Every home tells a story. And for designer Nate Berkus, every person’s carefully woven narrative is captured by the objects that surround them.
In his own home, a tiny coat hangs in the stairwell, reminding him of his grandfather who used to wear it. In his dining room is the first major art purchase he ever made — a pair of works by German artist Günther Förg — bought when he was a starry-eyed college student working at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.
Taken together, the items in his home tell the story of a man who has enjoyed both meteoric success and tragic heartbreak, and who is inextricably tied to his past but catapulting toward an even brighter future.
Ten years ago Berkus, 41, first appeared as a guest designer on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” With his perfectly tousled hair, chiseled cheekbones and engaging smile — not to mention a killer design sensibility — he captivated viewers and was quickly tapped to become a regular contributor.
He seemed unstoppable until tragedy struck in 2004, when Berkus lost his partner — photographer Fernando Bengoechea — to the tsunami while the two were vacationing in Sri Lanka. His story of love lost is one he tells in print for the first time in his new design book, The Things That Matter.
It took seven years for him to write, he says, because he didn’t just want another design tome. “There’s so much information about design out there, and I think that it leaves people really confused and not clear on how or what they should want,” he says. “Ultimately what they should want is a home that reflects the best side of themselves.”
He started by interviewing friends — including Chicago freelance writer (and Splash contributor) Barri Leiner Grant and Pursuit of Happyness author Chris Gardner — about their spaces and asking them “atypical questions for a design book.”
“Everyone was so forthcoming with me about where they had been, who they had lost, what they had learned, what they had seen and what they hoped to achieve, that it made sense to include my own stories, because my own evolution as a person and as a decorator is directly related to everything that I’ve been through,” he says.
He describes coming out to his parents in college, and shortly afterward coming of age as a designer during an internship that led to his first job at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.
Her auction house “was a finishing school for a lot of us,” he says. “There are furniture experts at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, writers and brilliant marketing people, living both in Chicago and everywhere. And all of us were schooled at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.”
At 23, he decided to open his own design firm, which is still based here. Though he moved to New York to helm his own daytime talk show (after the show’s second season ended in May it was not renewed, but Berkus has more television projects in the works), he says Chicago continues to be his creative hub.
“My offices are still based on Wood Street; I still have 15 employees that work out of those offices and we work all over the world,” he says. Berkus believes that his life would have unfolded differently if he had started anywhere else. “I think that at the time when I started my design firm, it was probably the best large city that I could possibly have made my decision,” he says. “Chicago is a city that puts its really wide arms around young talent and just hangs on until you get to where you want to go.”
Though he’s achieved more than he ever set out to do — he also served as executive producer of the Academy Awards Best Picture nominee “The Help” — he had long had his sights set on a home collection for Target. “I’ve respected how fashion forward and how energetic they are as a company and as a brand, and that’s always been sort of a rung that I’ve reached for throughout my career in design,” he says.
The collection — which launched last month and has 150 pieces ranging from lacquered boxes to lush bedding — “is heavy on decorative arts and accessories and objects and items that have been inspired by one-of-a-kind vintage finds that I’ve lived with for years,” he says. “I’ve never been a snob about where something comes from, so if it was from an antiques mall in western Michigan or the flea market in Paris or the midnight market in Thailand, it was always something that was a question of form and shape and quality and material for me.”
Every piece in the line has a personal reference (see sidebar), and Berkus hopes that “people who turn the aisle at Target have that same feeling that I had when I found it in a case in an antiques mall somewhere.
“I’m not the decorator that wants somebody to go out and buy everything from my collection and have an instant interior,” he says. “It doesn’t really go with my philosophy of how I think living well is achieved.”
And that philosophy — which melds the beautiful, the personal and the utterly original — is what makes Berkus a design icon.
Here, Berkus offers the story behind some of his favorite pieces from his collection.
“It was inspired by the grate of a window that I saw in Greece. I was like, that’s such a great pattern — I should reinterpret it as bedding.”
“Many years ago on one of my first trips to Paris, I could barely afford anything at the flea market and on a table was an old bronze chain. I’ve had it on my bookshelf, on a pile of coffee-table books, on my fireplace mantle. People are always asking, ‘What should we add to our bookshelf besides framed photos and books?’ You need objects; you need things that you’ve stumbled across to really make a home feel lived in and assembled over time.”
“I was at the midnight market in Chiang Mai, Thailand, two years ago and the bowls that the monks use are made out of brass, and they’re that exact form. I thought, this is such a beautiful object just to have out, to put flowers in, to put your jewelry in.”