To Bobby Berk, Good Home Design Is the Most Profound Act of Self Care

Photo: Max Montgomery/W+G Creative
Well before design expert and Emmy-nominated TV host Bobby Berk could identify his instinct for design, he could feel it in his bones. He encountered that feeling for the first time at age five, sitting in a bedroom that was flush with red—red bedspread, red pillows, red curtains—everything in a firetruck hue that his mother figured was apropos for a little boy. “I wasn’t able to articulate the fact that this color gave me anxiety, but I could tell that I didn’t feel calm, and I felt that blue would make me feel better,” he tells me. So, he saved up his birthday checks until he could afford blue linens in what would become his first ever room makeover.

Experts In This Article
  • Bobby Berk, design expert, Emmy-nominated TV host, and author

Though Berk didn’t quite realize it then, this formative experience laid the early foundations of his current modus operandi: The heart of good home design isn’t just in how it looks, but in how it feels to the person who’s living within it. As Berk outlines in his first book, out September 12, Right at Home: How Good Design Is Good for the Mind, when you take care to design a space with your happiness, comfort, and style in mind, it’ll take care of you right back.

In the book, Berk unveils the ways in which design has had a profound impact on his mental state over the years, and then shares actionable how-tos for designing a home that feels and functions like a safe haven—one that adds to, rather than detracts from, your sense of peace.

“When it comes to a home, the biggest feeling for me is [that of] feeling safe and secure.” —Bobby Berk, design expert and Emmy-nominated TV host

“When it comes to a home, the biggest feeling for me is [that of] feeling safe and secure,” he says. He only fully grasped the gravity of this feeling after finding himself without a home, couch-surfing or sleeping in his car or on the street during his teenage years. The first apartment he could afford was a lifeline, physically and mentally. “Going from not having that sense of safety to having that feeling, and seeing the drastic difference it made for my mental health—that’s what put me on the trajectory to be a designer and to share that feeling with others,” he says.

In honor of his book launch, I talked with Berk about what it really means to find your personal style and why it matters so much for creating a space that best supports you, plus the key elements of home design that can boost your mood and soothe your senses.

Well+Good: Your book, Right at Home, emphasizes the importance of designing your home in a way that personally resonates with you. What would you tell someone who is struggling to figure out their design style?

Bobby Berk: I’d start by asking them about things that are completely unrelated to design—because ultimately those are the things that you want in your home because they're the things that make you happy.

I remember, years ago on Queer Eye, we had a hero whose name was Remy, and he had inherited his grandmother's house. While his granny was stylish and had such a cool house, it was not the home of a 27-year-old bachelor, and he didn't really know what to do with it.

Back in the beginning of the show, I would ask people, “What's your design aesthetic?” And they'd be like, “I don't know.” Or, they'd say something that I knew wasn't really them, but was just something they had heard—like “French industrial,” for example. And I’d be like, “Are you sure? Do you really know what that is?” And they'd inevitably say, “No, I just read it somewhere.”

So with Remy, I asked, “What's your favorite television show?” And he was like, “Mad Men.” And then I was like, “What's your dream vacation?” And he was like, “Cuba, and I'm also stuck in the fifties.” So I did his home in mid-century modern, and I did a really cool mural of Havana, and he walked in, and he's like, “Oh my God, this is so me. I don't understand how you were able to do that.” And basically I had just asked him about the things that he was passionate about that had nothing to do with design, and those are the things I put in his home. Because the thing is, if they fill up your cup in other ways, they’re going to fill up your cup at home, too.

W+G: What is the mental-health impact of designing a home around your personal style?

BB: It's drastic. Your home is like your phone charger. If you don't get fully charged at night by your house, you're not going to make it through the day, just like if you don’t charge your phone at night, it won’t make it through the day, either.

So, it really does have a big impact when you design based on your personal style. And it doesn't necessarily have to mean surrounding yourself with things that you go out and spend money on, either. It can be a cool rock you found on a vacation that brings you back to that moment when you were in a really great mental place every time you look at it. It can be a scent. It can be a texture that reminds you of your grandmother's sofa when you were little, during a time when you felt safe. Once you figure out what those things are, it can have a huge impact.

W+G: Are there particular design tweaks or changes that you’ve found tend to really improve how people feel at home?

BB: Lighting is super important. And while people talk about how much lighting can do for a space, they don’t really think about the way it can affect your mental state, too.

A lot of times, people are like, “Oh, I have such a hard time falling asleep at night.” And I'm like, “Well, what's your lighting plan?” Depending on what time you go to bed, it’s a good idea to start turning your lights down or turning certain lights off a couple hours beforehand—or if you can, have your lights on a dimmer because your body naturally starts producing melatonin when it gets dark.

So if you're sitting in a super bright room, your body is not naturally going to go, “Oh, hey, it's dark. I need to start preparing myself to go to sleep.” If you wait until midnight to not be in a bright room, and then you're like, “Oh, I want to go to sleep. Why does it take me an hour and a half to go to sleep?” That’s because you're not programming your body and letting your body know. You're not giving it the signal of, “Hey, I'm going to turn the lights down. You start getting ready to go to sleep.” So even just tweaking your lighting plan at night can have a big effect.

The same goes for adding plants into your space, which can be really soothing—even a fake plant can do the trick because our souls and our minds connect to nature. And when we're living in a space with greenery, it tricks your mind into seeing that texture and that color that really connect us to where we're from.

W+G: As your own style and wants and needs have evolved with time, what’s something that you’ve done to make your home work (even) better for you?

BB: Good organization has become increasingly important for me. I never really realized how important being super organized was for my mental state—even though I'm a Virgo, so I've always been mostly organized. But I used to allow the clutter to accumulate a bit more when I first moved to Los Angeles. I never did in New York, because in New York, you can't have clutter because your space is just not big enough for it. But in Los Angeles, I used to let my bedroom get a little bit out of control; it was the one space where I let myself let go a bit.

But I realized that the bedroom is actually one of the worst places to let go because then, you're sleeping in chaos. And don't get me wrong, it was never chaotic, but there was a pile of clothes here and laundry there; you go to sleep seeing those things, and you wake up seeing those things, and it actually starts to have a huge effect on your mental well-being. So, organizational methods have really been something that I've gravitated toward as I've gotten older.

W+G: What’s a simple design tip that someone might use to feel even just a little bit more comfortable and at home in their space?

BB: I always say that a can of paint can go a really long way. A lot of times, even if your walls aren’t necessarily a bad color, or maybe they’re just a little dingy or yellowish, a nice fresh coat of paint to whiten things up can help in a big, big way.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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