For interiors icon Nate Berkus and his beautiful family, the magic of Montauk has proved the perfect place to call home—now more than ever.
"That's the crazy thing," says celebrity interior designer Nate Berkus when I ask him how he managed to land in Montauk just in the nick of time before the pandemic swept the globe. “We found our house last August. We renovated it last winter. It was ready in February and we moved in in March!”
Sounds like just the sort of precision timing and swift, serendipitous style Berkus is known for—and the house is not just any old house, of course. Berkus and his equally so-handsome-it-hurts husband, designer Jeremiah Brent, snatched up photographer Raphael Mazzucco’s modern Montauk marvel, which comes dripping with local, salty charm. (Think driftwood beams, rustic fireplace, koi ponds and views of Fort Pond Bay.) Add in the couple’s two adorable children—5-year-old daughter Poppy and 2-year-old Oskar—and the rescue pup Tucker to get the full perfect picture.
Despite the flawless family, life has had its challenges this year for all. The prolific pair juggled their intense careers along with parenting, and homeschooling Poppy during the pandemic. “She was in prekindergarten, so luckily for us it wasn’t like calculus that we were trying to help her with—but there’s definitely been a transition,” he says. “The children overall are doing really well. Montauk is magical—and we feel really lucky to be part of this community. We’ve taken them sledding on the dunes. We’ve taken them on long bike rides. We take them to get ice cream. They go swimming,” Berkus shares of how his brood is keeping busy this summer. Even amid all that fun, he says the couple still misses life in the city. “It was hard for us, I think, to adjust to the fact that the world as we know it in the city has changed completely and wasn’t there any longer.”
It speaks volumes that even amid the slower pace, the wildly talented designer recently debuted new collections with both The Shade Store and Kravet—and he and Brent have their new home furnishings collection, Nate + Jeremiah for Living Spaces. “You have to really like your spouse to combine your professional life with marriage. I think you really have to enjoy being around them—and we do,” Berkus says of working with Brent. “We have very different perspectives on style, but we both respect each other enough that if someone absolutely dislikes something, it’s out—and if someone is truly, truly passionate, it’s worth a conversation,” he says. “I think what keeps us sane is the fact that we do collaborate on residential design occasionally, but for the most part we both have different clients. In TV and in product design and furniture design, we work really well together. We have fun. A lot of our references come from the places that we travel—or we used to travel—and it’s great to be able to look at somebody who you’re working with and say, ‘Do you remember that color of the wood in the hotel room in Vietnam?’ and they’re like, ‘Yeah,’ and that makes it into the collection. And five minutes later you’re giving your kids a bath.”
Berkus notes he and his team have been supercareful to limit travel during this time, which is something his local clients appreciate. “I just don’t think it’s worth the health risk,” he says, noting that much of the staff has young children like him and Brent. “Luckily we have clients here in the Hamptons, which is great, so those projects have been able to move forward. We were used to working long-distance before this happened,” he says of managing his firm’s three offices in Chicago, Manhattan and Los Angeles. “I think for any businessperson, one of the things that is required is figuring out how to pivot effectively.” This pivot meant adapting both little things, like sending two sets of samples instead of one (one sent to the client via FedEx, one sent to Berkus and his team), and countless FaceTime calls with clients and vendors. “We’ve developed systems that have been very effective,” he says. “Obviously our main concern is the safety of everyone involved. Our secondary concern is to support small businesses and Black-owned businesses because we buy a lot of things every year, and we want to make sure that we’re doing our part to keep the economy going in the ways that we can.”
This year, Berkus celebrated 25 years since launching his firm, and he humbly attributes much of that success to his team—and to staying true to himself. “I don’t think that it’s possible to compartmentalize who you are in business and who you are personally, so my team and my staff know me and I know them,” he shares. “I think it’s really important to set everyone up to win and to be really successful, and I think the first thing that you do as a business owner is create an environment where people feel safe telling you the truth.”
“It’s injected an enormous amount of air and time into the creative process,” Berkus muses when I ask him how the pandemic has informed his industry and own work. “Because the pace has slowed down, I’ve found us to be much more creative than we’ve been. I think we’ve always been creative as a company, but when you have an extra week to look at something waiting for a package to arrive so that you can schedule a virtual client meeting—that time, if you spend it well, can really enhance what you’re trying to achieve.” Berkus says the biggest lesson he has learned during this unique time is that he doesn’t always need to be on an airplane to be effective. “I’m a very visual person—I always have been. I have a photographic memory, so when I see a color combination or a pattern or a line of a coffee table, I retain that, so my edit is usually pretty quick and pretty concise, and I think that that’s what’s helped me kind of keep my professional life and my personal life as in balance as possible.” Berkus hopes to maintain this newfound balance—for both himself and his team—even after the pandemic is over. “I’ve really enjoyed sitting down for every meal with my kids and teaching my daughter how to read on an app, so my great hope is obviously that my firm and I will continue to do well… and also that, not just for me but for everybody that works for me and with me, we will achieve a better balance than what we had before.”
As for what else the future holds? Rumor has it there is a potential third book, several television shows and, of course, product launches all in the works. But no matter how hectic his schedule, Berkus keeps his beautiful family a top priority. “Los Angeles was not right for us as a family,” he explains of the decision to move his family back East. “After three years of our life in Los Angeles, we just realized that the spontaneity and the energy of New York was something that we as a family couldn’t live without, that Jeremiah and I couldn’t live without, and it was also something that we wanted to instill in our children, that sense of discovery, of seeing something new every day, of meeting someone new every day, discovering a different food.”
“The funny thing is, I’ve been coming here for years,” he says of the Hamptons. “I’d like to think I was a terrific annual house guest for Marjorie Gubelmann or Katie Lee, or any of our friends out here,” Berkus says of the friends and clients he would often visit in years past. “But now that we’re a family, and we’re here, I think the main thing is the connection to nature all season. We love Montauk obviously in the summer. We love Ditch Witch. We love Umbrella Beach. We love Brown Swamp. We love Gosman’s Market, and the dock. We love the beaches on the bay side of Montauk as well—but we love it here in the winter. We were here last winter a lot, and there’s just something really fun about how quiet it is. We go hiking and on bike rides—and make snowmen outside in the yard. We light fires. For us, we didn’t buy it as a summer place—we bought it as a place where our kids could be free.”