BY Matthew Breen
August 13 2010 5:00 AM ET
It’s no wonder Nate Berkus is a natural when it comes to his work—as a decorator and featured design expert for The Oprah Winfrey Show since 2002. He’s been preparing for these jobs—and for his new one as host of his own TV project, The Nate Berkus Show—since he was a kid.
“I was into art and design and buying things for my room at garage sales,” Berkus says of growing up in the 1980s. He was a born ringleader when it came to play with the neighborhood kids in suburban Minneapolis. “I would organize everybody, and we’d try to build forts. I held a little carnival in the backyard and invited the whole neighborhood. I was probably 8.”
Eight years ago Berkus met a producer for Oprah at an artist show in the gallery space in Berkus’s Chicago design firm. “We started talking, and the show asked me to make over a small space,” he says. It was huge exposure, but little did he or the producer know that they’d be practically inventing a new TV staple.
“There wasn’t a ton of design on TV, so there wasn’t a format for getting things done,” says Berkus, who turns 39 this month. The HGTV and DIY networks were in their infancy, and Winfrey’s producers weren’t versed in the process of interior makeovers, he says. Their shared inexperience came through in a phone call about a project that Oprah producers hoped would be Berkus’s first assignment: “They called and asked, ‘Can you get on a plane to Boston in an hour and bring every tradesperson you’ve ever worked with?’ And I said, ‘Whoa! I definitely want to be a part of this show; however, my electricians and plumbers—although they like and respect me—are not going to Boston with an hour’s notice. And neither am I.’ ” He got the producers to give him one more day to prepare for his first segment—the redesign of a 319-square-foot studio apartment—which aired in September 2002.
Berkus, who was in high school theater and made some appearances on the show his mother, Nancy Golden, hosted on DIY Network, says he isn’t prone to stage fright—not even when he first walked onto Winfrey’s set. “We had 48 hours to do a gut renovation, so I was coming off of three hours of sleep over the last three days,” he says. “And when I got to the studio and stepped out on Oprah’s stage for the first time I had a moment where I consciously decided that I was not going to be nervous. This wasn’t like me going on American Idol—I’m a horrible singer. This was an opportunity for me to go out and talk about the work I had just finished. I felt really good about it and knew it backward and forward. That’s what centered me at that moment.” The studio audience responded with a standing ovation.