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Nate Berkus talks life and love
Extended for the Online Edition of Windy City Times
by Ross Forman
2008-10-08

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Nate Berkus has gone to a lot of sports-memorabilia conventions over the years. But he's not a collector or a dealer, and doesn't even like sports:

He's just a loving, supportive son.

You see, his dad, Mike, is a lifelong sports-memorabilia collector, dealer and card-show promoter. He is a co-founder and current co-executive director of the annual National Sports Collectors Convention, set for its 30th annual gala next summer in Cleveland.

'Growing up, I spent a lot of time behind tables at [ trading ] card and memorabilia conventions,' Nate Berkus said. 'I was always interested in the collectibility aspect of [ memorabilia ] ; I was fascinated that somebody on a limited income would come and spend $1,000 on a baseball card because they had to have it.

'But I felt the same way about furniture, paintings and things for the home.'

Mike Berkus talks knowingly about the T206 Honus Wagner baseball card from 1909 that has sold for more than $1 million. He knows about Mickey Mantle's rookie baseball card, prized Michael Jordan cards and also some of the valuable 2008 cards.

Nate Berkus knows none of that. He, instead, is attracted to interior decorating. While his dad can talk freely and knowledgeably about Hall of Famers from every sport, Nate can talk about furniture, textiles and bedding sheets.

'I never had any interest [ in sports ] ,' he said, laughing. 'I can honestly say never.'

And Nate still is not a trading card collector or autograph hound.

But Nate has been every bit as successful in his field as his Hall of Fame-caliber dad.

' [ Sports memorabilia ] is a fascinating industry. My dad used to sell sports memorabilia on HSN [ the Home Shopping Network ] . In some ways, [ we've ] sort of gone full-circle,' Berkus said.

On Monday, Oct. 13, HSN will launch an exclusive new line of home décor and furniture from Berkus. Of course, that's famed designer Nate Berkus, known for the work he's done for both high-profile private clients and well-known public spaces. And, yes, that's the same Berkus of 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' fame. ( He first appeared on Winfrey's show in 2001 and, in 2008, he hosted a home-makeover show for ABC-TV called 'Oprah's Big Give.' )

Berkus will debut his new collection during the premiere of HSN Home Design Event Presented by ELLE DECOR, a five-week series of one-hour trend-driven shows running through Nov. 15. The show will combine ELLE DECOR's editorial authority with HSN's newest home designers and brands.

'I'm really looking forward to [ the launch ] . I have been flying all around the world over the past year or so with my creative team at HSN to develop what I think is a really exciting, new and fresh collection, things that have never [ previously ] been sold at this price, with this much quality, especially not on TV,' Berkus said. 'What's interesting about this opportunity for me is, with HSN, I'm able to actually be the voice of my own products and really be able to explain and talk on live television with the people who are facing different design issues and have questions for me. And, I can explain the inspiration for the first time behind this line, as opposed to designing something and sending it out onto store shelves somewhere and just hoping people like it.'

Berkus said he is not nervous for the launch … at least not publicly.

'With any creative person, you put your heart and soul into a process and you want it to be as successful as possible,' he said. 'I think it will be a success if people respond to the designs, the color combinations, the textures, the ideas, plus the quality and pricing of the line.

'I think the [ the new product line ] is really geared for everybody. The nice thing about it is, the whole focus behind the line is very solution-oriented. The launch is going to start with two bedding collections, some furniture, mirrors [ and ] furniture as well as different accessories and things like that.

'HSN has never walked into this territory, so it's a first for both of us. We're offering custom upholstery at extremely affordable prices, so people can buy something on TV and then customize it to fit their home. And it ships within two to six weeks.'

A sofa, for instance, will cost less than $600.

The line also will include everything from rich textiles, classic

linens, decorative pillows and porcelain vases to classic furniture pieces like coffee tables, headboards and more. In time, Berkus will introduce decorative accessories, lamps, wovens and rugs to round out the expansive collection of more than 100 home products.

'There's so much detail with every element to every bed, particularly with the sheets,' Berkus said. 'I was tired of going to 20 different places to try and find sheets that I love to sleep on. So I took the best qualities of everything that I tested and decided to do two sheets—one for people who prefer a warm bed and a second for people who prefer a cooler, crisper bed.

'I've been researching [ the bedding ] for a year, testing and sampling.

And I now think I have the perfect warm sheet and the perfect cool sheet.'

Berkus' new line will be available exclusively on HSN, which reaches 90 million homes, and HSN.com, one of the top 10 most-trafficked retail Web sites.

'I think part of me always knew [ interior design was my calling ] , but as a kid growing up, I didn't know these opportunities even existed,' Berkus said. 'I grew up in suburban Minneapolis and my mom [ Nancy Golden ] was an interior designer, so I was always exposed to the arts, design, furniture and textiles. I always knew I would do something creative because when I'm not doing something creative ... I have the attention span of a third-grader. So, for me, there has to be constant visual stimulation, and that has to be constantly changing, just for my own personal happiness.

'When I did my very first collection for Linens & Things, I was much more nervous about that because it was something I had never done before. I really sort of grew into my own as a product designer in the three years that I worked with them. So, for me this [ new line ] represents everything that I learned up until now.

'Here I am, this son of a decorator and a sports fanatic, and I took lessons from both of my parents in that way. My mother was more of the aesthetic person; my dad was at the center of an industry that's all about collecting and condition of something, plus rarity. That really sunk in for me, in my own interpretation of it.'

And aspects of Chicago also have had key roles in molding Berkus—including Lake Forest College in the northern suburbs, which he attended.

'Lake Forest [ College ] is a fantastic school and it really gave me a lot of opportunities that a larger college wouldn't have offered, such as the two semesters I spent in Paris as an intern,' Berkus said. 'My last year of college, I lived in Chicago and concentrated all of my classes into three days. There were small classes and some amazing professors, plus flexibility with curriculum, thus it was a perfect fit for me.'

Chicago also is Oprah. Or, Oprah is Chicago. The daytime talk-show diva is as much Chicago as Michael Jordan, maybe more. And Berkus has been aboard the Oprah Express since 2001.

'It is an incredible experience [ working with Oprah, ] ' Berkus said. 'I don't think anybody just wakes up one day and thinks, 'Wow, today I'm going to be on Oprah.' It wasn't any different for me.

'One thing about the Oprah experience that I still really admire is how organic it is. A producer asked me to come on [ the show ] after she had seen my work. We did a small space makeup about six years ago, and Oprah really appreciated the design and my work-ethic, staying up all night with the producers to make sure everything was perfect. And the audience loved it, too. I just thought right then and there that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing at that exact time.

'My relationship with the show is something that is as exciting to me now as it was when I started.'

Berkus, 37, now runs the Chicago-based Nate Berkus Associates. He is the eldest of six siblings.

'One thing that's a personal philosophy of mine is, 'You have to figure out what you're really passionate about, what you really like to do,' That to me is how I feel about design. In my spare time, I do the same thing that I do in my work time,' he said.

Life-changing moments

Berkus was vacationing in Sri Lanka on a fateful December day in 2004.

He was with his partner, photographer Fernando Bengoechea, sleeping in a beachfront cottage at Arugam Bay on Sri Lanka's eastern coast when he heard a loud noise and the roof was ripped off.

A tsunami struck and the two were swept into the sea along with debris, animals and other people. The two grabbed a telephone pole, Berkus said, but lost their grips when a second large wave hit. Berkus climbed onto the roof of a home; Bengoechea was missing, presumed dead.

'I sort of have reached a stage with that [ tragedy ] where I do still reflect on it quite frequently, but I tend to reflect more on who I've become and what I've learned since that day,' Berkus said. 'I would never wish for that to happen; I would never wish for anyone to experience what I experienced, the personal loss I experienced with Fernando dying and also witnessing what I witnessed, including the deaths of so many. But the truth is, the lessons that I've learned from that changed me so profoundly as a person, thus I wouldn't recognize myself before the tsunami.

'When you go through a life-altering experience, you can come out [ of it ] in one of two ways. You can come out as a stronger version of the person you were before, or you can let it destroy you. Even through my grief, and truly for the first time ever understanding what grief was, I knew on some level that I would make myself a better person as a result of that, that it wouldn't be the one thing in my life that defined me. For me, a lot of things define [ me ] ; I'm not just defined as being on TV. Nor am I just defined as being Jewish, or being gay or being the eldest son. Rather, I'm all of those things.

'I know I was given a second chance and with that chance, I have some choices, and the first choice I have to make is whether or not I'm going to let it take me out too. And I chose to not let that happen.'

Berkus has been dating Brian Atwood, a shoe designer who lives in Milan, Italy, for about one and a half years. Their relationship, though strained by distance, is anchored by communication. They see each other every two weeks or so.

'I was very, very happy this [ past ] spring when non-stop flights from Chicago to Milan were added; that shaved about four and a half hours off the travel experience,' he said, laughing. 'Our long-term plan is not [ to be living so far apart ] . We eventually will be spending more time in the U.S., but for now he's based in Milan and I'm based in Chicago.

'We have a great relationship; it's completely worth it to me, the effort [ of maintaining a long-distance relationship. ] '

Berkus came out while a sophomore at Lake Forest College.

'I think there's a level of forced dishonesty when you don't come out of the closet, whether that's your decision or your circumstances that prevent you from doing so,' he said. 'That level of dishonesty can start to sort of seep into other areas of your life in time, where you can't feel like you genuinely have a relationship with your parents because you're hiding something. I believe that you have to live your life true to who you are. I don't define myself as strictly being gay, but I'm completely comfortable talking about it; it's an aspect of who I am.

'Like almost everyone, I went through [ a difficult ] phase of coming-out where, I didn't know what relationships in my life would survive. Knowing that you're about to take that risk [ by coming out ] is really a horrible situation to be in. To this day, gay teenagers are still driven to suicide at the thought [ of coming out ] , and that's got to change.'

Berkus said he considered not coming out. 'I think the fantasy was, I'll just hide [ being gay ] , get married, have kids, and it'll just be the one thing that I have to deal with. But that's an intensely selfish reaction; it robs you of honest relationships with everyone who loves you and it also starts to affect other people's lives, such as the person you marry, your children. And I'm not a selfish guy,' he said. 'When I came out, both of my parents said to me, 'At the end of the day, we love you, and that's what you need to know. But we need to work through this on our own.' And they did.

'I think, for a parent, they want their kid to have the best of everything; they want their kid to have the easiest life possible,' he added. 'And even though that's unrealistic and can have nothing to do with sexuality, when you come out to your parents—even if they're the most liberal, most wonderful, warm people—they still have to be allowed a period to mourn the life that they thought you would have. Their little baby has gone on a different course from what they predicted, or hoped, for you. I was very respectful of my parents and acknowledged it was a surprise to them and very hard for them to accept. My father had no idea, for instance. But it didn't make me want to back down and not tell them this information. Instead, what I told them is, 'I'm going to give you guys time and be here to answer whatever questions you may have, no matter how crazy you think the question is.''

Berkus will be speaking to college-aged students in Toronto this fall, detailing his tsunami experience and his business success, etc.

'After the tsunami segment aired on The Oprah Winfrey Show, I received literally thousands of letters and e-mails from gay teenagers from around the country, some of whom were moved to come out of the closet because they viewed a really open, honest, happy relationship [ between me and Fernando ] , and it was the first time they ever witnessed it, and it happened on television,' Berkus said. 'And it was presented as two people in love, not just as two gay people.'

More Nate...

Here are some more fun facts from Nate Berkus:

—Dream vacation spot: 'I have two: The Temples of Angkor in Cambodia and Careyes, Mexico.'

—Little-known fact: 'People are always surprised that I'm Jewish. I have no idea why.'

—Favorite restaurant in the world: Contro Vapore in Milan

—Favorite restaurant in Chicago: The Wiener's Circle at 2622 N. Clark 'have the best hot dogs in the world.'

—Favorite movie: Overboard

—Favorite actor: 'I don't really have a favorite actor.'

—Favorite actress: Diane Keaton

—A fashion faux pas: 'Over-designed denim'

—One overused material in homes: Granite

—One fact about Oprah we don't know: 'She's really like an open book. There's no rehearsal for the show.'

—On air travel: 'The truth is, I'm on a plane almost every other day anyway; it just depends where that plane is headed.' His travel tradition is turning off his Blackberry, then reading books and magazines, and also doing some work. 'I get a lot done on airplanes.'

—Upcoming on The Oprah Winfrey Show: 'We're doing some really exciting makeovers on the Oprah show this fall.'


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