Nate Berkus' Design Tips for Smaller Spaces, Smaller Budgets

In these difficult economic times, designer extraordinaire Nate Berkus gives Philadelphians some genius tips for living on a budget in smaller spaces

It’s a tough economy out there.  People are down-sizing, dealing with smaller budgets, and unable to buy that dream house in this unfortunate housing market. So for all of you apartment and small-home dwellers trying to make the most of the space you have, we brought in one of the top designers of our time to help you out.

Starting his second season of the self-titled The Nate Berkus Show, the man known best for being Oprah’s favorite designer stopped by NBC Philadelphia's studio to give Philadelphians his best design tips for smaller spaces.


The Splurge: Good Wine Glasses

“The splurge for me is to have a nice set of wine glasses and I think you can find them at any discount store, any Home Goods, any Loehmann’s…any Daffy’s. I think you can get away with inexpensive dinnerware, and flatware, but I think there is something about the weight of a glass that is important. We tend to bring out our glasses when people come over, and there’s something about handing a guest a well-cut wine glass that I think is really pretty.”

Budget Tip: Buy Fewer Items, but Better Quality

“I really don’t think you have to splurge on [kitchen furniture]. I think there are so many great looking foldable chairs, I think there’s so many good looking kitchen chairs that you can get for less than $100 apiece at places like Pier 1, Ikea, or CB2.

“I think that if you’re downsizing or moving into a smaller space because of the economy – don’t buy inexpensive things just to get through. It’s wasting your money. Buy less things, but buy better quality. That’s smarter in the long-term.”


The Splurge: Couch

“The splurge is without a doubt the sofa. I think that when you are buying a sofa, always buy the most classic style in the simplest fabric you can possibly find. I’ve had my living room sofa - I’ve moved it to four homes now -- and I started out in a one-bedroom apartment in Chicago. It’s the same sofa that was in my living room then.

What Nate’s sofa looks like:

“It’s a natural-colored linen sofa, English rolled-arm. You see them at Restoration Hardware, at Crate&Barrel. The expensive ones are at George Smith or Carlyle online.”

“The reason the sofa is the largest investment is because they’re not meant to be disposable. They’re meant to last for 20 years. So if you buy the most traditional one, or the one with the cleanest lines even if you’re a modernist, in a solid fabric, every time your tastes change it allows you a foundation to keep changing and letting your home evolve with your personality, without having to go buy a new piece."

Budget Tip: Buy Everything Vintage

“Eighty percent of what I use at my design firm is reclaimed, reused, re-found antiques or vintage of An antique is 100 years or older. Vintage means everything since then. There are great shops in Philly for that, and there are websites like,,, as well as all of the local flea markets and estate sales.

“You guys have the Main Line! You have all of these neighborhoods that were these incredible homes built at the turn of the century through the 1920s and they were filled with everything. The design style in Philly was packed – tables, bookshelves crammed with books, antiques, English furniture. You guys can find that stuff for such great pricing. Take the time to go to the estate sales, the yard sales, the vintage shops in town and look online.”


The Splurge: Perhaps None. Do You Really Need It?

Budget Tip: Have Your Room Do More Than One Function

“I think it’s important to be honest about if you need a dining room. Gathering around the dining table, though beautiful and an opportunity to create memories, is not how we really typically live - especially young, working people in an urban area. So be truthful with yourself. Are you really going to give up a quarter of your space for a rectangular table and six chairs if you’re only going to use it two days a year.

“I don’t mind a rectangular dining table pushed up against the wall with two lamps on it and a desk chair in the middle and a few other chairs scattered around the room, and some folding chairs in a closet.

“Take a lesson from history: People lived in one-room in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in the Northeast. Think about all the activities that a family would do in that one great room, you can divide up your space so that your room does more than one function.”


The Splurge: Good Towels and Storage

“Here’s the thing: No one wants to see your dirty conditioner bottle or your razor when they come over, so storage is really key.  There are lots of opportunities to do a vintage cabinet, store things in baskets.

“High quality towels are a must and I think that you can buy Turkish cotton pretty much anywhere.”

Budget Tip: Use a Bed Sheet for a Shower Curtain

“Instead of buying an expensive shower curtain: Take a single twin-size sheet, take the liner – mark where the holes should go on the sheet. Take it to your dry cleaner on the corner and have him or her sew button holes to align where you’ve marked it. You can find amazing patterns and textiles in the linens department on clearance and all of the sudden you’ve customized your generic bathroom and it looks great.”


The Splurge: High-Quality Sheets

“People make the mistake of thinking thread-count is the most important thing. I guarantee in Europe, they have never used that term, and that’s where the finest sheets come from.  Thread-count is really more of a marketing thing in the United States. It’s much more about the quality of the cotton and the quality of the weave.

“Sheets should be tightly woven. They should feel very very smooth. Open up the package at the store, run your finger along the sheet and you should look to see how tight the weave is. If you can see through the weave, the sheet is not well made and it’s going to pill.

“I bought $1,000 Italian sheets at Home Goods for $99. So it’s worth looking around for.”

Budget Tip: Upholstered Headboard

“The steal is the upholstered headboard, which you can find online anywhere and it always looks great. And an upholstered headboard, which you can customize by laying over a beautiful ethnic textile, or a 3x5 area rug, and you can change that out at any time. It gives your room a lot of personality.”

“Our homes should tell the story of who we are.”

Brilliant Extras:

LOFTS: “The key to living well in a loft space is dividing it into visual zones, not physical zones. People make the mistake of trying to create rooms in a loft, and so they put up dividers and temporary walls, and curtains, and it always looks very amateurish to me.

“When you have a loft, embrace a loft. Create a zone for seating and TV watching, a zone for eating, a zone for sleeping.

“The one trick that I do love is to visually divide the space and physically divide the space with a freestanding book case that you can position in the center of the room, or behind the sofa, to define the dining area from the seating area or the bedroom area from the living.

“I’ll find an extra wide bookcase from Ikea that is open on both sides. On one side I have the sofa facing one direction and on the other side it becomes the headboard for the bed facing in the opposite direction.”


“The misconception is that darker colors make a room feel smaller and I find that darker colors make a room feel grander and more intimate.

“The mistake that people make in trying to make a room look larger is not color related, it’s scale related. And it’s the hardest thing to learn and it’s the hardest thing to teach.

“The best information that I can give to your reader is: Do not buy apartment-scaled furniture, even if you’re living in a small space. I would much rather it have a regular-sized sofa that takes up a quarter of the entire room, than some tiny love seat that no one is comfortable sitting on anyway.”

The Nate Berkus Show can be seen weekdays at 2 p.m. on NBC 10.

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