Fabulous Tips From Nate Berkus
Last week I had the pleasure of being in on a joint blogger interview with the talented (and adorable) Nate Berkus. I met Nate in NYC this past summer and he is gracious, down to earth, and truly inspiring in his passions. Nate is doing a series of "Nate's Crate" shows (through which he delivers surprises) that I want to check out, and it was fun to glean some of his wisdom last week -- we covered everything from simple holiday solutions to affordable décor ideas to paying it forward. I'm now super inspired as Jon and I march forward on some interior design plans (both because of the baby and because it's simply taken us a long time to get around to settling since moving into our home over two years ago). Here were some of my favorite tips/takeaways from the interview:
Linda Sellers of LindaSellers.com: Do you have any great ideas for inexpensive hostess gifts to take to holiday parties?
Nate Berkus: Absolutely. In fact, I'm listing them on my website, and [this month and next] we have segments about great hostess gifts, great holiday gifts, all under $20, under $10. [Instead of gifting the customary bottle of wine] I prefer to give gifts that actually can be used all year round and that are practical...whether that's a beautiful vase that comes in a great package for under $20 or...these [beautiful endangered animal] notebooks from Japan. And the covers are so great I've actually removed the covers and framed them in white frames with white mattings from IKEA. [Another idea is to take] a vintage piece of silver...that you find for a good price at an antiques mall or a yard sale or estate sale...go to the trophy store in your town and have someone's monogram put on it. So, it's all about really thoughtful gifts and things that aren't just for the holidays, but things for under $20 [or so] that are the same price as a bottle of wine, but that last forever.
Teresa Anderson of Blissfully Domestic: I'm a mother of five, and a grandmother to seven, and all my children live far away from me...so each month I like to send them a little gift in the mail. And I usually like to do it for something that they can use in their homes because they're all college graduates and don't have much money. Do you have any suggestions on what I could pack up and send to them that would be something worthwhile for in their homes?
Nate Berkus:What a great thing to do. I wish my mom would do that. One of the most meaningful things to send are old photos of your kids -- whether it's them with you, them with the whole family, or just them with their siblings...go to Kinko's or FedEx or something and turn them into a black and white or antique looking sepia or something like that, and then Michael's sells pre-framed mats, or pre-cut matting that fits in really inexpensive frames. And I love the idea of them assembl[ing] a gallery wall in their home, whether they [go] contemporary with white frames and white mats or a little more traditional with wood frames and linen mats. And write a note on the back of the actual frame. My mom did it for me once and I still have that in my house and I just think it's the coolest thing that any mom can do when their kids are starting to assemble their own homes. And the other thing is, start a library for them. If they're interested in different topics, go to vintage shops and thrift stores and book stores and start a library for them. And you can print out book plates that you can design on your computer and glue to the inside cover that just says, you know, "From the library of blank, Love, Mom," with the date on it. I think that every home should have a library; everyone's interested in something, whether it's fashion or flowers or travel or cars or boats or whatever it is. But I think that that's also a gift that just really lasts forever.
Emily Johnston of Material Girls Blog: What are your favorite holiday gift ideas for the interior design enthusiast?
Nate Berkus: One I mentioned earlier is that I love the idea of putting a new monogram on old pieces. I kind of am obsessed with it right now. So the idea of a flea market tureen or silver plate and going to the trophy store and having a monogram put on that, I think is really, really cool. And I think that vintage design books with a customer bookplate that you print out on your computer...I don't think there's a more sophisticated gift than that.
Linda Sellers of LindaSellers.com: If you had only a few bucks to spend on clothes for holiday parties what would you be on the lookout for?
Nate Berkus: My uniform lately has been just a sport coat and button-down shirt and pocket square or a thin tie. And I've never believed in having tons and tons of stuff, but having a few really good pieces. So for me, it's just always about a nice cut jacket, and even if it is from T.J. Maxx or something like that; you can take it to the local tailor and have it fit like it's custom.
Erin Renzas of iVillage: Do you have any tips or tricks for how you can make your home festive and maybe unconventionally interesting without spending a fortune for the holiday season?
Nate Berkus: I actually don't think decorations have to go all over the house. If you have a family tradition of decorating for the holidays and it does [go all over the house], that's great. But for me, I think a little goes a really long way and one of the things that I think is really cool is to take all those glass vases that we all have under our kitchen sinks from the florist -- and if you don't have them, they're really cheap to find at thrift stores and stuff. And I love just taking a big group of them, 8, 10, 12 of them, and either putting them on the table on the entry and filling them with ornaments, all in two colors, like gold and silver or white and gold or white and bronze or whatever it is in different sizes, and then just greenery. You can also just put greenery inside the vases and one candle and you're done. And it works on an entry table or a dining room sideboard or the mantle.
Katja Presnal of Skimbaco Lifestyle: How can you do holiday décor for $200 in two hours? Like, if you had to go to one store or try to get everything together really quickly and you have a $200 budget, what would you do?
Nate Berkus: You have to go to the dollar store and you have to spend part of your budget on candles and votives and votive containers, and then you have to go to the florist or the grocery store and buy greens and a few dozen colorful flowers, whether they're roses or whatever really looks good. And I love the idea of using your juice glasses or cut glass glasses, whatever you have glassware-wise, dropping votives in those, spreading those throughout the house; using of them as well for small vases and doing tightly packed floral arrangements. And mixing those in throughout your décor I think is one of the quickest and easiest ways of doing that, using what you already have. And the other tip would be to buy gift wrap that is in a pattern that you love and cut it into use for placemats and -- or even a table runner.
Erin Renzas of iVillage: What are some quick tips or fun things that you can do that make guests feel really welcome or special at your home?
Nate Berkus: I'm actually in the middle of producing a show about that topic. To me it's really all about showing somebody that you've anticipated their arrival and you don't have to go overboard. It can be making their favorite dish or putting your favorite read that you know they're going to love on their nightstand with a printed note inside that says, "I just finished this book and I know you're going to love it, so enjoy this before you go to sleep every night." A new set of white towels folded on the end of the bed in the guest room is always a big win with a new bar of soap tied with a ribbon. [Also] fresh flowers, even if it's three or four stems in a tiny vase on the nightstand or a bottle of water sitting on the nightstand. Those are the kinds of touches that I think are so appreciated. And one of the other things I like to do when people are coming: I'll print out pictures of them and use them in tiny frames from the dollar store as place cards around the table, or even menus typed out on the computer for a special dinner, or it can be meatloaf. It doesn't matter, but it's so great to put their name at the top and then have the menu of what you're serving for a holiday meal printed out, sitting on everyone's plate. People like to see their name written and people like to see photos of themselves in other people's homes. I don't know why we do, but it always makes us feel really, really welcome. And so those are the kinds of things that don't take a tremendous amount of time, but send that message loud and clear that we've been looking forward to someone's arrival.
Christine Koh of Boston Mamas: I'm in the process of mulling over some redecoration of major rooms, and [though] I'm a graphic designer and have a real strong vision with that, when it comes to interior design I get a little bit deer in the headlights overwhelmed. When you are starting to think about a room [do you first find] the perfect central piece of furniture, or do you just approach it completely holistically and try to go for a vibe?
Nate Berkus: You know, it's sort of a mix. You need somewhere to sit and that's the first place -- or somewhere to eat...so I tend to buy the major pieces first. The truth is, the internet is the most unbelievable source...my company does 85% of its interiors online and the search for the perfect dining table or the perfect coffee table has become something that you can do, you know, when the kids go down for a nap...gone are the days where you have to be the weekend warrior and load everybody in the car and [take] a 4-year-old through the furniture showroom. But [while] I do start with the major pieces, I also stop and think, "What is the story that this room needs to tell? Who am I? If this room could speak, what would it say?" Would it say, "I'm a comfortable place filled with family photos and kid-proof coffee tables, and it's a no-coaster zone, and I'm not going to panic when somebody's got a popsicle in their hand," or does the story of this room need to be, "This is a room for the adults to entertain when the kids are sleeping, and this is my space that I'm carving out in my home to have as a refuge from my day-to-day chaos." So, start a bit more philosophically and ask yourself, what do you really want? If the room could talk, what would it say to you? Then you start deciding, maybe there should be a wall of framed family photos here. Maybe there should be a bookcase in this room...[and a] floor lamp and chair and an ottoman next to a wall of books where I can relax, or bring my laptop. So, I tend to start always with the purpose, and then I buy the major pieces and build from there.
Beth Anderson of Chic Gallery Magazine: If one was going to make an investment, what's a timeless purchase for your starter home?
Nate Berkus: I think there are a few, actually. And I think the most timeless is a beautifully well-made simply upholstered sofa. Don't go for a trend. Don't go for pattern. Don't go for color. Do it in linen or in leather or in cotton duck -- something that's just durable and is going to stand the test of time, and the style that works with whatever you evolve to be, as far as your sort of design personality as the years go on. Second to that, a vintage or antique chest of drawers will last forever. You can use it in the bedroom, in the dining room as a side board, in the entry. And also a beautiful mirror is something that is really hard to get tired of.
Emily Johnston of Material Girls Blog: I live in a teeny tiny cottage in Dallas and it's about 1000 square feet and I was wondering, what are your favorite design tricks for really small spaces?
Nate Berkus: The first one is actually what not to do, and it's not to use small scale furniture in a small space, which I know is kind of counterintuitive. I just don't believe in apartment sized or small scaled things. Because I think the mistake that people make is, they buy the apartment sized sofa and they buy the tiny scaled chairs or the table that really just fits two people and no one's comfortable. So, I'd rather sacrifice and have a real grown up, adult size sofa and maybe a pair of small slipper chairs or dining chairs used as extra seating in the living room than have everything be diminutive in scale. The other thing is, I love the idea of using large scaled artwork on the wall instead of lots of little things. You do have to measure, obviously, because the worst part of design is when you buy something that doesn't work. But, you know, if you've got the dimensions of your room and you lay out everything on the floor with painter's tape or draw out a floor plan, I think more is more and real scale is always better.
Linda Sellers of LindaSellers.com: I'm always looking for decorating shortcuts. Duct tape and pipe cleaners are some of my best friends, but what is your favorite decorating shortcut?
Nate Berkus: My favorite all-time decorating shortcut is to use bedding -- like bed sheets in a pattern and spray starch, and if you submerge the sheet in spray starch -- if you spray the wall and spray the sheet until it's totally saturated -- you can literally smooth it out on a [drywall or plaster] wall. And when the starch dries the sheet sticks and you can trim the edges with a razor and add grosgrain ribbon or ribbon around the borders, or whatever you want to do. But, you can literally upholster an entire room of white walls with a beautiful pattern sheet or set of patterned sheets. And when you're tired of it, or if you move, if you're renting, it peels off without leaving a mark on the wall. It's like a miracle. I've shown it [on TV] and the instructions are on my website.
Beth Anderson of Chic Gallery Magazine: What is your number one tip for personalizing your living space?
Nate Berkus: Books and framed photos. I've never seen a well-designed room without either.
Beth Anderson of Chic Gallery Magazine: On a tight budget, what is the single most important thing [to] look for to update home décor?
Nate Berkus: If you really want to have a beautiful room on a budget you have to do some leg work. Go to Goodwill and thrift stores and buy dresses or old cashmere sweaters or beautiful printed shirts, and turn them into pillows. Another tip is to update your lampshades. You can go to Target and get a new lampshade that will completely change the look of your existing lamp. And another tip is to paint the inside of the lampshades a soft color -- pale blue, pale pink, pale gray, which changes the whole feeling once the light is on. Then adding a collection of pottery in an accent color -- all the same or like a rainbow of greens, for instance -- on your mantle that you can find for under $5, $10 a piece if you go to a few different thrift stores and yard sales and inexpensive antiques malls is another great way of adding huge impact for not a lot of money. But, it takes effort to live beautifully and not spend a lot of money on it.
Teresa Anderson of Blissfully Domestic: What are some creative ways to display and store books?
Nate Berkus: I think a bookcase is probably one of the single most important investments anyone can make in their home, and I think the thing about it is that there needs to be a space in your home that showcases what you love and what you collect...mixing books in with decorative boxes and pottery and framed photos. I view every bookshelf as an opportunity to design something really spectacular. And I try and look at each shelf as a store display. Like what would be the great balance? Some books on the side with a decorative object, with a pair of vases, with a framed photo leaning on the back. And I don't do bookcases all in one second. I take my time and let them evolve. You can find really inexpensive options for shelving at unfinished furniture places...and have them painted or wall paper the back. I think that that's really one of the things that brings rooms to life, especially if you're a booklover like I am.
Christine Koh of Boston Mamas: I have a 6-year-old daughter and I'm pregnant with a second. I was curious if you had any quick tips to share on...the concept of getting kids who are farther apart in age to share [a room]?
Nate Berkus: Well, I think it really has to do primarily with the actual space that you're sharing, or intending to share. And if there's a way to carve out [separate spaces] in the room...I mean, obviously a baby is not going to be sort of tracking that, but as your second child gets older I think it's important for everybody just to have an area, whether that's a dresser or they each have their own side of the bed.
Christine Koh of Boston Mamas: I was thinking of a canopy for her, to create a little private area.
Nate Berkus: That could be really cool. We actually just put that on the show. You know, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony's nursery had two canopies over each crib, and we recreated that using a canopy rod which was on Overstock.com for under $30 and bed sheets that we sewed and created rod pockets -- king size bed sheets that we cut in half. And then, you could even hang above the headboard images or frame [your daughter's] artwork, or something that feels really personal for that area of the room.
Angela England of Untrained Housewife: I have three boys and one girl so I have children that are sharing a bedroom. What tips or design ideas or storage ideas do you have for kids who share a bedroom where each has kind of their own space, but then obviously there's common areas?
Nate Berkus: We're putting that exact information on our website. We did one [show] for a young boy who has to share a room with his 6-year old sister, so that really needed to be divided within the same space and we used something called a tension wall. And then we did it again [for a to-be-aired show] for two twin sisters who have completely different styles. One's a tomboy and one likes girly-girly, and so we built out a whole part of the show talking about how to decorate for those two distinct styles in the same space.
Angela England of Untrained Housewife: What are your tips for kid friendly and parent friendly common room design?
Nate Berkus: I think it's really about unconventional storage solutions, whether it's decorative baskets that are arranged as trunks or coffee tables -- they need to be sturdy, they need to have wire involved in their construction. You can use them as extra seating, but toys can go inside. And I'm always very conscious of little fingers being slammed in heavy things. So I like the idea of being able to organize a space that has storage options that kids can access themselves without getting hurt. But my fantasy room for that is really what goes up on the wall that they can't wreck. Whether it's a wall of different framed objects mixed with images, mixed with artwork, whatever -- sort of tells the story of your family and who you are, that's always a safe place to decorate with children. And then I see a very durable sectional or sofa and really cool accent pieces that already have age and patina to them so that, you know, when bananas gets smashed into the top of the side table or the vintage trunk you use as a side table, whatever it might be, it's not a crisis.
Beth Anderson of Chic Gallery Magazine: My home is full of furniture passed down from previous generations. I don't feel that it all fits my style -- do you suggest I try to update these pieces or just get rid of them?
Nate Berkus: Definitely update. One of the first things I do when I'm hired to design a space for somebody is take inventory of what they already have [for] repurposing and reusing. And, you know, adding a coat of paint and new hardware on a chest of drawers, or painting the frame of a vintage looking chair a bright color and recovering something or making a slip cover for it -- to me those are the things that add layers to a room. It's very hard to have a beautiful space when everything is new. In fact, I would say it's almost impossible. I've never been a fan of very modern interiors -- even though I think there's great modern design out there, I always mix it in with pieces that have patina and have some history and age and meaning, because otherwise I think that it's a real miss design-wise, and also the room just never feels right. And if you aren't lucky enough to have things from Grandma, then it's time to hit the flea markets and the yard sales and the estate sales to start building a collection of things that come from different periods and different times.
Teresa Anderson of Blissfully Domestic: [When my children come home] for Christmas, I like to keep my decorations fresh and new, but the kids still want to see the traditional old decorations that we had as they were growing up. How do I keep everything fresh and new looking, but yet still bring out the traditional things that they are used to?
Nate Berkus: You could create an area in your home that is more designed for you around the holidays. Whether it's a pair of vases on a chest with just greenery or something like that, but I have to say, when the traditions last that long and the kids anticipate that...I mean, my stepmom still has my stocking from when I was a kid and it still goes up on the mantle. I don't think that there's anything that beats that. The point of decorations is to welcome the ones we love. And to make the home more festive and if they're telling you that that's what they look forward to, I would deliver.
Teresa Anderson of Blissfully Domestic: I love to go to flea markets and secondhand stores and so a lot of my home is those items. At what point is it too much? Do you stop at one point and say, "I need to bring in some new items." Or is it okay to always use trash to treasure types of items?
Nate Berkus: I think it's okay to use it a lot. I would say 80% of a room can be that way, but there's something about sitting on a new, well made sofa or a pair of new club chairs. I tend to buy new upholstery because there's something about the comfort factor that might be hard to replicate when you're shopping all secondhand, but you can design an entire room with secondhand around a new sofa. Or if you have a sofa already, adding a pair of really comfortable chairs or a beautiful new bookcase filled with all of your secondhand finds creates a really nice tension in the space.
Duong Sheahan of Live Healthier and Happier: As a mom with a daughter going off to college next fall, we've already been talking about decorating; we toured this past summer and I forgot how small the dorm rooms were. What are some ways we can budget for decorations for her dorm and where [should we] shop?
Nate Berkus: Online is probably the best place to comparison shop, but the truth is, she doesn't need a ton. Some pre-fab drapery panels and a rod would be great. New bedding, a couple of foldable chairs, a bath caddy, and maybe a couple of organizational pieces that she can put on the back of the door for her shoes and belts, etc. But, you know, I think that's it; when I left for school, I took my framed photos of my friends and family and my mom got me new sheets and a new comforter and then that was really it and the rest I kind of figured out as I needed.
Katja Presnal of Skimbaco Lifestyle: Do you have some favorite places to buy home décor items in New York City?
Nate Berkus: Yes, there's a place called Showplace Antiques on 25th Street that's incredible. It's a multi dealer antiques mall. It's best on the weekends. And there's also the 26th Street Flea Market which is right across the street between 6th and 7th Avenues on 26th Street. Really, it's not to be missed. And then go to Williamsburg in Brooklyn -- I can't remember the name of the main street but it's a real pocket of up and coming home designers and interior shops that I love to go to.
Laurie Turk of Tip Junkie: I think your Nate's Crate shows are such a phenomenal idea because we want something that's easy and quick as far as service. How do you hope that people will emulate Nate's Crate?
Nate Berkus: My hope would be that people take a look around, especially at this time of the year, and think about what they can do to surprise somebody in their own life that needs something. What's incredible about having a television show is that the gestures that I make can be big, but big gestures aren't the only things that matter. And lending somebody a hand or picking up somebody's grocery bill for the week or knowing that you have a girlfriend who's totally overwhelmed and needs an hour to herself and offering that time -- all of these things are what makes us into a real community. And so I hope it inspires people to do what they can in their town and among the people that they can impact.