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Photograph: Jeff Sciortino
Nate Berkus is feeling Gustavian today. As in King Gustav III, the 18th-century monarch who reigned during the golden age of design in Sweden. Actually, Berkus, 35, was feeling Gustavian at least four months ago when he started designing his 2007 spring collection for Linens ‘n Things. But today he is providing a rare glimpse into the design process for his merchandise line, and he is still, as he would say, feeling the Gustavian vibe.
“Which means I’m feeling a return to simplicity where historic materials take a casual, airy direction,” says Berkus. “I see floorboards painted milk white, chalky walls, and sunshine streaming in from every direction. A tone-on-tone palette, where the only color is from a bright bouquet of flowers and the green grass.”
That’s quite a feeling. But when Berkus designs, or even just speaks, millions of people listen-and buy. Twelve years ago, he was making a nice living in Chicago as a designer. He did tony private residences and chic commercial gigs like W Hotels and Barneys New York. Several pieces of his furniture were being sold in trade-only design marts on the East and West coasts. He worked hard, and he smiled his megawatt smile and he started building a reputation as a knowledgeable, nice young man who had a decorating style based on eclectic, textured juxtapositions. But then Oprah Winfrey invited him on one of her shows, and a design star-albeit one with the bashful enthusiasm of a puppy dog and a vocabulary that veers dangerously close to Valley Guy-was born.
Today, five years after his first appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Berkus is one of the preeminent designers in the United States. He appears regularly on Oprah and in her magazine O at Home. In 2005, he published a book, Home Rules: Transform the Place You Live into a Place You’ll Love (Hyperion), and every time he appeared at a store for a signing, the crowds reacted as if he were a rock star. “When Nate showed up at the Mall of America [in Bloomington, Minnesota] for a book signing, it was a total mob scene,” says Will Schwalbe, a senior vice president and the editor-in-chief of Hyperion. “More than 500 people were there-some had been waiting for hours, and some had flown in just to see Nate.”
Nineteen months ago, when he launched his own line of home decorating products for Linens ‘n Things, the Nate Berkus collection represented the largest brand introduction in the retailer’s history. The 600 items, which are updated every spring and fall, can be found in more than 500 Linens ‘n Things stores in 47 states and six Canadian provinces. “We find the brand has resonated with our customers,” says Bob DiNicola, the chief executive officer of Linens ‘n Things. “Nate’s vision has been an exciting addition for us.”
The Berkus headquarters are in an old warehouse on the city’s Near West Side. Thanks to the presence of the Jewell Events Catering building a block away and other service companies in the neighborhood, there is no street parking anywhere. Berkus’s ten employees have to park in the side alley and hope for the best. Inside, the building has been gutted and redone in the style of minimalist heaven. A few antiques mingle with the clean lines of light wood. The open staircase to the second floor is hell on the women who work here; how are they supposed to run up and down that in their stilettos? But the staff members are allowed to bring their dogs to work every day.
Seated at a cerused oak table in his conference room, Berkus and Tara Shade, his creative director, try to explain how this spring became Gustavian.
“To design a collection, first we talk about what the feeling is,” says Berkus. “Is it old library? Is it romance? Is it Hollywood glamour? Or is it Swedish country manor? We start conceptually, and we talk it out.”
“He is very good at conceptualizing as he talks,” says Shade. Inspiration comes from Berkus’s travels, Shade’s attendance at the Paris fashion shows, and their mutual love of shopping at flea markets.
“It goes from concept to feelings to specific materials,” says Berkus. He puts together style guides for Linens ‘n Things: collages of samples-fabrics, photos, décors, paint colors-and then they are sent to the company.