Catching Up With Design Guru Bobby Berk From 'Queer Eye'
The popular interior designer and TV personality chats to Johanna Thornton about visiting New Zealand, the reality of making over people's personal spaces and breaking down stereotypes
"You guys are not afraid of black paint," says Queer Eye's interior designer Bobby Berk over the phone from Los Angeles, explaining Americans have a fear of the colour for its ability to make interiors appear darker and smaller.
"I was so excited when I got to New Zealand and saw all the interior and exterior uses of black paint. You can take the ugliest freakin' house and paint it black and all of a sudden it's super-chic and modern."
That's just one hot take from Bobby, an interior design guru with his own eponymous lifestyle brand, Bobby Berk, and a starring role in the Emmy Award-winning Netflix series Queer Eye.
The show has been put on pause due to Covid, with filming due to resume in 2021. It has given Bobby space to refocus on his interior design practice.
Bobby Berk Interiors and Design began as an online store in 2006 before expanding into furniture showrooms in New York, Miami, Florida, Atlanta and Georgia.
It was re-launched as a lifestyle website last year, BobbyBerk.com, featuring a shoppable range of his furniture and accessories, alongside editorial covering fashion, food, fitness, design "and how they affect your life and mental health. We're also social and civil rights focused."
Bobby was in New Zealand last year, travelling across the country with his husband, falling in love with the landscape — and the bold use of paint — in the process.
"We went to Auckland and around the North Island, to Wanaka, Queenstown and Mount Cook, and Christchurch to the vineyards. It was one of my favourite trips of my life. I have been pushing for New Zealand (as a filming location) from the moment we started filming (Queer Eye)."
Bobby and the Queer Eye cast have been rapturously received since their reboot of the original 2003 series Queer Eye For The Straight Guy hit television screens in 2018.
Now on its fifth season, the show features a new "Fab Five" — Antoni Porowski (food), Tan France (fashion), Karamo Brown (culture) and the effervescent grooming star Jonathan Van Ness — and a more diverse approach to the show and its subjects.
Where the original series featured a string of hapless straight men made over with "gay-approved" haircuts, homes and outfits, usually to impress a woman, the reboot places more importance on the emotional support and growth of its subjects.
Bobby says the new series has thrown off some of the stereotypes hammed up by the original Queer Eye cast, and the show is the better for it.
"In the first iteration, the main thing about the show was that they [the Fab Five] were gay. That was the novelty of the show — 'Look, there's gay people on TV!' where there wasn't before. There were those stereotypes that gay people are hairdressers and interior designers and food people; they're fashion-forward and catty and funny and bitchy. That was the way the world could relate to it and accept it."
"Being gay is way down the list of who we are. We're husbands, brothers, sisters, and parents. That was what we really wanted the world to see — we're not just these stereotypical gays. We're people first."
This depiction of the Fab Five as multi-faceted characters rather than "gay superheroes" capitalising on the comedy of gays-know-best makeovers is reflected in the treatment of the "heroes" too, who are men, women, trans, gay, straight and of all races.
"We wanted to go in and find everything great about them and build them up and teach them about self-love and self-care. I think that's really the biggest difference; that we want to empower them to see all the good things about them, not find all the bad things that maybe didn't even exist. We wanted to make a lasting difference in their lives, and the lives of the viewers."
Bobby's approach to interior design on the show is to first focus on ways to make his subject's spaces functional - whether that's their home, workspace or community centre — and then to make it look great.
"The first thing I focus on is how it's going to affect their life and their daily routine in the most positive way, thus creating better mental health. It's the functionality of the kitchen or the furniture and the organisation of it. That has a huge impact on the way people live."
The makeovers have the most wow-factor on the show, with the spaces completely revamped from top to bottom, with new paint, furniture and accessories. Bobby says he's made a concerted effort to demonstrate that these renovations are a team effort. “Throughout the season I’ve purposely tried to show more of my team."
"I can’t do anything I do without my team, it’s physically impossible.” That means about six people helping to implement his design, as well as a local construction team. It’s important to lift the curtain on the efforts behind the scene in order for the show to be modern and reflect the current climate, says Bobby.
One of Bobby's most memorable makeovers was for Wesley in season four, a 30-year-old community activist and founder of nonprofit organisation Disabled But Not Really, who is in a wheelchair after being paralysed at 24.
In the episode, Bobby reconfigures Wesley's home in Kansas City, Missouri to make it wheelchair accessible.
"For the first time he was able to see his reflection in his bathroom mirror. He put his head down on the counter and started to cry. That was the one that took a big emotional toll on me because I know that doing that home changed his life. I moved his laundry room from the basement, which he couldn't use, and it not only changed his life but his mom's because she used to come over and do his laundry because he couldn't access his basement. He is 100 per cent independent now. There's nothing in his house that he can't do."
WATCH: Make It Work With Berk - From Home
For anyone not blessed with a Bobby Berk-scale home makeover, he says the easiest way to make noticeable changes to an interior is to get rid of stuff.
"People often think they have to go out and buy new things to make their homes better but I say actually, if you just got rid of some stuff it would look better. You would be surprised at how your space can feel like a new home just by getting rid of stuff that you thought you loved."
The other is to choose things that make you happy, rather than follow trends.
"I'm so anti-trend."
Bobby prefers to stick to neutrals in his Queer Eye makeovers, and in his own range of furniture for Bobbyberk.com, which he describes as minimalist with clean lines and a mid-century Parisian vibe.
"It's just like your clothing," he says.
"It’s your accessories that really zhuzh things up. I never recommend going with a crazy-coloured sofa or print because you're going to get sick of it and need to replace it and it's going to be one more cheetah print sofa in a landfill."
An interior tweak can act as a sanity-saver as well as an aesthetic upgrade, says Bobby, especially when it comes to kitchens and bathrooms.
These are the spaces that homeowners get the most value and investment out of, "but they also give you the most value for sanity".
A streamlined bathroom or kitchen that functions well and has everything in its place does wonders for the mindset.
It's these kinds of design upgrades on the show that have a lasting impact on the heroes' lives.
"I think it's a huge reset button for them," he says.
Unlike a new haircut or a fresh outfit, their home is a permanent change. "When they see that physical manifestation in front of them of this makeover, it reminds them daily to keep up with the advice they get from the guys."