Fridays at Home: Nate Berkus

8th March 2013

The rule in my home when it comes to decorating is this: If I don’t love it, I don’t buy it. That may mean that I live without the right piece of furniture for a while. It might even mean a wall remains black for four years (ahem). But I’m not a Kirkland’s fan. I’m not going to buy something just to buy. The result is a very “me” home. It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste, I’m sure, but I love it. The downside of all those meaningful objects? Well, all that meaning. Makes even cleaning out the closet very difficult.

Via Goodreads

Via Goodreads

When I first heard about Nate Berkus’s new book, The Things That Matter, I instantly loved the title. Then, when he was a surprise guest at the Random House Reader event during BEA last year, I was (ask Lori or Tara) ridiculously excited. Like, trembling. When they finally convinced me to go up and talk to him and take a picture, I felt like I was floating – partly because he’s Nate Berkus, and partly because when he talked about treasuring the things around him, I felt he was talking directly to me.


I was the little girl who lay awake at night thinking about which route I would take if my house was suddenly on fire. Yes, I would get my family out, but I had my belongings strategically placed so that I could stuff them in my pillowcase and run. The only thing that worried me was my dollhouse. How to lug that sucker out the window?

(In answer to your unasked question, I actually did have a stomach ulcer in high school. Stress related.)

At times I’ve felt badly about this relevance I give to my belongings. Does that make me materialistic? I knew that was not likely. I’ve never had much money and certainly haven’t been wasteful. And here was Nate Berkus, a true force in the design world, telling me that a home should reflect its owner, not the decorator. As silly as it may sound, that was powerful for me.

My sister bought me Things That Matter for Christmas, and I waited until a quiet evening to pore over it. It was unexpectedly delightful. Not that I didn’t think it would be good, but as most coffee table books go, I thought it would be heavy on pictures, light on text. What I found, instead, was a lovely tribute to the things with which we surround ourselves. The book is broken up into its introduction, which Nate delivers and that had me tearing up within 12 pages as he discussed coming out to his family and later, the death of his partner. After the introduction, Nate focuses on the interesting, well-cultivated spaces of his friends. It ends with his own current space and his reflections on how he got to the place he calls home now.

Aside from Nate’s own story, the most poignant was Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s. The famous radio sex talk show host left her family home in Germany as a young girl, never to see her family again. She learned later, both of her parents died in the Holocaust. When she asked Nate to take a look at her place, she told him she wouldn’t get rid of anything. Challenged, he went to learn more about her and her things, and he shared some of the most meaningful pieces and how he crafted her space to highlight them. His reverence for her objects and her memories was touching and lovely.

At the same time, Nate also touches on the beauty of editing, and this is the heart of good design, in my opinion. Editing a room is also the reason I never feel fully pleased with a space. It’s never quite right, but as insane as that sounds, the tweaking is part of the enjoyment for someone like me, and as he talked about his own tweaking, I felt the joy he gets from crafting his house, as it’s much the same as my own joy. To physically be able to touch and move my grandmother’s sofa, to glance over at my other grandmother’s typewriter or my aunt’s paintings, books from a particular trip – these are all important to me.

The things that matter. For you, it might be something seemingly insignificant. But there is a beauty there, regardless.

If you love design or things, I’d highly recommend The Things That Matter.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

  • I am really terrible about design and tend to just have a home that’s a bunch of things that don’t go together. But lately I’ve started feeling the pull of getting rid of things with no meaning and showcasing those that do and just generally fill my house with things I want to look at. This sounds like a good book to help me gain confidence in having an “out of the mold” space.

    • YES! It’s easy, I think, to let things bunch up, especially with kids around. But donating or tossing things without function or meaning really does make me feel better.

  • heidenkind

    Would you say he’s a minimalist, then?

    • Definitely not. He likes clean lines, but he also likes “things” too much to be a true minimalist. He really has a nice style.

  • Before leaving on our big trip, Tony & I had to get rid of so much stuff, it really made us take a step back and re-evaluate our relationship with our possessions. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with hanging onto cherished items that have a real story or personal significance, but I definitely used to have a bit of a packrat mentality, though I hung onto mostly meaningless things. Far better to keep a few important ones so that you can showcase them all the better!

    • Oh, yes. And I do have a packrat mentality at times. Each time I clean the house, I try to trash or donate at least a couple of things I haven’t used or looked at since the time before. It helps ward off a bit of that. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • BelleWong

    This sounds like a beautiful read. I’ve always been one to keep tweaking a room – to me that’s the most enjoyable part of making your home your own.

  • Ugh, I feel you. I buy things that I really, really like and that have some sort of meaning, which makes it very difficult for me to change things out because I don’t want to let go of anything. Our house is very much us with all of the things that we’ve collected and I really like it like that. I love that in our new house, I finally have places to display some of the things I love. This sounds like a really good book!

    As a side note, when I was little, I too worried a lot about fires and what I would grab if my house caught on fire. For awhile, I had a bag filled with things that I thought were really important at the time hidden in my closet so if the house caught on fire, I could grab it and go! Sigh…

  • I did the ‘what to grap in a fire’ and ‘how to get out’ things too. I felt rather unique/neurotic for doing so. Guess I’m neither…

    • You are! You are neurotic, at least. ๐Ÿ˜‰ We were just both worrywarts.

  • This books sounds wonderful. I am a very creative person when I have the time! But so often, I go the easy route just to get it done because I have too much going on at any given point. I have a few special pieces that I’ve purchased over the years but really, not many. I wish I had more. I get inspired when I see your posts. Especially the ones about that lovely couch!

    • Thanks so much, Tina! I definitely love looking at books and blogs with this sort of touch, so it’s nice to know you do too. I’ve gone the easy route before, but most often, I end up not pleased with the purchase and switch out eventually. Sometimes it’s necessity.