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.

Nate Berkus on the Things That MatterPhotograph by Frederic Larson/Corbis
The first time I walked into Fernando’s loft, I knew we’d end up together. His place was bright and light and filled with objects that he’d dragged home from Russia and Vietnam, Italy and Thailand, Patagonia and the Basque Country. His glazed pottery was from a small village in China, his incense from Esteban in Paris. His pots and pans from South America were so fine that they almost made me want to cook (I said almost). The things in his apartment and the stories that went with them opened my eyes to cultures I only dimly knew existed. Fernando made me want to watch the sun come up over the Sea of Galilee and study the tile mosaics of Marrakech and buy saffron and curry at the Malaysian bazaars. He showed me a bigger life than I’d ever dreamed for myself.

Fernando was a photographer and rarely went back to the same place twice. One day, he and I were arguing about how I never took any real vacations. I was trying to build a career, and if somebody needed me, I had to be available, so when he suggested we go off somewhere for three entire weeks, he may as well have suggested I bungee jump off the Chrysler Building. “You can make it happen,” Fernando pushed. “Where do you want to go?”

You have to pick your battles, and I knew this was a fight I was not going to win. “You decide,” I said.

He chose a little fishing village off the coast of Sri Lanka that he’d visited a decade ago, and he planned out an itinerary. We’d land in Bangkok and stay for two nights. Then we’d go to Cambodia to see the temples of Angkor, spend two nights in Sri Lanka’s largest city, Colombo, visit the tea plantations in Kandy, and end with a week on the beach.

On our first day in Bangkok, we crossed the river to have breakfast at a restaurant where the water outside the window came up to our table. You know how every great once in a while you have a conversation that stays with you forever? We looked out at the water that day and talked, really talked, about how we had both come to this place in our lives where we knew we were exactly where we were meant to be, with exactly the person we were meant to be with. Fernando hadn’t had an easy relationship with his father, and later on, he’d had a number of complicated relationships. Parts of his past clearly made him uncomfortable. On the ferry back to our hotel, he became distant and quiet. “What’s wrong?” I asked. He was worried that he’d revealed too much. The sun was out, and the sky looked like a pearl, and we sat there on the boat for a few minutes, just feeling it rock and skim across the river. “Look,” I said, “wherever you have been, whatever you have done in your life, it doesn’t matter. We’re together now.”

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Our trip was full of wonder and fun, but when we got to Colombo, our charmingly shabby hotel failed to charm Fernando, so we left a day early for the beach. As we drove, we passed two orphanages. Christmas was only a few days away, and I felt that I should stop the car and try to do something for the children, but I didn’t have the courage. I guess I was afraid of being perceived as the rich American guy who shows up unannounced and invades their space. I am still haunted by my mistake.

The Stardust Beach Hotel was owned by a Danish couple, Per and Merete. Every day, for breakfast, Per would bring bread fresh from the oven. Fernando and I swam, sunned, read, and went for walks. Our simple hut had an iron bed with a desk, a chair, and hooks for our clothing. At first, I was afraid that turning off the cell phone would leave me feeling lost. On the contrary, I felt liberated. I remember seeing a father and his son on the beach. The little boy was one of the most beautiful children I had ever seen. “Look at his face!” I said to Fernando. It was magical, this absolutely gorgeous little kid laughing with his dad.

Fernando came up with a plan to help the impoverished children we kept seeing. We’d find the 20 poorest families in the area and assemble backpacks for their children. With Per’s help, we got a list of names, and then we went into town to buy fabric (for new clothes), toys, and school supplies. For the rest of the day, we filled backpacks. We were excited about the celebration we had planned for the next day, December 26, when we’d invite the families to the beach in front of the hotel and hand out the presents.

Fernando and I were still in bed at around 9:00 the next morning when we heard a cracking sound. “What is that?” I asked. As if in response, water started trickling and then pouring into our hut. The children’s backpacks we had arranged so neatly on the floor began swirling around. The next thing I knew, it was pitch black, the roof was torn off, and Fernando and I were swept out.

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