently in vogue—adding a plug for much-maligned “brown furniture” like mahogany casegoods. He told me about chatting with a vendor at a Paris flea market who was offering exquisite, aged-bronze, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century light fixtures. Across the aisle, another vendor was rapidly selling stripped-down 1950s school furniture. The frustrated lighting dealer turned to Berkus and asked, “Can you please explain why my goods are half the price?”

Of course, as Berkus also noted, treasuring objects with a provenance comes naturally to Southerners. Passing by all the Buckhead antique dealers made him feel like he was back in France, he said.

Currently, Berkus is taking a break from television and working on a movie about a Nepalese orphanage (his first film project was The Help). He’s returned to doing more residential design for private clients, including a project in Atlanta, and will soon expand his licensing empire with a to-be-announced furniture line. His latest collection for Target hits stores this spring. But his most exciting new venture should come in just less than three weeks, when he and husband Jeremiah Brent expect to become parents.


Clarification: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Berkus worked at Sotheby’s. The auction house where he interned was Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, which was later sold to Sotheby’s (then reopened in 2003).