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Bobby Berk is best known as the man behind the miraculous makeovers on Netflix’s Queer Eye. But the design expert and Emmy-nominated TV host spent years honing his craft. His eponymous brand, which includes lifestyle destination bobbyberk.com, ranges from his interior design practice to his own Bobby Berk Collection spanning everything from furniture to wallpaper to art. ELLE DECOR executive editor Ingrid Abramovitch recently interviewed Berk on how he built his brand for Hearst’s Design U, a virtual event for design inspiration, education, and networking.
Ingrid Abramovitch: Hi Bobby, where are you joining us from today?
Bobby Berk: I am in Austin, Texas, where we are finally back to shooting season 687—just kidding—I mean season 6, of Queer Eye. I’m sitting in my Airbnb in Austin right now.
IA: I can’t wait for the new season.
BB: Me too, me too. It’s going to be interesting—in a good way. Being off for a year while we all dealt with COVID-19 has really kind of changed the way we’ve done things. We’re not going to ignore what has happened. We’re going to follow a lot of people who have been greatly affected over the last year, in good and bad ways.
IA: The audience for Design U includes many students. A lot of people starting out in their design careers would love to know how you did it. Did you always know you wanted to be a designer? How did you break in?
BB: I grew up in a little bitty small town of 600 people in the middle of Missouri, where designing wasn’t a “thing.” The only designers I knew were like Delta Burke on Designing Women. I remember as a child finding this dinosaur poster at a local Ben Franklin [store] and talking my mom into letting me redo my whole room around the colors in this poster. And just thinking about how the blues and the greens made me happy, and they were soothing.
And it kind of put that design bug inside me. And then Target did their collaboration with [the architect] Michael Graves, who designed spoons and toasters and tea kettles. They were not just utilitarian—the design of them made you happy. I realized there are people out there making things that function and spark joy. And then I dropped out of high school at 15 and moved to New York.
I started working in retail at Restoration Hardware and then a store called Portico. I worked my way up to creative director and launched their e-commerce department. When Portico unfortunately went under, that night I launched bobbyberkhome.com thinking I’d sell a sofa or two while I looked for another job. But it did well. I opened furniture stores in SoHo, Miami, Atlanta, and L.A. I was a retailer, but my passion was design—helping customers do their homes. In 2015, Builder Magazine asked me to design the show house for the International Builders Show in Las Vegas. From there I decided to focus more on interior design instead of my retail stores, and it worked for me.
And so kind of the moral of the story is there: Education is an amazing thing especially in our field. But if you haven’t had the opportunity, don’t let it stop you. Follow your passion.
IA: I think your trajectory is really interesting because it happened step-by-step. It’s the opposite of an overnight success, but of course Queer Eye took you to another level. How did that happen?
BB: My husband and I had just relocated to LA. I decided to focus solely on interior design and licensing. We had moved there at the end of 2015. In 2017, I got a call from my publicist telling me that Queer Eye was casting for a whole new version and they knew my brand and wanted to talk. I never thought I was going to get it. I was actually supposed to go on a trip to Spain that week, and I almost did not go to auditions. But luckily I did. And I went through some crazy auditions. I always say I compare it to American Idol meets speed dating meets Drag Race meets the Hunger Games.
IA: And you made it!
BB: Yeah, it was totally easy. A little dancing, a little Masked Dancer in there as well. But it was fun. I’ve met some people who will be best friends of mine for the rest of my life. It’s been an amazing opportunity to really show the world how much design affects us all. It’s not just about making things pretty. It’s about the way your home makes you feel and how it affects literally every other aspect of your life.
IA: And how did that experience of suddenly being a TV celebrity impact your brand and your business?
BB: It’s had pros and cons, actually. It’s had a great impact on the exposure of my brand and my license business and for my license partners. But it’s also had a bit of a negative effect on my design business. We work predominantly with home builders around the U.S. I noticed we stopped getting projects, and finally I had to start calling them up to ask what was going on. They said, “We didn’t think you’d want to do this anymore.” I said, “No, this is what’s fun to me!” TV is great, but designing homes is what I’m passionate about and what I love.
IA: What’s your goal with your website?
BB: Bobbyberk.com is a lifestyle destination. It’s not just about design. It’s about everything to “design your life well.” From food to travel to fashion to social issues and a lot of great educational resources for Black Lives Matter and recently the Asian hate problem. We really want to be that resource for people to come and to grow, and not just be about a pretty lamp or a place to get a sofa. We want to effect social change both in and out of the home.
IA: You have nearly three million followers on Instagram. What are some of your strategies for building your audience?
BB: I have always been very careful about the way I do it, especially because my name is the brand. People want to see you, they want to hear from you, but it’s a very fine line between showing them your business and your personality. Though it’s very important to show people who you are and what you stand for. I think some of the most successful brands in the world right now are centered on someone that you can relate to. For example, Phillip Lim has been a friend of mine for years, and I think one of the keys to his success is that he puts himself out there. People get to know him. You think, I not only love his clothes, but I want to wear his clothes because he’s such a cool person. So my advice is show people who you are and don’t be afraid to be real. Social media is so fake these days. Be real and your brand will grow.
IA: What advice do you have for people starting out today in design?
BB: Learn all the relevant software programs because your first jobs are going to be as interns with old people like me who don’t know how to use them. That will set you apart. Also, don’t be afraid to fail. And when I use the word failure, it isn’t a negative word. It is just a lesson on how to do it better the next time. Or in realizing that you need to let it go and move on and find the thing that you will be a success in. Failures are not the end. Failures are just the beginning of your next thing you’re going to succeed in.
IA: I guess we better let you get back to set.
BB: I am getting ready to head to set momentarily, actually. I’ll tell all the boys hi for you.
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