In his new book The Things That Matter celebrity designer Nate Berkus gives us page after page of inspiring photos and stories from interesting people who have designed equally interesting homes. We jumped at the chance to ask Berkus about his own story, why he wrote this book and what he learned from Dr. Ruth. (For a chance to win a copy of the book, check out our Pinterest contest.)
Books for Better Living: The Things That Matter isn’t a typical interior design book. In it, you share very personal stories from your own life. Why did you want to write this book?
Nate Berkus: It wasn’t my intention when I started the book to share my story, but what I realized in the process of writing it was that I was asking the people who were included to share their personal stories: who they are, where they came from, how their homes reflect all of the collective experiences they’ve had in their lives, why they choose to let certain things into their home, and why they made the different decisions they did creating spaces that really told their story. It became very obvious to me that I needed to share my story as well, that it made sense for me. I really do believe that style in and of itself is cumulative. It really represents everywhere we’ve been and how we were raised and what our spaces looked like when we were young and what our parents’ homes and our grandparents’ homes might have looked like or felt like. As adults I think that they should show who we are and who we aspire to be, and everything should hold a memory of where we’ve been, what we’ve seen, what we’ve tasted, who we’ve loved, what we’ve lost and what we’ve gained. That really is the point of the book.
BBL: It was great to see such a range of people featured in the book, from Dr. Ruth Westheimer to Chris Gardner, the formerly homeless author of The Pursuit of Happyness. How did you choose whom to feature?
NB: That was the easiest part. The one overarching qualification for me in deciding which spaces made it in and which didn’t was that I really wanted spaces that truly reflected the people who lived in them and did so in a really successful way — in a way that was thought-provoking, in a way that they were beautiful spaces because the people who had assembled them and who lived in them didn’t follow any rules other than the rules that they deemed worked for themselves. Each space in that book really tells a story about the person who lives there.
NB: She was a guest on my show, and as she was leaving, on camera, she said, “I need your help. You’re not allowed to throw away anything, and you’re not allowed to tell me I have to get rid of my books, but I need you to come and look around and tell me how I can make it better so that I can live better.” I said, “I’m not going to promise you that, Dr. Ruth, but I would love to come over.” When I walked into her space, what I saw was a life that was literally contained within those walls — ephemera and souvenirs and papers and photographs and research material and books she had written and photos and old electronics and furniture that wasn’t serving her any longer — and there was just no cohesive feeling and there was nothing pleasing aesthetically about it. What I decided to do for her was show her how she could live beautifully with the things that were most important to her and pare down and edit what she was living with, but reinstall that in a backdrop that not only made sense but would allow her to entertain and live beautifully in the space. She said it better than anyone when I asked her, “Why would you do this? You’ve lived in this same apartment for over 50 years, you’ve certainly never had a decorator come over and ask for them to redo this.” She said, “I did this because I wanted old people to know that it’s never too late to change.” [Photo at left: Dr. Ruth Westheimer's sitting room. © Roger Davies]
BBL: Some of the people you profile had trouble translating their personalities into their home spaces. I can identify with that! What are your tips for people like me?
NB: That was really the goal of the book. To show people who are challenged in translating their personalities into their space how other people have done it, and to give them the inspiration so that when they’re starting to furnish their own spaces or change their own spaces they stop and give themselves a moment to ask themselves: Do these choices that I’m making for my home reflect the best parts of me? Do I really love this color? Do I feel a connection to it? What are my interests, and how can I translate that into my furnishings?
BBL: You write about the tragic loss of your partner Fernando in a tsunami in Sri Lanka in 2004. After that harrowing ordeal, it must have been extremely painful to come back to the home you shared with him and have to decide what to do with his things. What are your suggestions for others who have to deal with a loved one’s things after they’re gone?
NB: I’ve gone through my own personal journey with that, and I wrote about that in the book and explained that, for me, I didn’t want to be beholden to Fernando’s things. The memories were attached to a lot of the things, but that didn’t mean the interior had to be frozen in time. I think everybody needs to find their own process. I think for me, in order to move forward, and in order to embrace my own life and also honor his life, I realized that everything didn’t need to sit exactly as it sat when he was alive. I could still live beautifully with the things that reminded me of him or had belonged to him, but I could do it in a new way, in a way that represented that I had come to a place myself that I was OK moving forward and moving on. I think that’s a really important thing sometimes for people to hear. I look around now, and mixed in with everything that I’ve acquired since Fernando died are things that we acquired when we were together and some things that he acquired before we were together. And that to me feels very healthy.
Nate Berkus is founder of the interior design firm Nate Berkus Associates. For two years he was the host of The Nate Berkus Show. His work has appeared in Elle Decor, O: The Oprah Magazine, InStyle, The New York Times, Vanity Fair and House Beautiful. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Home Rules. He lives in New York City. Connect with Berkus on Facebook, Pinterest or Twitter at @Nate_Berkus.