By Janice Brown
Photo by Anthony Tortoriello | Hair and makeup by Chelo, Agency Galatea
Nate Berkus has been interested in interior design since he was strong enough to help his mom rearrange their living room furniture. Even at a young age, he was helping to create a space that worked for both his family and his dogs. Following his passion, Berkus moved on to decorating spaces for private clients, celebrities, and lucky viewers of the Oprah Winfrey Show, just to name a few. His vision begins with people and pets’ needs. He produces rooms that are inviting, livable, and full of inspiration.
Berkus loves animals as much as beautiful furniture and décor. He lives with two rescued dogs and even has future plans to expand his new Home Shopping Network line of items into the pet world. Dogs deserve to love their surroundings, too, and Berkus was the perfect person to sit down with to find out more about sharing our homes with furry, four-legged friends.
Can you tell me a little about your dogs, Henry and Emma? I know they were rescued.
Yeah. They were rescued from the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago, and they were babies when I got them. Henry was the first and then Emma a year later.
How old are they now?
Emma is 5 and a half. Henry’s 7.
Why did you choose to rescue?
I just think it’s so important. I’m really involved with animal shelters. Anytime I do a speech or something where I’m offered to make a donation to a charity of choice, it’s usually PAWS here in Chicago. I just think mutts are better. I just do.
And they’re Border Collie mixes?
Yep. I think Emma’s Border Collie/Basenji, and I think Henry’s Border Collie/Shepherd. [Emma is] the cuddler, which is one thing that I love about dogs. She’ll curl up with me, and she’ll lie next to me in bed and move her head against my face. Henry’s a bit more independent.
They kind of look alike. Did you want black and white dogs so they would go with everything?
I didn’t pick that. But I think when we were standing in a shelter with all the little faces in the cages you tend to gravitate toward something that looks familiar. That’s why I think people look like their dogs. I mean they do match my house obviously. I can’t deny it. But it wasn’t like a goal. I grew up with a Beagle and two blonde Golden Retrievers.
I know you had an “intervention” with Cesar Millan on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Have you kept up with his advice?
I did keep up with it. Essentially, it taught me how to be a better parent. At the end of the day that’s what the lesson was for me.
You learned how to be the pack leader?
Yeah, exactly, pack leader. I travel such a great deal that I have a lot of guilt about it. They’re well cared for when I travel, but when I come home and I’ve been on the road for two or three weeks, I want to see them. I want to hang out with them. I don’t want to go to dinner. I want to stay home and order food so that we can all hang out. But they know how to work me. You know, guilt-wise and stuff like that.
So given that this is our Style issue, let’s talk a bit about your favorite subject. Overall, how do you think design contributes to people and pets’ sense of well-being?
I think a house should be a home. And I think the things that make a house a home are first people, then animals, then objects that evoke a memory of something that makes you happy or tells a story or has a sense of history. And so I don’t like precious homes. I don’t design precious homes. I may use fine things, but typically 90 percent of what we use in all our projects are vintage things, which have seen wear and tear. And they’re not in perfect condition, and they’re not supposed to be.
So you think a home should be livable?
Livable. Completely. I didn’t grow up in a house that was not accessible. I grew up in a house that was nice, but my mother’s a designer as well. Our dog growing up wasn’t limited and followed us around the house.
Do you factor in certain considerations when designing homes with pets?
Yeah, I think dog hair is an issue. I use a lot of natural linen because it doesn’t show dog hair. It’s very easy to vacuum. Tweeds and men’s suiting fabrics tend to be really effective for not showing a lot of hair. Wood floors, stone floors, things that can be cleaned easily are always great to use with animals. I think really the only consideration is what rugs are made out of. A natural woven rug like sea grass or sisal is absolutely ideal because it’s made for high traffic, and it doesn’t show hair and paw marks.
Although for cats, the entire floor might become a scratching post!
It could be. I’m not the guy to go to for cat information. … I can tell you that right now. But you know I wouldn’t put a silk rug in a house with a puppy. I think that there are definitely certain concessions that you have to make. But it’s the same that you make with your children.
How much of your home was designed with your dogs in mind?
My current one in Chicago, all of it, because I had the dogs before I had my most recent apartment. But my apartment in New York doesn’t allow dogs, and it’s small. It was meant to be a pied-à-terre and not be where I live 100 percent of the time. But [with my apartment in] Chicago, there was huge consideration, even when I was with a broker. Is there a park close by? Are there other dogs in the neighborhood? Is there a zone that the dogs stay in when I’m not home that doesn’t feel like closing them in a laundry room? I think that they need space.
Are your dogs cratetrained?
No, they’re not cratetrained at all. In fact, when Henry was a baby, I tried to put him in a crate, and two minutes later, he was out sitting on the sofa. And I was like, I don’t understand. And I went back, and I made sure I fastened everything with the pliers and all that business and then put him back in. And literally 10 minutes later, he was out sitting on the sofa. So I was like OK, got the point. I carried the thing out, and that was it.
What element of your home do you and your dogs enjoy most?
We’re a movie-watching family truthfully. The dogs always sit on the sofa with me when I’m watching a movie. And Henry has a spot in the library behind the sofa in front of a floor-to-ceiling window where he can see everything. And that seems to be a pretty exciting activity for him.
I can imagine. Features like that are nice for everyone. What about other cool trends for people with pets? What have you seen out there that you like?
I have a friend who’s a fashion stylist in New York, and this is probably one of the more brilliant things I have ever seen: She has a rooftop terrace in New York City, and she had a door installed for the dog so that her dog could go out in the middle of the day and have free reign of this rooftop terrace and go to the bathroom and do whatever.
With a high, high gate, I hope!
Yeah, with a super-high gate. But also she had a security gate done out of metal because the doors are glass. So she had this security gate on the exterior and then this little area welded out for the dog as well. So it was totally secure, but it was really perfect access.
How else do you think people can draw inspiration from their pets when they’re embarking on a renovation or new construction?
I think our pets sort of tell the truth about how we live. I think that our pets navigate to certain areas within the home, and usually it’s to be around us. And so I think when you’re going through renovation, you should think about the size and space of different rooms that your pets tend to spend a lot of time in because, you know, it kind of goes back to that old question: Do you really want to devote 500 square feet to a room that’s rarely used? Or would you rather create a beautiful, multi-purpose space that’s a library, TV, and entertaining area with tons of comfortable seating because you know that’s where you’re going to spend the time? So I tend to look at a floor plan from the very beginning and think to myself: This dining room is an inappropriate amount of square footage to devote to this purpose. So how can I create something that’s more multi-functional, multi-use within the house? If you follow a dog around the house, you see they’re in the kitchen, they’re in the family room, they’re in the bedroom, as are we.
What do you want people with pets to know about designing their space?
For me, the philosophy is, if you want to have a full life, you have to make certain decisions and certain concessions. The order for design as far as priority is concerned is always people, animals, things. And that never wavers. So even if you are absolutely dying to have a look or a feeling in your home but it’s not going to be conducive to your lifestyle, then you’re making a mistake. Who wants to live in a beautiful, empty house? Not me.
What’s best on the walls?
Anything that’s wipeable. A flat paint is probably the easiest to maintain.
What about floors?
Wood and stone. [Use] carpet much, much less. If you can avoid carpet and do a natural area rug, it’s going to look better and wear better for years. I don’t use a lot of unnatural materials unless they’re super modern and have been a bit of a breakthrough. Like I think Corian is cool.
What suggestions do you have for keeping special items safely on display?
I think that you have to take into consideration what height fragile things are. I can put anything I want on my mantles, but not on a coffee table because there are tails involved. So that’s definitely something. You know the dogs are definitely going to go through phases within the home.
Do you have any secrets for keeping your home clean?
I don’t like to use a lot of chemicals in the house because [animals can get into anything]. Even in cleaning supplies, I always pay attention because they’re the ones that are an inch off the ground. So if you’re using something highly toxic to clean your floors or clean your upholstery, I think that’s something that you really need to stop and think about.
What about fur? That’s a huge problem for people. Any suggestions?
Let it go. Let it go. Let it go. It is what it is. Regular brushing can definitely cut down on shedding, but in the summer months it looks like I have carpet and I don’t!
That’s another idea!
Exactly. Just have dog-fur carpet! Overall, I think natural materials are the easiest materials to maintain—cotton, linen, wool—linen probably being the easiest. And pay attention. If you have this fantasy of having this white sofa and you have a dog like mine with black hair, it’s not going to look good. I don’t really get into covering furniture. I mean, to me, I think the house should look as it looks, regardless. I don’t cover anything with a sheet and am not planning on a line of pet-friendly slipcovers or anything like that. To me, I think that—and not everybody agrees with me—my dogs have full reign. They sleep in bed with me every night. They’ve got it all figured out.
Any tips for people decorating on a budget?
If you’re standing in front of 20 fabric swatches, consider the whole family, including the dog. And do your research. Choose materials in the beginning that will work well, rather than being disappointed and having to re-purchase something.
What do you recommend for people who just lost a pet? How can they honor their pets tastefully?
First off, hit the shelter! I don’t think that there’s any cure for that other than allowing yourself to love again. I think that there are definitely ways when you’re living with memories and everything—you don’t want it to be macabre. That’s the goal. You don’t want to create a shrine. You don’t want to have the dog bowl and the leash and the collar and the photo and the candle burning. That to me is a little too overt with anything, a person or an animal. But I think that there are certain things that can be really amazing, even a photograph of one of the favorite places in the neighborhood that your dog always loved to go hanging in the kitchen that reminds you of that. Or incorporating photos in silver frames. Treat them just like people. Henry and Emma have their own sterling silver frames. That’s how it is.