Nate Berkus: Master Declutterer

As Oprah Winfrey’s trusted on-air and magazine adviser on all matters of decorating, Nate Berkus wows America with his agility in transforming ugly-duckling homes into swans.

February 1, 2008

What’s the best decorating approach for sellers in today’s slow market?

BERKUS: Make your home feel like the most welcoming house on the block so buyers fall in love as soon as they pull up. Let them picture themselves hanging out on your front porch. A house has to be more than new tiles and a new furnace.

You encourage sellers to display family photos. Many salespeople urge them to remove personal touches. I disagree. I like a great story. When you walk into a home, you want to get a feeling for the history and spirit of the space. If you strip a home of its personality, you rob it of what matters most.

In decorating, you advise home owners to take risks. What’s an example?

BERKUS: When you walk down the street and an impeccably dressed woman passes you, you might find yourself admiring the one risk she took. Maybe it’s her striking yellow shoes, which offset her black skirt. It’s the same for your house—maybe drape a red tapestry from India over one chair.

Decorating can be pricey. What’s a good game plan?

BERKUS: Start a journal of purchases you can’t live without and be on the lookout. I stop at yard sales, flea markets, and antique stores in every city I visit.

Can you share some tips?

BERKUS: First, clean up your space. If you get rid of the clutter and mess, you can see what you have to work with. Then, divide projects into a few categories to set realistic goals—what you can do in a day, weekend, week. Most important, stop buying things just because they’re on sale. You don’t have to decorate your whole space in one trip to a store. You might find a killer couch on your first outing, or you might hold out until you find the right piece at a flea market.

What are the some of the biggest decorating mistakes?

BERKUS: The biggest is being afraid of mistakes. We all make them. You can always repaint a wall and fill a hole if you don’t like where you hung a painting. Try, or you’ll end up living with all white walls. Unless you’re ultra-modern, this isn’t going to fit the bill. Also, get organized. Clutter detracts and creates chaos. No one wants to wake up to clothes hanging on the elliptical machine each day.

Your mother is an interior decorator. Did she influence you?

BERKUS: Even though my mom (Nancy Golden) and I have very different tastes, she definitely influenced my love for interiors. I remember helping her arrange the mantel and picking fabrics as a kid. She encouraged me every step of the way.

You’re a great problem solver — hanging photos perfectly. How’d you hone your eye?

BERKUS: I just know what I like. That’s key for anyone wanting to decorate or define their space. Know how you want to live and feel when you walk into a room. If you do, you’ll have the confidence to try new things.

Are you always rearranging your New York and Chicago homes?

BERKUS: Of course. In fact, I’m typing as fast as I can because I just realized where I want to put that lamp I shipped back from Sag Harbor.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).