Berkus 'n Linens 'n Things: 'Oprah' Star Goes Mass Market

By Jill Hudson Neal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 13, 2005

Nate Berkus, Oprah Winfrey's favorite design expert, is either an exceptionally humble young man or he plays one on TV.

The 34-year-old Chicago decorator is certainly on a roll. The Nate Berkus collection, his new line of home furnishings, debuted recently at Linens 'n Things stores nationwide to good press and positive word of mouth. His in-store appearances have been well attended, helped along by Berkus's paparazzi-ready good looks and charisma. He's even has a glossy how-to book coming out next month, just in time for Christmas gift-giving.

But it's his connection to Winfrey, a virtual Queen Midas, that gives Berkus his luster. The sizable crowd that waited for him at Linens 'N Things in Vienna last week came to check out his housewares collection -- and to get a glimpse of a talent that gets her seal of approval.

"I love Nate, I watch him all the time on Oprah," said Jody Gilbert, 51, an American Red Cross volunteer from Columbus, Ohio, visiting the Washington area. She bought a picture frame and asked someone to take a picture of herself with Berkus, who was outfitted in his trademark open-collar shirt and jeans. "Seeing him here in person is the highlight of my trip."

Whatever Winfrey touches turns to gold (think novels, diets, Dr. Phil). Earlier this week, she devoted a segment of her show to Berkus and spent nearly 10 minutes excitedly previewing his collection.

"I've never really had any expectations," said Berkus. "I am one of those people who feels really grateful and fortunate to do what I love, to reach a lot of people doing that, and to have what I know I can do well and to have the opportunities in line. And that's a rare sort of magical journey."

But you're only as good as your last makeover, Berkus says of the hugely popular interior redesigns he does for Winfrey's TV show and as a regular contributor to "O, the Oprah Magazine." "Your products are only as good as when people bring them home and use them, how they feel about the purchase."

Linens 'n Things is hoping that millions of customers feel very good indeed about Berkus's line of contemporary lamps, bedding, window treatments, tabletop items and bath accessories. After nearly two years of declining profits, the Clifton, N.J.-based chain of 516 stores last month announced that it was considering selling the company. Powerhouse retailers such as Bed Bath & Beyond and Target Corp. have cut into Linens 'n Things' market share, and the company's exclusive alliance with Berkus is seen as an attempt to improve consumers' lagging interest.

His name and design aesthetic "will bring in the incremental guest, as well as the core guest" who is a long-time customer, said Taran Chernin, vice president of product development for Linens 'n Things Inc.

The moderately priced line of house goods is extensive (nearly 600 pieces) and features the kind of accessible, muted palette that would feel right in a home outfitted in furniture from Crate & Barrel, Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn or Pier One: woven seagrass lamps ($59.99), wool window panels with fringed bottoms ($39.99 to $49.99) and autumn-colored bedding collections ($29.99 to $229.99).

Berkus started a Chicago design firm, Nate Berkus Associates, in 1995 at age 24, and was a rising star in the design world when Winfrey came calling. His elegant, confident design style and easy rapport with her and her TV "clients" made him a audience favorite.

But it was his appearance on the show in January 2005 that lifted Berkus above the pack of TV decorators. While vacationing in Sri Lanka the previous month, he and his partner, photographer Fernando Bengoechea, were swept away in the waters of the devastating tsunami that decimated Southeast Asia. Bengoechea was killed and Berkus's heart-wrenching recounting of the experience drew more than 15 million "Oprah" viewers.

His rise in the world of TV decorating comes as several designing television personalities have introduced lines of home goods. Televised design programs and makeover segments are so popular that several mass-market retailers have inked deals with show hosts. The list is long and growing: "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" host Ty Pennington has a best-selling home furnishing line at Sears. Christopher Lowell, of Discovery Channel fame, sells his home collection at the Burlington Coat Factory. Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi's home collection sits on Target's shelves, and wedding planner-to-the-stars Colin Cowie and designer and author Chris Casson Madden both have partnered with JCPenney.

But Berkus has Winfrey, and that's a huge advantage in the kind of add-water-and-stir atmosphere of the celebrity decorator home goods market, said Allen Adamson, managing director of Landor Associates, a brand consulting firm.

"Oprah has helped so many people through exposure on her show and in her magazine, and it's likely to some extent that he'll be successful simply because of his affiliation with her," Adamson said. "One of the key considerations for him will be consistency. He also has to make sure that he maintains tight control of the quality of the product and that it reflects his sensibility. When dealing with a retailer who's challenged, let's say, it's something that you have to pay attention to."

Not a problem, says Berkus.

"I don't put anything out there that I don't really feel comfortable about, that I don't feel could stand alone," he said. "If people like what they see on TV, this is an opportunity to really fold in my aesthetic to how they want to live."

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