Designer Nate Berkus joined Washington Post staff writer Jura Koncius recently for an online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q. Is it still possible to decorate using Oriental rugs? I have several that I dearly love. Every decorating magazine shows plain or modern patterns. I don’t want to chuck my rugs!
A. I think you have answered your own question. You love your rugs, so absolutely, yes, you should be living with them. I personally find Oriental rugs timeless. Design is really about finding a style that represents who you are and not following the trends in magazines. To update the look, consider pairing your rugs with simpler upholstery.
Q. I’ve lived in my house for four years, and I still can’t decorate the fireplace mantel. Any ideas?
A. For the mantel, I typically go with one of two choices: a large statement piece like a mirror, painting or photograph hung above it, or several smaller framed pieces leaning against the wall. If you choose the first option, keep the accessories on the mantel itself simple: A beautiful pottery bowl, a pair of candlesticks or a series of handmade pottery in complementary colors would be beautiful.
Q. In honor of my house being built in the 1920s, I incorporate as many art deco elements as possible. The bathroom and kitchen are in need of major overhauls, so I’ve been looking for period-looking tile and linoleum, both in stores and online, and haven’t been able to find any. Is there a website to which you could refer me or ideas for this look? For the other rooms I’m considering wallpaper. What are the pros and cons of wallpaper as opposed to paint? The house is about 1,000 square feet, so I’m wondering whether wallpaper might make the rooms feel smaller.
A. Look at architectural salvage sites. You won’t be able to replicate every material, so look for a blend of what is classic and still produced today, such as subway tiles, that could pair well with new flooring. In terms of pros and cons with wallpaper, it really depends on the investment you want to make. Wallpaper is more expensive. I prefer to use wallpaper in smaller rooms, like a foyer or guest bath. Or pick something really spectacular in the dining room and paint the surrounding walls. I love the fact that you are respecting the home’s architecture, but the best part of a well-designed interior is respecting the history while also incorporating elements available now.
Q. Many times when I travel I’m so inspired by the landscapes and colors but dumbfounded on how I can translate them into my life. Any suggestions?
A. The best palettes for decorating have always been found in nature. Let me give you an example of how I see the world when I travel, because you can easily apply it to your life. If I’m standing on the seashore, I see the camel of the sand, the mix of blues in the water, the pale blue of the sky and the white clouds floating by. If you look closer, you’ll also notice bits of black shell in the sand. And presto, the perfect palette for a master bedroom or bathroom. Or a beachy family room that you can create wherever you are.
Q. I would love to add a mirror to my little studio but am perplexed by all the shapes and sizes.
A. A large mirror in a small space is always a good idea. My first apartment in New York was 500 square feet, and I hung a 6-by-3-foot mirror on one wall. The best part is, I’ve moved five times since then, and because I invested in that piece then, I’ve always found a place for it. Resist the urge to scale down your furniture in a small space. Keep the sofa large, and remember that no one will be comfortable in your tiny chairs!
Q. I can’t find a tile backsplash that I love enough to live with for years to come. So I’m thinking of painting the walls a high-gloss black or silver. My cabinets are white with white quartz counters, and the appliances are stainless steel. What would you do?
A. I would go with a classic subway tile. Either Carrara marble, which is readily available at home improvement stores, or a white or pale gray ceramic tile. The tile lasts longer than paint and is much more hardworking in the kitchen.
Q. Is it possible to decorate an entire apartment with midcentury modern furniture and decor without it looking dated?
A. For me, the most successful rooms are ones that are assembled over time and strike more than one note. So, the majority of pieces can be midcentury, but it’s more interesting to then add something that has nothing to do with that. Midcentury frames with fresh fabric in an all-white room can be really beautiful, and timeless, when mixed with natural and handcrafted accessories.
Q. My living room has a long window in the center of the longest wall. The sofa sits under it, and right now I have open Ikea bookshelves on either side that I want to update. (Ross had the same units in his apartment on “Friends,” so I think it’s time.) Ideally I’d like to have less furniture in the room, so I was thinking of putting a new bookshelf on just one side of the sofa/window, leaving the other corner open, but I’m such a slave to symmetry that I’m worried it will look unbalanced. Thoughts?
A. Symmetry is not always required, but it does make certain people (like me) more comfortable. It creates a sense of visual balance that can feel relaxing when you walk into a room. However, symmetry doesn’t always mean pairs of things. For example, you could have the bookcase on one side of the window, but balance it on the other side with a tall potted tree. The similar heights of the two items can create that craved symmetry for you.
Q. I am in a love/hate relationship with the open concept, which is all the rage. While I love having an open feeling on the first floor where I can see from my dining room to the kitchen to the family room, it perplexes me on how to design a cohesive space. When rooms were separated, it was easy to create a unique feel for each room. What is the best way to create that cohesive feel in an open-concept space?
A. My recommendation for the open concept is to use complementary paint colors throughout the space. Pick a palette for the home and stick to it, and make sure everything in the space is at varying heights. The problem that I see most often with the open concept is that nothing in the room is higher than the back of the sofa, but you should place a tall bookcase or armoire against one wall to draw the eyes upward to appreciate the full space.
Q. I just moved into a house with an original bathroom that is Pepto Bismol pink (pedestal sink, tub and tile). It’s going to be a while before I can renovate it. In the meantime, what is the best way to tone down the pink?
A. Home improvement stores now sell adhesive tile that is a game changer. They come in all kinds of finishes and colors. It’s brilliant and will transform your bathroom in the meantime.