Nate Berkus Shares His #1 Career Tip for Success
Confession time: We have a major design crush on Nate Berkus. What's not to love? The charming designer to the stars is impossibly talented—have you seen his New York apartment?—he's one of Oprah Winfrey's favorites, and aside from his professional achievements, he's a dedicated family man to daughter Poppy and husband, Jeremiah Brent. We couldn't swoon any harder for this extraordinary creative mastermind. Berkus has a natural talent for creating personal spaces with a fresh modern spin, fusing ample vintage and antique finds into the mix. His trademark aesthetic is timeless, thoughtful, and tasteful—three T's we crave in our own spaces. So when we were offered a one-on-one chat with Berkus about his latest eBay Hello Spring charity auction, we jumped at the chance and quizzed him about how we can all achieve similar career success.
MYDOMAINE: How do you define success and what does it mean to you?
NATE BERKUS: I think for me success is figuring out how to do what you love every day, to balance your life. Although from the outside it appears that I have all these different endeavors, which I do, and that I must be completely consumed by them and the only direction I have in life is professional, the fact is I honor and cherish my time not working and spending it with my family every ounce as much as it matters to hop on a plane and be in a meeting.
I think that success to me, and how I define it, is creating a company with terrific people on my team. They allow me to be home on a Sunday with my daughter and husband. I think that success is also really knowing when to say no, because it is a luxury to be able to choose what you want to do and to choose what things you wish to pursue. I am very conscious of that. After 20 yeas of hard work, I think that my real definition of success is time.
MD: What are the key personality traits you need to be a successful interior designer?
NB: I think the world of design right now has been cracked open by social media and the Internet and by opportunity. The world at large has so much access now to everything that previously only designers have had, and it’s created a new league of people who are out there in the workforce doing it for themselves, sourcing clients, and launching their own designs. I think the most important thing is to remember that it’s not a hobby—it's a business—and to treat it as a business. Knowing what looks good and how pieces work well with one another is a huge part of the joy in creating, but if you don't have any system in place to run it as a company, a lot of it is lost.
MD: What advice do you have for budding interior designers who want to start on their own or have a career as successful as yours?
NB: You have to do it the real way, you have to incorporate legal and explore things that aren’t so much fun, like liability insurance and worker's comp and things like that. I have a staff of 20 and everybody has health insurance, dental insurance, and a 401(k). It isn’t just about picking pretty things and being on the lookout for beautiful objects and décor, it’s about creating a proper company that not only functions in the good times, but also in the bad times. You have to create an environment where everyone’s thoughts and idea are welcome and surround yourself with as many people you admire and respect because this will set it up for success, not for mediocrity.
MD: What is the most surprising part of your job that most people wouldn't know?
NB: I think what is most surprising to people, which is really interesting to me, is that when you’re working with a client you have to have a reason for why you made a decision or suggested something. It’s almost like one of those weird sitcom scenarios when you are presenting to a client—if you can’t defend your idea, they aren’t going to buy it; a lot of people don’t think that through when they present it. Always put yourself in a client’s shoes and ask why this colour and not that, why stone versus this latest trend that they have read about in a magazine or the latest technology, what is the reason behind what is happening, and why you are presenting what you are presenting. If you present it to them with these questions answered, it sells.
MD: You run your own company on top of being a dad to beautiful Poppy with your partner Jeremiah, what is your secret to achieving work-life balance?
NB: I’m still figuring it out. It’s certainly a conscious effort to maintain a balance. I think that any working parent understands you are faced with 25 decisions a day. Do I leave the baby and go to this meeting or do I stay with the baby? And I am a bad parent or a good parent if I choose one over the other? These are constantly circling any parent's head. My husband and I both had a conversation before we had a daughter and decided as a couple to put ourselves first. We both believe that raising a child in a stable environment when our needs are met, creates a better chance for a secure and safe home to grow up in.
MD: Do you have a morning or nightly routine that you swear by that boosts your productivity?
NB: Probably for the last 10 years I have never had the same schedule day to day, and that takes a specific personality to handle well. I don’t want to be in an office every morning from 9 to 5; that doesn’t work with my personality type. I need to be out seeing and doing things. For me, my life is normal; we have a lot of travel that comes into play. Other people might feel this is really stressful, but when you have a career where you work for yourself, you are responsible for figuring out where the next deal is coming from or what the next idea is that people are waiting to see. It is always a reality check when my parents say “You were on four flights this week, aren’t you exhausted?” and I say "No, that is what we do." But it is a specific personality type that can handle it. I had a great teacher though, seeing Oprah Winfrey navigate all these things first-hand, I mean what am I complaining about?
MD: You are selling off some of your prized possessions on eBay with all proceeds going to the American Brain Tumor Association. How did you come to work with eBay?
NB: eBay is a company that I love and one my design firm relies on when we’re sourcing. One amazing trick is to search on ebay.fr or Spanish eBay when searching for something specific. We have worked with them for a long time, so when they approached me about the Hello Spring campaign I was in. I am a crazy organised Virgo, and I am a ruthless editor about what we allow into our home. It drives me crazy to have those things under the bed or around the house that I don’t use. This also meshed with my “live with things that you love” motto.
The flip side is that almost all of us are living with things that have no meaning and are just in our homes. You have thousands of dollars sitting in your home right now and there are millions of people looking on eBay who would love those candles sticks you are never using and that bag you only wore once. So many people say to me “I would love to get my home together, I would love to buy a new sofa, I would love a new nightstand, but I just can’t afford it.” But you kind of can because you can use eBay’s professional selling service and they will sell it for you and send you a check. Everything we let into our home does matter, it reminds us of people or places, but the things that don’t matter to you anymore will end up mattering to someone else.
MD: What are some of your personal favourites that are up for auction?
NB: To be honest, it wasn’t hard to let go of these things, I am not that guy. If I decided it’s gone, it’s gone; I don’t think about it again. There are some cufflinks that I brought back from a flea market; some contemporary art that is beautiful but I took it out of storage and it just didn’t work, and some woven baskets from Mexico but the colors didn’t work out in Poppy’s nursery. I buy impulsively, but I’m usually good about getting rid of things that I don’t love. This was a good opportunity to do an overhaul of things that were just hanging around, some decorative objects, my clothing and shoes that I thought I had to have but only wore once.
Love Nate Berkus too? Shop his book The Things That Matter below.
Who is your ultimate career icon? What is the success mantra you live by? Share it with us in the comments.