Our Interview with Nate Berkus, Design Guru & MN Homeboy

Nate_Berkus_Headshot“Everyone deserves to have the opportunity to live beautifully.”

That sounds an awful lot like a life motto from Minnesota’s own Nate Berkus, design guru and host of NBC’s just-finished reality competition, American Dream Builders. I got to chat with him on Sunday, while I browsed the new Fall 2014 items for his collection of decorative accessories, rugs, bedding, bath, and more at Target. With serpentine and gold designs, the new items are (he swears) inspired by nothing less than his obsession with HBO’s Game of Thrones. It’s not every day I get to talk to a celebrity, and I’ll admit that my love of everything he does made my hands shake as I scrambled to type his words about his love of design, the Twin Cities, and our Jewish community.

For those who have not been riveted to their computer screens or DVRs for the last 12 weeks like I have, Nate’s most recent success in the world of TV and design has been the reality TV show competition American Dream Builders on NBC; but you may also know him as the host of The Nate Berkus Show; the design guru behind product lines at Target and Calico Corners; the Artistic Advisor for the LG Studio Collection, the Executive Producer of the Academy Award-winning movie The Help; or one of the two stunning men in Banana Republic’s gutsy print ad featuring Nate and his now husband, Jeremiah Brent, whom he married on May 3rd in the first same-sex wedding held at New York’s Public Library. Born in Orange County, California, he spent much of his childhood growing up in Minneapolis, and thanks to his work with Target, he’s here a lot, visiting his old haunts like Dairy Queen and Lord Fletcher’s.

Nate’s passion for design started in his childhood. He remembers missing his school bus because he noticed one of the City of Minnetonka’s many estate sales beginning to set up, and he just had to pop inside for a few minutes to look around. He would come home shortly thereafter, arms full of vintage treasures, only to get a laughing and knowing eye roll from his mom, Nancy Golden, herself an interior designer, jewelry maker, and host of HGTV and DIY decorating shows.

Fast forward a few decades and Nate still knows the value of a good find at any price level and from any source. Although American Dream Builders pushed the boundaries on what’s possible in design with great resources and incredible artistic talent, Nate’s passion also lies in bringing luxury to those of us who live in smaller, more modest spaces.

“I treat a small space the exact same way as a dream home,” he explains. “Everything you allow through your home should have a connection to it. I don’t believe in throwaway design – the idea that you have to fill an apartment with apartment-sized furniture like a jigsaw puzzle. Luxury is living well in a small space, and waiting to buy the things you want and can take with you.”

Nate’s 2012 book The Things that Matter is an ode to his conviction that, “Our homes should tell the stories of who we are.” His home with his husband is filled with art, furniture, and accessories that he has brought back from his trips all over the world, whether those items are from an expensive gallery or beads from a street market. “If it means something to me, it is allowed in our home. When you put that filter on it, you start to care about the vessel your toothbrush is in,” he says. “People think they can’t afford to live well. I believe the opposite – you can afford to live well if you are careful about what you buy.”

For Nate, who grew up “very” culturally Jewish, his current home also features a menorah for Hanukkah, haggadot for Passover, and kippot for Jewish celebrations. Nate remembers his very first trip to New York City (his current home) with Temple Israel‘s youth group, and his time at USY, the JCC, and, most importantly Talmud Torah of Minneapolis. Yes, he skipped Sunday School to hang out at Leeann Chin nearby, but he now understands the importance of the lessons he learned at those institutions in instilling within him a strong sense of Jewish community, history, and cultural identity.

“The Jewish religion for me has always been a warm, inclusive, accepting religion,” he says. “Not a place of exclusion or judgment but a place of acceptance & cheering on. People wanting other people to live well and prosper. And that has informed the way I address helping people live no matter who they are. That foundation of wanting everyone to do well, to learn, to feel safe, is something that for me is always in the back of my mind when I meet with that client for the first time, or bring people to a space for the first time. And I love that.”

While he and his non-Jewish husband skipped many of the traditional Jewish customs during their wedding last month, they did have a bit of a snafu when their officiant accidentally broke the ceremonial wine glass that Jewish couples step on to traditionally end the ceremony. Not to be deterred, though, Nate and Jeremiah used one of their guests’ champagne glasses for the ritual and stepped on that instead.

Now that the excitement of their wedding has died down a bit (or at least its coverage in the news has), and the winner of American Dream Builders has been announced (I promise not to spoil it), Nate has his hands in a few exciting pots. He’s executive producing a new film he couldn’t yet tell me about, designing homes and spaces with his Chicago-based design firm, expanding and refreshing his collections at Target and Calico Corners, and launching a new line of fabric for Jo-ann Fabric.

As his career continues to blossom, we in Minnesota will be watching him and cheering him on. He’s our homeboy, and we’ll take him.