Nate Berkus on the Things That Matter

The loss of his partner in the devastating 2004 tsunami underscored for Nate Berkus a guiding principle of his design career—our homes should tell our stories: who we are, whom we've loved, and what matters most.

By Nate Berkus excerpted from his book "The Things That Matter" from Reader's Digest Magazine | October 2012

Nate Berkus on the Things That MatterFernando Bengoechea/Corbis
Coming back to Chicago alone was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. When I walked into my apartment for the first time, my mom and dad—who had been divorced since I was two—were sitting on the sofa. They had been together for days, waiting for me.

I spent the first two weeks in bed, not showering, not doing much of anything but sleeping when I could and crying and smoking cigarettes. Because I was on such a crazy pharmacological cocktail—the doctors at the Sri Lankan hospital prescribed antibiotics but neglected to explain that they’d also given me Klonopin, a strong tranquilizer—it’s no wonder that I couldn’t sustain a conversation.

One of my greatest comforts was being inside a home that was overflowing with memories. Before we’d left, I’d told Fernando that the best Christmas present I could ever receive would be one of his woven photographs. Fernando had always been inspired by woven crafts. He’d been cutting up his photos, then weaving the strips together so that they resembled pictorial textiles. He sliced apart a moment and remade it on his own terms—more intricate, more fragile, more resonant. At the time I made my request, all 12 of these woven photographs were on sale at a gallery in Manhattan. Fernando was angry that I had asked him for one. The truth was, he didn’t want to sell any of them, and if he could have afforded to keep them all, he would have. He wanted to know how I could be so insensitive as to ask him for something that had been so hard to part with in the first place. Yet the day before our flight, Fernando arranged to have not one but two of them sent to the apartment. When I got home that first awful night, they were leaning against the wall in the foyer.

For about a year, I left my apartment exactly as it was. Then one day I was sitting in my living room, and I found myself wondering, What if those chairs faced the opposite direction? And what if I moved that metal bookshelf over to that wall? Then I thought, I can’t move them; I’d be moving him and the memories we shared.

In the very next instant, I realized that reshuffling interiors and surfaces was a profound part of our relationship—that the best way to honor Fernando was to follow my instincts, to mix it up and continue the experiment. Fernando was alive in all the things I surrounded myself with—he still is, however they are arranged.

The Things That Matter, copyright © 2012 by Nate Berkus, is published at $35 by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, Inc., 1745 Broadway, New York, New York 10019.

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