Since appearing as a guest on Oprah in 2002, interior designer Nate Berkus (nateberkusdesign.com) has become a beloved household name in his own right. Although his eponymous TV show ended this spring after two seasons, he doesn’t show any signs of stopping with his latest projects: a 150-piece collection of affordable home decor ($6–$150) for Target (locations throughout the city; visit target.com), which hits shelves on October 21, and a stunning coffee-table book called The Things That Matter (out Tuesday 16 from Spiegel & Grau, $35), in which he profiles 14 gorgeous yet lived-in spaces, including those of notable New Yorkers such as style blogger Kelly Framel, socialite Fabiola Beracasa, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer and his own West Village pad. “It’s about filling your home with items that resonate with or speak to you, and not necessarily about stuff that already comes with a history,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just about finding objects that make what you already own feel a little bit more important.” In that spirit, we had the thrift hound—who estimates that 90 percent of the items he uses in design projects are vintage—take us shopping in the East Village to show us how it’s done.
Berkus immediately gravitated toward this 1950s fixture from Walter von Nessen, an industrial designer best known for creating the swing-arm lamp. “I tend to use vintage lighting wherever I can—it’s very rare that I find a new lamp that I love,” he admits. “This is just a super-classic design. I think stone always works with everything, and I love the scale of this.”
Hollywood Regency decorative mirror, $350, at White Trash, 304 E 5th St between First and Second Aves (212-598-5956, whitetrashnyc.com)
“That’s a beautiful piece,” marvels Berkus of this ornate mirror, although that wouldn’t stop him from tweaking it. “I would probably take the chain out, lacquer the whole thing in dark hunter green and then reinstall the chain in brass as an accent,” he notes. Alternatively, he suggests painting over the ivory details in pearl gray for a “very Dior” effect. Regardless of the finish, he has a few spots in mind for the looking glass. “I’d hang it over a fireplace or a small entryway console. Even at the end of a hallway it could be really great.”
Gilded-metal wastebasket, $150, at White Trash, 304 E 5th St between First and Second Aves (212-598-5956, whitetrashnyc.com)
“I love old gilded pieces—I think they are incredibly glamorous,” gushes Berkus, who acknowledges that a triple-digit price tag for a trash can is a bit extreme. “However, if you’re going to go there and do a beautiful vanity for yourself or leave it out by a desk, this is [more like] jewelry.”
Studio Pottery black vase, $25; and gray vase, $22; Bennington Pottery white vase, $125; and Rainbow Products bent teakwood tray, $45; all at White Trash, 304 E 5th St between First and Second Aves (212-598-5956, whitetrashnyc.com)
Berkus spotted the stout, spherical vase first and immediately paired it with its loftier light-gray mate. “When I’m shopping for vintage pottery, I tend to go for form and unified color because it makes a really big impact,” he explains. “If I were trying to fill someone’s bookshelf or fireplace mantle, I’d leave with those [two] and keep my eye open for interesting shapes the rest of the day.” However, it didn’t take that long for him to discover his missing puzzle piece (Berkus recommends grouping like objects in odd numbers): The tall lipped vessel was sitting on the other side of the room. He then arranged the trio on a round tray to create a cohesive, purposeful ensemble. “Done,” he declares. “This is ready to go on a coffee table or a side table.”
Alligator-skin frame, $65, at Archangel Antiques, 334 E 9th St between First and Second Aves (212-260-9313, archangelantiques.com)
“I collect alligator picture frames, and this one is really nicely done,” says Berkus, who often clusters his reptilian borders alongside classic silver styles. “Frames are something that you can mix old and new—it brings a little bit of tension.” To unify the look, he often prints all of the photos in black-and-white or sepia.
Snakeskin place mat, $7, at Archangel Antiques, 334 E 9th St between First and Second Aves (212-260-9313, archangelantiques.com)
Since Berkus’s home collection for Target is a long-term project that will be refreshed every few months, it gives the avid shopper a reason to indulge inhis beloved hobby of thrifting. “I’m looking for things that inspire the line all the time,” he notes, picking up a pair of mustard-colored place mats. “How sick are these? I could see doing them for Target in different bright colors, or maybe black or white patent snakeskin.”
1940s Bakelite frame, $165, at Archangel Antiques, 334 E 9th St between First and Second Aves (212-260-9313, archangelantiques.com)
While Berkus is an equal opportunist in selecting picture frames—he homed in on this Bakelite style even though it diverges from the alligator-skin and silver versions he personally collects—he has a few pet peeves when it comes to displaying them. “People always put pictures in frames as gifts and you feel obliged to display [the image] in the frame that you’re given,” he laments. “But you don’t have to. You should like the frame as much as the photo.” As for arranging them in your home, Berkus has a few ground rules. “I tend to pick one or two spaces in a room for grouping picture frames, so maybe one side table and one bookshelf area, but not all over,” he advises. “And I hate picture frames on the mantel. I think it’s a cop out—you can do better!”
Hand-carved Carnelian beaded antler-pendant necklace with turquoise skulls, $225; ’50s sterling-silver chain-link necklace, $395; and Kate Spade cork-detailed chain-link necklace, $175; all at Archangel Antiques, 334 E 9th St between First and Second Aves (212-260-9313, archangelantiques.com)
“One of the things I gravitate towards are necklaces because I’ll drape them over the base of a lamp,” says Berkus, who envisions doing just that with this trio. “I also love the idea of having a necklace sitting on a pair of coffee-table books. That appears in The Things That Matter everywhere, and it’s usually either my hand or my influence.”
Gold-trimmed canister, $8, at A Repeat Performance, 156 First Ave between 9th and 10th Sts (212-529-0832, repeatperformancenyc.com)
Although Berkus has no problem using this detailed penholder exactly as it was intended, he encourages thinking outside the box, by perhaps storing makeup brushes in it instead. “I love repurposing things,” he says. “You have a choice about what to put your toothbrush in; make it something that you’d really like to look at.”
Oval wicker basket, $10, at A Repeat Performance, 156 First Ave between 9th and 10th Sts (212-529-0832, repeatperformancenyc.com)
“Look at how beautifully this is done,” marvels Berkus of this petite lidded basket, which he would place on a bookshelf or atop a stack of books. “It’s just taking something one step further, detail-wise,” he explains. “I think a room should feel assembled or layered over time. A mistake a lot of people make is they just want to go out and furnish everything in one day, but then the home has no character, no soul—there’s no patination or story being told.”
Wedgwood ceramic dish, $35, at A Repeat Performance, 156 First Ave between 9th and 10th Sts (212-529-0832, repeatperformancenyc.com)
Another item Berkus routinely hunts for is vintage Wedgwood ceramics. “There’s a lot of it out there, so you have to be selective,” he notes. “I only collect black-and-white or gray pieces. It’s sort of easy and fun to look for when I’m out shopping, and it looks best grouped together.” He currently keeps a Wedgwood dish for soap on his bathroom sink, and plans to add a pair of vases for storing Q-tips.
Carved-wood column, $20, at A Repeat Performance, 156 First Ave between 9th and 10th Sts (212-529-0832, repeatperformancenyc.com)
“When I walk into a place, I’m always looking for the one thing that really calls out to me,” says Berkus of his secret to successful thrifting. “The truth is something’s going to find you—you’re not going to find what you’re looking for. If you keep yourself open to what discovers you, you’ll end up assembling things in your home that have meaning.” As if on cue, Berkus came across this miniature Roman column, which he supposes originally served as a table leg or part of a mirror. “I love architectural fragments, since design is so closely tied to architecture,” he says. “This would be great, mixed in with some other objects, on a chest of drawers or even the fireplace mantle.”
Felt puppets, $20 each, at A Repeat Performance, 156 First Ave between 9th and 10th Sts (212-529-0832, repeatperformancenyc.com)
These felt hand puppets are made by impoverished women in Kathmandu, Nepal, who are part of the free training program at Ghar Sita Mutu (gharsitamutu.org), a home for orphaned children run by A Repeat Performance owner Beverly Bronson. “I actually tend to use a lot of animals [in my design], typically from Mexico,” says Berkus, who has a soft spot for the charitable cause (he’s currently working on a top-secret project in the South Asian country), and plans to gift these critters to his nephew. “You could even put these on bust forms in kids’ rooms or a nursery [as decoration].”
Roost recycled wine-bottle glass, $12; and Ciovere handblown swirled glass tumbler, $45; both at Still House, 117 E 7th St between First Ave and Ave A (212-539-0200, bystillhouse.com)
To most, these artisan drinking glasses look like elegant additions to everyday place settings, but Berkus sees even more potential in them. “One of my favorite things about New York is that you can find affordable flowers in the delis, so I love the idea of tightly packed roses in a juice glass,” he muses. “You can get a dozen in there if you trim them down.”
Earth Toy blocks, 50 pieces for $33, at Still House, 117 E 7th St between First Ave and Ave A (212-539-0200, bystillhouse.com)
Made by a small Japanese company, these eco-friendly toy building blocks are comprised of coffee beans, green tea, tree bark, reclaimed sawdust and biodegradable plastic. Berkus scooped them up to give as a gift but he also sees them artfully stacked on top of books or a coffee table. “You have to be a very ruthless editor of what you let in the door,” cautions Berkus on overly employing this method. “When you look around and you can’t notice everything in the space, that’s clutter,” he explains. “When it looks methodical and intentional, then it’s not.”
Molly M Designs framed laser-cut print, $58, at Still House, 117 E 7th St between First Ave and Ave A (212-539-0200, bystillhouse.com)
Berkus bought two of these geometric, laser-cut prints by former San Francisco architect Molly McGrath (one in black, the other in light gray) for his bedroom. “I’m obsessed with these—they look like Mexican weaving,” he gushes. “Everyone is always looking for interesting things to put on their walls and I love the idea of having something so original.” Before Berkus hangs anything, he lays out the artwork on the floor as a preview. Once he’s satisfied, he plots his desired spacing on the wall using painter’s tape.
Iacoli & McAllister Hex necklace No. 2, $78, at Still House, 117 E 7th St between First Ave and Ave A (212-539-0200, bystillhouse.com)
“The big dirty secret about me is that my life is all about furniture and decor, but I [live] for jewelry,” jokes Berkus, who couldn’t resist purchasing this powder-coated brass necklace from Seattle design studio Iacoli & McAllister. “It reminds me of [fashion designer] Pierre Hardy,” he reflects. “I love the geometric shape. It will probably just sit out somewhere.”
Pyrite sun dollars, $17 each, at Still House, 117 E 7th St between First Ave and Ave A (212-539-0200, bystillhouse.com)
“I’m super big on geodes,” enthuses Berkus. “Pyrite is all over my house. It’s one of the easiest ways to incorporate nature into your home, and it’s just a little bit unexpected. And also sparkly.” This particular variation of the mineral is roughly 3 million years old and unique to Randolph County, Illinois, where it’s collected by coal miners and becoming increasingly rare.
Pyrite sand–filled glass test tubes, $10 each, at Still House, 117 E 7th St between First Ave and Ave A (212-539-0200, bystillhouse.com)
Owner Urte Tylaite personally makes these Pyrite-filled test tubes for her eclectic, design-driven boutique. Berkus found them so charming, he picked up a pair, but plans on gifting them to friends. “I tend to edit a lot, and I’ve become more selective,” he explains. “I think moving to New York two years ago really did it to me, because I had more than 550 boxes delivered from Chicago. I ended up donating a lot and shipping stuff to my brothers in California.” Berkus usually unloads his excess clothing and housewares to Housing Works (locations throughout the city; visit shop.housingworks.org).
Obscura Antiques & Oddities, 207 Ave A at 13th St (212-505-9251, obscuraantiques.com)
“I just scared myself,” jokes Berkus, surveying the taxidermied animals, human skulls and Vietnamese snake wine that fill this macabre shop. “I’ve always said you should incorporate nature into the home, and this is maybe going a little bit too far, but it’s always fun to see.”