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Minnesota

Native son Nate Berkus and his husband, Jeremiah Brent, have a new TV show that makes design personal.

HGTV stars Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent design homes that tell stories – and share their own. Photo courtesy of HGTV

Even the country's most-googled interior designer — one anointed by "Oprah," with merch lines at Target — can't resist reliving his snow-capped childhood.

When HGTV star Nate Berkus last visited the Minnetonka home where his mother and stepfather still reside, he passed on a beloved winter tradition to his own young kids. "He was showing them how to sled in the backyard the same way he used to sled with his sister and his brother," Berkus' husband and design partner, Jeremiah Brent, recalls on a recent call from New York. "It was really, really adorable."

The Brent-Berkus family — or, one family member, at least — even considered temporarily moving to Minnesota to wait out the pandemic.

"My stepdad offered the house, and the kids were doing Zoom school and I was like, 'This will be great,' " Berkus says. "It was on the table for sure."

"Not my table," Brent interjects, playfully bantering with his spouse, just as they do on HGTV's "The Nate & Jeremiah Home Project," the designer duo's newest and most personal collaboration.

On its face, "Home Project," which debuted in October, seems typical of the home-renovation genre. Except that along with pulling up carpet or tearing off wallpaper, Berkus and Brent peel back the layers of their clients' personalities, getting to know them through the stories of their prized possessions. This approach, the couple say, helps create not just beautiful aesthetics, but beautiful human connections.

"It's not just stepping in and making something pretty, but stepping in and really trying to understand what makes these people tick," Berkus says. "So that in the end, the home really reflects them."

At the same time, the couple reveal more about themselves by bringing the camera into their own home. Simple scenes of the dads discussing their latest project while making pancakes or building towers with their kids show how the couple's zest for design is integrated with their daily life. Through these snippets, Berkus and Brent give gay fatherhood greater visibility than, arguably, any other couple. They're also reinforcing the idea that families come in all types and deserve equal acceptance.

HGTV viewers have a window into the lives of designers and television personalities Nate Berkus, left, and Jeremiah Brent, who often are seen on camera with their children, Oskar Michael and Poppy.
HGTV viewers have a window into the lives of designers and television personalities Nate Berkus, left, and Jeremiah Brent, who often are seen on camera with their children, Oskar Michael and Poppy.

Courtesy of HGTV

Teenage designs

Berkus' penchant for design became apparent by the time he was a teenager. He was influenced, in part, by his parents, whose careers involved working with beautiful or interesting objects — his mother as an interior designer and his father as a founder of the National Sports Collectors Convention.

After their divorce, Berkus grew up mostly in Minnetonka with his mother and stepfather, who relinquished a section of their unfinished basement to the then-13-year-old. Thus ensued Berkus' first home makeover: his own bedroom and bathroom, custom designed down to the nickel-satin pulls and grass-cloth wallcovering.

While his peers played baseball or video games, Berkus spent his free time shopping. "People don't necessarily connect the Twin Cities with interior decoration, but growing up in the western suburbs of Minneapolis, there were flea markets, or Stillwater and other towns where you could go to vintage malls," Berkus says. "Downtown Hopkins was my stomping ground and I used to spend my allowance on decorative things that I would find in those big antique malls on Main Street."

By high school, Berkus had become the youngest staffer at the Ralph Lauren store in Ridgedale. He loved the job and its accompanying perks. "I was 15 and they gave me a credit card and a discount, and I was like, 'My life is complete,' " he recalls. "It was amazing. I couldn't drive, but I could charge a sweater." (Admittedly, Berkus loved the perks a bit too much. "I was extremely irresponsible with my first credit card," he says. "My stepfather had to bail me out.")

Compared with his peers, Berkus felt out of place, and restless to explore a wider world. "I was desperate to get out of the suburbs, so I used to take the bus from downtown Hopkins to Uptown and go to Ragstock and buy Army pants," he says. "I thought I was very, very cool."

Berkus' former hangout, the Ediner in Calhoun Square, is long shuttered. But he has taken his family to other Minnesota mainstays, including Leeann Chin and Perkins. ("I almost got shamed out of Perkins," Brent admits. "Because he tried to order a Perrier!" Berkus chides.) And, of course, Berkus' beloved Dairy Queen, for a chocolate-dipped vanilla cone.

While Berkus and Brent have shopped in downtown Wayzata, 50th and France, and the Galleria area, the couple are always sure to stop at H&B Gallery on Hennepin Avenue, their favorite treasure hunting spot.

But spending time with family and friends is the top priority when Berkus comes to town. "I still am very connected to Minnesota," Berkus says. "I have nieces and nephews that still live there. My parents' friends that I was raised with are all still there. And I have a lot of friends from middle school and high school that I'm still in touch with."

What former Star Tribune gossip columnist C.J. reported about Berkus avoiding his loved ones simply isn't true, he says. "I remember she wrote something once when I was in town about how I didn't call my family," Berkus says. "I called her, and I said, 'C.J., I'm staying in my childhood bedroom, so I don't need to call my family because they're next to me!' "

Those who grew up with Berkus say they knew early on he was destined for recognition — and that celebrity hasn't changed him.

"The only difference between young Nate and the superstar you see on TV today is the cameras that follow him around," notes childhood pal Ali Kaplan, a fellow style maven and editor of Twin Cities Business magazine. "There was a glow about him that tipped to big things ahead — and the good hair and piercing blue eyes didn't hurt! What makes him so engaging and adored is that he is totally himself, from his insatiable sweet tooth to his competitive spirit. He truly loves design and more importantly, the power it has to elevate our lives. "

“The Nate and Jeremiah Home Project” helps homeowners like sisters Jamie and Stephanie Tkach and Chris and Anya Hong personalize their ideal home.
“The Nate and Jeremiah Home Project” helps homeowners like sisters Jamie and Stephanie Tkach and Chris and Anya Hong personalize their ideal home.

Courtesy of HGTV

"Home Project"

Early in their relationship, Berkus and Brent, who both worked in design and television, kept their professional lives separate. Berkus was well established. He had hosted "The Nate Berkus Show," redecorated Dr. Ruth's apartment, and written two bestselling books. Brent was a cast member of "The Rachel Zoe Project" who had just started his design firm and wanted to carve out his own career path. "Initially, we were like, 'You do you, I'll do me, see you on the other side,' " Brent says.

"It was important for Jer to become who he was meant to become, and for me to not get in the way of that," Berkus adds.

But the two couldn't help but discuss their design projects when they were together, and soon they established a professional partnership, too. They've since modeled together for Banana Republic ads, hosted their first home-renovation show, "Nate & Jeremiah By Design," and collaborated on several branded product lines.

When it comes to their design philosophies, Brent tends to push Berkus, who leans more on tradition and history, to make more radical choices. But even if the two hold diverging opinions on whether you can wash pillows, or put an area rug on wall-to-wall carpet, they are aligned in their focus on personalizing their clients' designs.

"We're not trying to show you how to flip your house in three days," Brent says. "We don't want to show you how to finish it in a weekend — because we have no idea how to do that. But what we do know is the value of creating a space that tells your story and shows your experiences. The value of walking into a home and actually seeing yourself reflected in that space around you, that we do know."

Compared with other home-renovation shows, "Home Project" shines the spotlight more brightly on the homeowners. In the "edit" segment, Berkus and Brent hear the stories behind their clients' sentimental decor — such as the heirloom music box and Steinway piano that two sisters inherited from their mother — and incorporate special possessions into the redesigned space.

It's a stark contrast with other sledgehammer-happy, home-reno-show personalities, who often come off as more one-dimensional with their tough-guy demo scenes and wisecracking, goofball shtick.

"What we know as people trumps everything that we know as designers," Berkus says. "When we have the opportunity to walk into these homes and to be learning, along with the audience, about who these homeowners are, what's been important to them in their life, what joys they've experienced, what they've lost, what they hope to gain, we take all of that really seriously."

Homeowner Alex Trestik felt that sense of care when Berkus and Brent's renovation of her family's Long Island house was featured on the show. "How they are on camera is exactly how they are off camera," she says. "We were laughing and crying the entire time."

Trestik found the edit process helpful in evaluating her family's mismatched possessions. "It really does make you think that much more about what something means to you, or what you want it to mean to you in your future," she says. "They were very helpful and kind and gentle — and also funny — in guiding us through."

The result, Trestik says, is a space that feels tailored to her family and the way they live in it. "They made our house a home — it feels like us."

As seen on HGTV's “Starting Over with Nate and Jeremiah”, Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent with homeowners Chris and Anya Hong in their living room.
As seen on HGTV's “Starting Over with Nate and Jeremiah”, Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent with homeowners Chris and Anya Hong in their living room.

Courtesy of HGTV

Sharing their story

"Home Project" also differentiates itself by emphasizing Berkus and Brent's process, showing how they find ideas and conceive of designs. The duo discover inspiration everywhere — a bright red raincoat, spotted on the street, that would be a perfect color for a playroom, for example.

"Design is their life," says the show's producer, Jane Van Deuren. "They talk about it with their kids. They talk about it at the kitchen table."

Conveying that idea meant following them home, Van Deuren explains. "They just peeled it back and let us shoot them in their house doing everyday things: playing with their kids on the bed, making cookies and potty training. Their life is kind of chaotic, but it's just normal."

As society increasingly recognizes the importance of diversity and inclusion, experts say that books, movies and TV shows that act as "mirrors" (reflecting one's own race, disability, sexual orientation or other characteristics) or "windows" (offering a view into an identity different from one's own) can be powerful tools. Berkus and Brent say they feel honored to give gay parents greater visibility.

"That's the foundation of our show — that we can advocate for families that look like ours, or families that are different," Brent says. "I grew up not thinking that I could ever have a love story, let alone have children," he says.

Brent recalled a woman who recently stopped the couple on the street and told them that her son had just come out to her. Before watching their show, she said, she might have felt a sense of sadness, thinking her son wouldn't have the opportunity to fall in love or be a parent. "She said, 'I thought, You can have a family just like Nate and Jer have a family, you can have a love story,' " Brent says. "That's really what we're trying to do: help people open their minds and their hearts." 

Peterssen Keller Architecture + HNH Homes + Nate Berkus Associates - 5200 Dundee Rd, Edina, MN 55436. Designed by Nate Berkus Associates. Project was led by Lauren Buxbaum Gordon from NBA.
Peterssen Keller Architecture + HNH Homes + Nate Berkus Associates - 5200 Dundee Rd, Edina, MN 55436. Designed by Nate Berkus Associates. Project was led by Lauren Buxbaum Gordon from NBA.

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