CHICAGO - Downsizing from a three-story town house to a high-rise rental, Southern California natives Bob and Kelly Berkus sold most of their furniture and their car before they moved to Chicago this summer for Bob to begin a master's program at the Kellogg School of Management.
Knowing they would be in their 1,400-square-foot apartment for possibly more than a year, and on a student budget, meant minimalism to the max - even with toddler daughter Kate and beagle Cole in tow.
But one other family treasure ensured their new abode would feel like home from the moment they turned the key: Bob's brother, celebrity interior designer and "Oprah" regular Nate Berkus.
He had slipped into the 32nd-floor apartment in advance and, with modest investment, no communication with Kelly and a tight timeline, he turned this furnished rental into a family refuge in, essentially, three steps that anyone can apply to their home, owned or rented.
They all flow from this:
"There's a distinction between decoration and styling," Nate said. "With styling, you take the pressure off of yourself. You take what's there, that you just don't have the option of changing, whether because of a landlord's permission or budget. Whenever I'm working with a rental, I tend to lean a little heavier on the styling side. Styling is Design Lite."
Step 1: Make a connection. The most significant of his efforts for his brother and wife was a wall of personal photos and memorabilia mingled with a couple of pieces of artwork. "Obviously, the wall of photos was an immediate way of making them feel at home in a space they had absolutely no connection to," Nate said.
Step 2: Integrate pieces with patina and age. "That's a mistake that a lot of people make - they go buy all new furniture and pots and pans, and don't understand why the place doesn't feel homey and comfortable," Nate said. "Even in a building with glass windows to the floor and modern architecture, it's important to have vintage things that have an inherent character to them, when you're working in a space that's very stark. I scoured antiques malls, looking for old books and objects," including a men's singles tennis trophy that now houses kitchen utensils.
Step 3: Think long-term, even if the address isn't. Nate focused on adding portable substance, including original artwork (such as his Francine Turk charcoal drawing - on loan). "I love the idea of living with fine art, no matter what age you are, whether it's from an art fair or a friend who is an artist."
The same goes for quality hard-bound books, such as the "Richard Avedon Photographs: 1946-2004" perched on a flannel footstool. "Young couples don't have a tremendous amount of discretionary income. But I really believe in starting libraries. Books are something you have forever. I live surrounded by books."
The ultimate goal?
"Whether you live in a rental, or you own, or your job keeps you on the go, or you're young like they are, the ultimate goal is to have a home that feels personal and layered over time," Nate says. "That whole temporary, 'I'm-going-to-sleep-on-this-futon-for-the-next-three-years thing,' I'm not a fan of."
His 2-year-old niece has made herself at home. Each day, she eventually finds her way to "her spot." "She sits on the radiator, and puts her feet in between the window and radiator and looks for yellow taxis below," Nate says.
Kate acts out her comfort level; mom Kelly articulates it.
"I feel this is the first time we've lived in a home," Kelly says. "With all the personal touches, it feels like we've lived here forever. I'd actually love to stay."
Here's how the Berkus clan turned temporary housing into a haven.
What they did:
Relocated furniture. Nate moved the landlord's two bedside tables from the master bedroom. One now resides in the foyer; the other in the living room. Nate employs this tactic in his own residences too. "I have this thing called 'Moving Day.' When I'm tired of my interiors, I walk through my house and look at furniture and think about where I could bring the piece into a new location and look at it in a new way." In other words, he shops at home first.
Added hardy but homey fabrics, including a gray flannel footstool. "There was a focus on what would be durable for a baby and dog," Nate said, "and what also would allow them as they moved to continue with these pieces and reinvent these pieces in a new city."
Created a homework nook. Nate converted the landlord's kitchen table into a living room desk so that Bob could participate in family life while dedicating hours to studies. A Pottery Barn Kids bookshelf from Kate's room was moved into the living room. "Pushing that bookshelf behind the brown chairs created almost a work zone for my brother," Nate said. "I didn't like the idea of him getting up in the middle of studying to go find a notebook or textbook in a closet somewhere."
WHAT THEY DIDN'T DO
Repaint. Nate left all the neutral walls as they were except for a single wall in Kate's room, which he painted a contrast pink to set a toddler tone. Particularly in a rental unit, "Don't assume you have to paint," Nate says. "You can be much more effective by bringing in interesting pieces of furniture and framed family photos and investing in art, which is all stuff you can take with you."