Bobby Berk began recognizing how design affects our brains at an early age. He remembers sitting in his firetruck-red bedroom at age 5 or 6 and feeling anxiety from the loud color of the curtains, rugs, bedspread and even walls. Not feeling at peace in his room, he told his mom he wanted to buy new décor with his birthday money. After exchanging all the reds for blues, he immediately felt a shift in his mental state.
“I just knew there was something about blue that made me feel more relaxed,” Berk says. “I found my room to be much more of a relaxing space than this anxiety that I had when I was in there before.”
Bobby Berk’s mission to democratize design
This innate sense of the correlation between mental health and design has shaped Berk’s life and career. His new book, Right at Home: How Good Design Is Good for the Mind, offers readers tips for making a space into a sanctuary.
A guiding principle behind the book was that he didn’t simply want to create an expensive design book that would limit who could learn about design.
“I want to democratize design,” Berk says. “I want people to realize that you don’t need to hire a designer. You don’t have to have tons of money to make your space work for you. I also wanted the book to help people, and I didn’t just want it to be a book of pretty things. I’m like—why don’t I talk about how design has affected my life?”
If anyone should know about making something work with the little you have, it’s Berk, who seems to have approached his own life the way he tackles the interior design overhaul in every episode of Queer Eye—as a fixer-upper, a blank canvas, something that, with enough effort and ingenuity, he can reinvent and turn around entirely.
Finding success through failure
For someone who has made his brand so successful, Berk’s life’s journey to becoming a sought-out design maven and star on Netflix’s Queer Eye—whose seventh season just premiered—has been anything but conventional.
At age 15, feeling unwelcome in his hometown as a gay teen, he left his parents’ Missouri home. He was homeless for a while, living out of his car. At 17, he moved to Denver and worked odd jobs, including at restaurants, gas stations and retail stores. He never completed high school because he couldn’t afford to pay rent at the same time.
At 21, he fell in love with New York City and made the leap to move there. He eventually began working as the design manager at Restoration Hardware, a position he later lost over a technicality, which wasn’t the last time he’d be fired from a job—far from it.
“Successful people got to be successful by failing and being unsuccessful,” Berk says. “You know, the best lessons in life that you can learn are failures. Because failures either teach you how to do what you want to do differently to achieve that goal, or they actually teach you that the goal you thought you needed to achieve, it’s not the right journey for you. The key to success, to me, is failing. I think I’ve been fired from every single job I have ever had.”
After Restoration Hardware, Berk worked at Bed Bath & Beyond, and then at an Italian linen manufacturer, a job he lost because he butted heads with the owner, who told him he’d never amount to anything. That turned into a job with one of the retailers who carried those linens, Portico, where he worked his way up to buyer and then to head of e-commerce in 2005.
When Portico went bankrupt, Berk spun yet another opportunity. With an uncanny ability to land on his feet, catlike, he registered BobbyBerkHome.com (now bobbyberk.com) and cloned the database he had built for Portico, intending to sell furniture while looking for another job.
To his surprise, his website exceeded expectations even though online shopping was new to most people and he had to convince manufacturers to let him sell their goods. Berk credits that success with “selling yourself, not necessarily your skills.”
Eventually, Berk ended up buying out his former Italian linen boss’ Soho store, taking on his debt, partnering with him, making the store a bedding sample-sale spot and paying all the vendors back in just six months.
“I knew that if I could make this work, I could catapult myself decades past in work,” Berk says. “I could skip the line. The moment we paid off that debt, I turned the store into a Bobby Berk Home store.”
A star designer in the making
Berk’s retail business began to boom: He opened stores in Miami, Atlanta and Los Angeles (which have since closed). But his goal was never to be a retailer—it was to build his brand and put his name in the same high-end locations as brands that had been there for decades. It worked.
In 2015, BUILDER Magazine identified Berk as the most millennial designer in the world, even though he was not yet a designer. “I’ve always understood the importance of the way a space makes you feel,” Berk says.
When the magazine asked Berk to design two show homes for the International Builder Show around the time he moved to LA with his husband, he agreed, having no clue how to draw up construction documents and electrical layouts. But he Googled, YouTubed and Photoshopped his way into creating the show homes, which proved a huge success.
That led him to design other homes for a builder—he now designs all their model homes and developments—and ultimately launch his design firm, “all because I said yes to something I had no idea how to do,” Berk muses. “I knew in my heart that this was my path…. Saying yes to things you don’t necessarily know how to do at the time is the key to success.”
In 2016, Berk got a call to audition for Queer Eye and decided to take a chance on expanding his brand awareness. After a series of interviews and auditions, he landed a coveted spot among the Fab Five—and the rest is design history.
Designing your way to good mental health
The link between design and mental health that Berk writes about in Right at Home presents itself often throughout Queer Eye.
In the show, billed as “more than a makeover,” the Fab Five each take on the reinvention of an aspect of their subject’s life: fashion, grooming, culture and lifestyle, food and wine and—Berk’s domain—design. In each arena, the goal is to help that person overcome challenges and step into their best self.
“Your space really has a huge effect,” Berk says. “You know, chaos around you creates chaos in your mind. And I think where the idea [for the book] started coming to me was when I started on Queer Eye, and I would walk into our heroes’ spaces, and I could tell just by looking at their spaces: They had tell-tale signs of depression, piles of laundry in the bedroom.”
Another sign that could be indicative of a chaotic space and mental state is a messy medicine cabinet. Berk likes to say that an “organized medicine cabinet can prevent road rage.” When bottles don’t overflow and expensive creams don’t spill in the morning, people are less annoyed when they get on the road to go to work.
Determine your design aesthetic
Good design that boosts and sustains mental health starts with figuring out your design aesthetic. This entails examining the ways that color and light affect your mind. Berk’s book strategically places workpages for readers to determine hands-on what works for them.
“I really want it to be an interactive book that will help people figure out that design isn’t just for the wealthy, design isn’t just for the rich,” he says. “Design isn’t for people who ‘have good taste.’ Everyone has good taste, because what you should put in your home are the things that make you happy. And if that weird-a– tie-dye print on the wall is something that, when you walk into the room, you smile when you see it, those are the things you should put in your home, because those are the things that recharge you.”
This democratic philosophy of design, now captured in book form, is fundamental to his impact on Queer Eye—his ability to meet you where you are, look at your weird-a– tie-dye prints nonjudgmentally and turn your space into something more than it was.
Perhaps it’s an unsurprising quality for someone who was told he didn’t fit into the space in which he was born, and who fought so hard to design his own space—his own life. Not all of us have Berk’s nine lives. But, now, we have his workbook.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo by ©Sara Ligorria-Tramp/courtesy of Bobby Berk.