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Nate Berkus takes us to his old Chicago apartment

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This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of ELLE DECOR. For more stories from our archive, subscribe to ELLE DECOR All Access.


Just steps from the shore of Lake Michigan, on a tree-lined street in one of Chicago’s most historic residential blocks, Nate Berkus had a moment. The kind of “ah!” moment that often occurs during the transformations of the decorator’s house on Oprah or when unveiling a client’s newly shaped space. It was the first time he had seen the apartment he now lives in, and “it was six o’clock in the evening, and the light was starting to dim. I walked into the living room, saw the lake through the window and thought to myself, OK“, he recalls. “It was one of those moments when you realize that’s where I belong.”

Berkus’ home – he has a second home in Manhattan and shares a place in Milan with his boyfriend, Brian Atwood, the creative director of fashion company Bally – is a generously proportioned apartment that dates back to 1929. Best of all, it still reflects the elegant renovation it underwent in the late 1940s at the hands of Samuel Marx, an upper-class mid-century modern architect whose talent Berkus fervently admired. “For me, everything starts with the architecture,” says the decorator. “You can either improve it or ignore it.”

In the living room, an 18th century limestone fireplace and linen chair from Berkus; the side chair and the ceramic pineapple are Mexican.

Pieter Estersohn

Improvement was the path he chose, restoring much of Marx’s work (the post-war remodeling was done at the request of Inland Steel president Joseph L. Block). Berkus retained the slightly distressed silver leaf wall covering from the guest bedroom, which is now his office. “I like things to have a patina,” he notes. “There is something truly precious about imperfection.” Not that he hasn’t made changes, like moving a nice walk-in closet a few feet to suit his own requirements. The redesign of the bathroom as well as sensible improvements in the kitchen – the decorative Vitrolite glass panels that covered the walls were too damaged to be preserved, but the metal cabinets remain intact – completed its modernization.

“I like things to have a patina,” he notes. “There is something truly precious about imperfection.”

Berkus’ attention to detail is impeccable, and inspiring juxtapositions of texture and style infuse Marx’s distinguished rooms with even more character. An 18th century Belgian limestone fireplace houses a pile of blank birch logs which, in turn, support a perfectly placed branch of coral. In the center of the dining room stands a concrete, bronze and wood table designed by Berkus surrounded by 1940s American chairs and lit by a 1950s Italian chandelier.

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“My tastes today are pretty much the same as when I was a kid, just a little more refined,” says Berkus, a Los Angeles native who grew up in Minnesota. “I’ve always cared about how things look and how they work together.” Her respect for handmade objects developed early on while scouring flea markets with her mother, Nancy Golden, an interior designer. “For me,” adds Berkus, “it’s all about hunting.”

“Decorating is a really tedious, detailed, sometimes painful, often wonderful process,” Berkus says, “but for me, the goal is to always find that aha! moment.”

It’s clear that the man knows his prey – more than 90% of the furniture in the apartment is antique or vintage. This big-mix approach is broadcast loud and clear in the entrance, where a 1940s Jacques Adnet table is deployed near an English Regency chair that Berkus discovered at Leslie Hindman, an auction house for which he has worked over ten years ago. Combined with dozens of photographs and paintings by Jacques Villon, Günther Förg and Douglas Reid Fogelson, these objects represent more than just an equation of noble materials and investment potential. “I’m more interested in creating relationships between things than sticking to an overall concept,” explains the decorator. In fact, says Berkus, “I bought most of the things in this apartment without knowing where they would go.

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in the kitchen a 19th century architect's table and schoolboy chairs from the 50s the range is viking and the metal cupboards are original

In the kitchen, a 19th century architect’s table and 1950s school chairs; the range is signed Viking and the metal cabinets are original.
Pieter Estersohn

And therein lies the secret. Customers benefit from a more focused approach, but Berkus rarely designs its own homes with a goal in mind, choosing instead to add and subtract rooms based on mood, provocation, or opportunity to profit. from a better angle. Indeed, for him, interior design is about participating in an evolution rather than following a standard list of rules. “This lounge has gone through many different incarnations already,” Berkus says, pointing to a maze of neatly arranged seating. “The way the rooms are mapped, the way the furniture was put together – a lot of it was experimental.”

For Berkus, whose work schedule finds him one day at a Paris flea market and the next at a Chicago merchant, there’s rarely time to stop. It all sounds glamorous and carefree, but the designer doesn’t want to agree. “Decorating is a really tedious, detailed, sometimes painful, often wonderful process,” Berkus says, “but for me, the goal is to always find that aha! moment.”