BY: Frazier Moore
NEW YORK – After a taping of his new weekday talk show, Nate Berkus stuck around to chat up his studio audience. Did they have a good time? Did they like what they saw? Did they have any suggestions?
Grinning, Berkus drank in the audience’s overall approval, but listened closely as one woman called for more decorating tips.
Will do, he promised, thanking her.
Then he had to go. He had to prepare for another taping in a couple of hours.
Besides the new demands of ‘The Nate Berkus Show‘ (which premieres Monday; check local listings for time), he must also juggle other enterprises like his design firm, nationally distributed home products line and schedule of personal appearances.
He arrives full-time on the syndicated scene fresh from an 8-year recurring run with the queen of daytime TV, Oprah Winfrey, on whose show he made dozens of guest appearances as her designated design expert.
There he established his zesty style (“I’ve never played anything else but myself on television,” he says), while he charmed viewers with his all-embracing vision of design.
Berkus believes that transforming your physical surroundings is a way to change your personal story. He likes stories of self-realization as much as he likes the furniture and window treatments that get you there.
“I’m as passionate about design as people who watched me on ‘Oprah’ for all these years think I am. But the focus of my show is living well,” says Berkus, munching a salad during a backstage interview between tapings. “We want the viewer left with something they didn’t know, after every show. And also to have a good time.”
The set for ‘The Nate Berkus Show‘ is clear evidence of how he’s tailoring the show to his sensibilities.
“When we started designing it, I understood that a set for a talk show could either look like a fake living room with a staircase leading nowhere — or a nightclub. Instead, I wanted something fresh and clean and serene. I wanted the set to be its own way of sharing inspiration without even saying it.”
The colors are soft — sands, grays, taupes, blues — with the audience seated at several levels, including one section in a so-called sunken mosh pit.
“Most of the furniture is vintage. All of the accessories we found in different flea markets. The books are all real books that I’ve read,” he says proudly. “It’s definitely a big reflection of me.”
And maybe most notable are the living plant walls — two verdant panels of pothos, pileas and more.
“For the boy who can’t keep a single house plant alive,” says Berkus, psyched by this home away from home, “it’s such a great thing!”
And Berkus just might offer some good gardening advice, because practical tips are part of the show’s mix. Hint from ‘The Nate Berkus Show‘: Clean your kids’ marker or crayon scrawls off the wall with hairspray or toothpaste! Who knew?!
The show won’t be particularly celebrity-driven, Berkus says, but celebs are welcome “who will have something to say, something to share. I want to see a side of them that works for my show.”
Examples: Julianne Moore, who “is totally passionate about design.” And Jamie Lee Curtis, “an organizational expert” whose home “looks like a Virgo’s fantasy!”
On Friday of premiere week, Berkus’ guest is Elizabeth Edwards. She, of course, is the wife of former North Carolina Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, from whom she separated after his acknowledgment that he had an affair and fathered a child with a videographer who had worked on his 2008 presidential campaign.
“I talked about what happened to her YESTERDAY, but I mainly wanted to talk about what’s happening for her TOMORROW,” Berkus says.
He visited her new venture in Chapel Hill, N.C. — a furniture store where she sells quality items at below wholesale.
“She’s created a family within the furniture world in North Carolina,” he says.
Berkus, who turns 39 on Sept. 17, is a boyish, buoyant force of nature.
Growing up in suburban Minneapolis, he was a youngster who preferred finding bargains at flea markets to loitering in left field for nine innings, a kid who pressed his chums into helping rearrange his bedroom layout when they came for a sleepover.
At 24, he formed the Chicago-based Nate Berkus Associates design firm. Then, a few years later, a chance meeting with a producer from ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show‘ led to an assignment to make over a tiny residential space for a segment on her program.
Soon, he was not only an acclaimed designer, but also a TV star.
Then tragedy struck. He and his partner, photographer Fernando Bengoechea, were vacationing in Sri Lanka on Dec. 26, 2004, when the tsunami that killed more than 200,000 washed away their hut.
Three weeks later, the bereaved Berkus appeared on ‘Oprah Winfrey‘ to tell of losing his partner and to appeal for donations to rebuild the devastated village they had been visiting. He raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from viewers. “That was the moment of crystallization for me about the power of TV,” he says.
Now he’s eager to harness that power on his new TV series, though he’s beginning to appreciate the difference between being a guest on someone else’s show and hosting your own.
“Already for me,” he says, “it’s been a process of self-discovery.”
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