Bobby Berk is just as warm as he appears to be on Netflix’s Emmy-winning hit “Queer Eye.” When you meet him in person, he greets you with a hug and hums to John Mayer. He buzzes with gentle enthusiasm.
In our conversation for “Salon Talks,” the longtime design expert shares how he has spent his life refining his design principles which are really just the guidelines he uses every day in his personal life — principles that are the focus of his new interior design book “Right At Home.” Berk’s passion for design manifested in his life at a very young age just from simply knowing what he disliked and from there on out he has transformed countless homes for people. And he’s not done quite yet because he wants to help all of us figure out what amplifies our happiness in our living environments.
“A home is a safe space,” Berk told me on “Salon Talks,” “so it had a big effect on my life and the way I designed because I realize how important that feeling is when you haven’t had a home. It’s why I work really hard to make sure that people know that they can make it very personal.” Berk’s personal struggles and triumphs are the reason why he keenly understands and sees what people need from their living spaces. It’s why so many of the featured heroes on “Queer Eye” have such a visceral reaction to his home makeovers. He always listens, and that’s a sign of an all-knowing interiors expert but also a good human.
Watch Bobby Berk’s “Salon Talk” interview here or read a transcript below. He discusses how interior design is deeply rooted in our mental wellness and happiness, how to really make your own personal space perfect for you and most of all how life’s complicated ebbs and flows can affect how we see ourselves and the space we inhabit.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
This book really emphasizes how good design is good for the mind. How did you discover that there was a link between our homes and mental wellness?
I think the first time I put that together, even though I didn’t even realize it, was when I was five or six years old. My mom had decorated my room all red — red curtains, red bedspread, red rug, red pillows — and I just knew it did not make me feel good. At the time, as a six-year-old kid, I couldn’t articulate that it gave me anxiety, but I knew there was just something about it. I didn’t love the way it made me feel. So I saved up all my little $20 birthday checks from my grandma and my aunts and uncles, and I had my mom take me to the store and I got a blue bedspread and blue curtains, a blue rug and pillows, and this dinosaur poster with blues and greens and yellows in it because something made me feel that this made me feel good, that it was kind of zen, that it was relaxing.
Right then and there, I started putting together that your surroundings obviously have a really huge effect on your mental health and because of that you are able to make your mental health better. You’re able to achieve better mental wellness when you really do think about the things that you’re surrounding yourself with.
What does that really mean to you, “mental wellness”?
Just being the best version of yourself that you can possibly be. Of course, everybody would put a bit of a different definition on what that means for them, but for me personally, it means being the best person and version of myself that I can be. That means [being] less frustrated because my home is not in disarray or getting more feelings of achievement that helped me achieve other things by making my bed in the morning like I say I’m going to.
Why did you feel like it was important to draw that conclusion between our mental health and our homes specifically?
I felt it was very important because I think a lot of people put their home on their back burner and they think, “Oh, I should just not even worry about my home. I’m not a designer. I don’t know what I’m doing,” or, “I can’t afford a designer, so I’m just going to let it be or I’m just going to copy something I’ve seen in a magazine,” but I really want this book to help people, to give them permission to design their home exactly the way they want to.
“We’re all great designers. We all have taste. We’ve just allowed other people in the world to tell us that maybe our taste isn’t good.”
We’re all great designers. We all have taste. We’ve just allowed other people in the world to tell us that maybe our taste isn’t good, but you know what? Other people aren’t living in your house. Your friends aren’t living in your house. You are, and your home is like a phone charger. If you don’t get that phone on the charger at night, if it’s got a short in the cord, it’s not going to make it through the day because you need a good charger. Your home is your good charger, and it needs to get you through the day by charging you. The way it does that is by doing things in your home that make you thrive, that give you passion, that make you happy, not what me or anybody else says.
This book is really about what makes you happy in your home and there was a page specifically linked to grief. Why was it important to you to address the more complicated sides of mental health issues and how it affects our space?
There was an episode of my show once where we helped a hero who had just lost his wife to cancer and he had two little boys. He was moving into a new home and he was trying to start over, but obviously, his wife was his everything, and he did not want to lose those memories. He didn’t want to erase her from the home, but he knew that he couldn’t be confronted with the memories of her every single moment he looked around or he would never be whole again. Through helping him through that process, it really made me decide I wanted to put something in the book that would help people get a game plan of how to not move on, but to get better.
When you’re confronted with the same wounds every single day, by seeing memories of a person every single day, it really takes longer to heal. I wanted to give somebody permission, and I didn’t think writing this chapter would be so close to home until I lost my father a few weeks ago and I brought this book home.
I’m so sorry.
I brought this book home a couple of weeks ago, and I just had it sitting on the counter because I wanted to show my mom my new book, and I came down the next morning and she was sitting there reading that chapter crying. When I wrote it, I had no idea that this would be something that would be helping somebody so close to me, but I’m really glad I did. So this book, it’s a design book, yes, but it’s more of a self-help book, a mental wellness book that just happens to use design to help you to improve your life.
I truly realized that when I was reading it myself. How did you come up with that happiness gut checklist? That’s one of the ways to improve your mental wellness.
There’s a lot of checklists, if you notice in there, little work pages, because again, this book is all about me giving you permission to be you, to think about what makes you happy, to think about what makes you tick in your home. I really wanted you to have that actionable moment of writing out what you feel and what makes you happy.
So when was the last time you felt safe? I felt this the last time I saw this. The last time I was happiest was in blank environment. When you really start to think about, “Oh, maybe I was the happiest on this hiking trail” or this and that. You’re like, “Wait, so nature, nature actually makes me feel really good. Nature actually really clears my mind.” You need more plants. Maybe you need some photographs of those wonderful places that make you happy.
I think that gut checklist really makes you think about things that have nothing to do with design. That’s what this book is about, is thinking about things that have nothing to do with design to help you with design. I think that checklist really makes you have an actionable moment of, “Huh, I never thought about why I felt safe in this specific environment, but yeah, why wouldn’t I want some of that translated into my home?”
You did not have a home for a period of your life. How did that translate into how you design them for other people now?
It kind of goes back to that checklist of, I believe the exact one is, “When was the last time you felt safe?” It’s one of the first questions I ask because to me, first and foremost, a home is a safe space. It’s that space where you can laugh, you can cry. It’s supposed to be like your womb, your cocoon. So it had a big effect on my life and the way I designed because I realize how important that feeling is when you haven’t had a home. It’s why I work really hard to make sure that people know that they can make it very personal. They can make it a space that is all about them.
You talk about this feeling of safety. How do you make your home feel safe, calm, inspired, purposeful, like you listed in your book?
Everybody’s journey on this is different, but I definitely give a lot of tips on how I would and how I could recommend doing so. A lot of it really is organization, lighting, color. There’s a whole chapter in the book about color and teaching you what colors are calming, what colors are energizing. If you have a work from home space, don’t do a dark color, do an energizing color like blues or yellows or oranges. Orange is a statement, but there’s a whole list of colors in there that’ll teach you what different colors do and light as well.
“When I wrote it, I had no idea that this would be something that would be helping somebody so close to me, but I’m really glad I did.”
A lot of times people are like, “Oh, I kind of feel so tired when I’m in this room.” Well, light on the more blue spectrum, the sun emits blue light, we don’t really realize it, but the sun emits a blue light that is the most energizing light. So, if you’re in a space where you need to be energized, if it’s a work from home space, use a blue light.
My main important thing about this book was there’s a lot of design books out there, and this is not knocking any of them. I love them all. Anything that cultivates design makes me happy. But sometimes I’ll look at these beautiful coffee table books and I’m like, “God, this book is making me even feel bad about my space. I feel like my space is inadequate and I’m a designer.” Luckily I’m a designer, so I realized that behind this beautiful photo is a team of a half a dozen people and piles of stuff that they’ve made this shot look exactly perfect, and no one can actually live like that.
I wanted to write a book that gave people permission to feel amazing about their space, but just to learn how to zhuzh it up or to edit it a bit to where it really is functional first. Function is the mother of design for me. When I walk into a room, the first thing I think about is how I make it functional, and then I worry about how to make it pretty because it can be the most beautiful room in the world, but if it’s dysfunctional, it’s going to cause frustration, it’s going to cause annoyance, it’s going to cause anger, and that’s going to spread into every aspect of your life.
I mean, you bring up work from home. I work from home. I live in a tiny Brooklyn apartment.
I’ve been there.
I would say it’s really hard for me to separate my room and the space for work. What advice do you have for people who are still working from home and any tips and tricks that could help maintain that work-life balance?
I really feel like even if you have a small space, you still need to define your space. That definition can even be a tray, that when you have your laptop on it, you have whatever you need, and that’s what you work on. When work is over, you take that tray and you slide it under a bed or you slide it under a sofa and your work is out of view. Because there’s a lot of great things about working from home now that we’ve all discovered, but one of the things it can cause is you’re always working. You’re just like, “Yeah, it’s 9:00, but I’ll respond to that email.” No, we really need to define our work time and space. That can be just as small as I have a tray that I put my laptop on, or I literally hide my laptop at 5:00 p.m. or whenever you decide to start working.
I know it’s New York, so it’s definitely later than 5:00 p.m., but even if you don’t have a really full separate space, you need to remove the things that are of work because your home really should be that place where you’re recharging, and if you’re constantly thinking about work at home, it’s not happening.
How do we make use of that small space? How do we make it optimal for us?
Organization is key in a small space. I always say make sure you’re utilizing your real estate from top to bottom, not just from side to side. A lot of times we just think about our floor space as a one dimensional box, but think about how things go up. Make that bed a little higher so you can get a dresser underneath, go up with shelves higher, do curtains higher. Really think about your space from top to bottom, not just side to side.
How would you say that you personalized your space in your first apartment?
I mean, my first apartment in New York, I was just happy to use my tax return to get a mattress. Back then, I had no way to personalize my space. I was literally getting an air mattress that I’d have to return and exchange every other week because they would get a hole in it, and I’d have to go to that Kmart down at Astor Place to get a new one. But I think one of the most important things back then was just keeping my space organized because it had such an effect on my mental health. I didn’t have money for a dresser. I didn’t have money for hangers. I was so poor when I first moved here. I literally got free cardboard boxes and I would use those, I’d stack them to make shelves, to have places to fold my clothes. I think even if you don’t have the money to really fully personalize your space, keeping it organized is a really, really important thing for your mental health.
If you want an entirely fresh start, where do you even begin? Let’s say you’re moving into an apartment. How do you find and define what your personal style is?
“I realize how important that feeling is when you haven’t had a home.”
You know what? For me, it’s about asking questions about things that have nothing to do with design. Years ago, we had a hero on “Queer Eye,” Remy. He had inherited his home from his grandma, and she was so stylish. Her place was so cool, but it was not the home of a 27-year-old bachelor. I asked him, “What’s your design aesthetic?” And he’s like, “I have no idea.” He’s like, “That’s never been a question I’ve even thought about because I’ve never been in a position to decorate a home before. I lived with my mom or I was in college, or I had roommates. So this is the first time I’m thinking about it.” I’m like, “You’re right, you’re right. I’ve got to stop asking people what your design aesthetic is.”
There’s actually a headline of book that says, “Let’s normalize not asking somebody what their design aesthetic is. Let’s ask them about the things that make them happy.” So I’m like, “What’s your favorite TV show?” He’s like, “Oh, Mad Men.” I’m like, “’50s, mid-century.” Like, “What’s your dream vacation or the favorite vacation you’ve ever taken?” He’s like, “Cuba.” And I’m like, “Also in the ’50s.” And I was like, “All right.” So I did his home in mid-century furniture. I did a cool mural on the living room wall that’s a picture of a cafe in Havana. I did banana leaf wallpaper in the breakfast nook. He walked in and he was like, “This feels like my home, but not my home at all. Everything in here, I’m like, oh my God, that’s what I would put. Yeah, this is my dream vacation. Oh my God, this furniture.” He is like, “How did you get in my head like that?” I’m like, “I just asked you about things that made you happy.” Because again, things that make you happy are what you should infuse into your home, because that’s really what’s going to fill your cup.
How do you want people to feel after they finish reading this book?
I want them to feel empowered. I want them to feel empowered that they can be a designer too. Their taste is fine. Their taste is perfect for exactly who they are because they know themselves best. Don’t listen to other people’s opinions, don’t listen to magazine’s opinions. It’s fine to get ideas from that, but I really want this book to empower people to know that they are the master of their own destiny and their own space, and only they know their true loves and their true desires.