Bobby Berk wore many hats before becoming Queer Eye's interior design expert in 2018. Raised in a small Missouri town, he dropped out of high school at 15 and worked various retail jobs in Missouri and Colorado. He moved to New York City in 2003 and, after finding success with his own online marketplace, Berk opened up the first brick-and-mortar Bobby Berk Home store in SoHo. The company later opened locations in Miami, Los Angeles and Atlanta. In 2015, Berk opened his own design firm.
Berk joined the cast of the Netflix reality show Queer Eye in 2018. The series, a revival of Bravo's Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, and it follows five lifestyle experts (known as the Fab Five) who provide lifestyle makeovers to everyday people. Berk serves as the show's interior design expert, renovating and remodeling the client's home. Queer Eye, recently released its fifth season on Netflix.
Recorded remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg and house musician Jonathan Coulton talk to Berk about learning from failure and tailoring designs for Queer Eye heroes.
Berk has been offering advice on designing virtual living spaces in Nintendo's life simulation video game, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, on Twitter. Inspired by his burgeoning career as a virtual design consultant, Berk plays a game where he has to guess the animal being described based on descriptions of the animal's "home."
On Tailoring Designs For Queer Eye's "Heroes"
"I usually go out a few weeks before the other boys. My team and I find a warehouse and we fill up all the shelves and we start ordering anything you can possibly think of. That week after I meet [that episode's hero], and I learn about them, and I learn about stories from their past...that's when I start finding out things I'm going to infuse and make it really personal to them."
On Learning From Failure
"You see where I've landed but there's been failure after failure after failure. There has been many times where I didn't know where I was paying my rent or where I was able to afford to pay for my next meal. ...There was some very hard times. It hasn't always been a success but I think the key to it has always been not looking at failure as the end. The failure is just a lesson to help you do it better the next time."
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
It's time to welcome our special guest. He's the interior design expert on the Emmy Award-winning Netflix series "Queer Eye." It's Bobby Berk. Hello, Bobby.
BOBBY BERK: Hi. Thanks for having me, guys. Very excited to be here.
EISENBERG: Thank you for joining us. You know, I am not alone with saying this. I think all of the Internet has said this. You as the design expert, you do a lot of work on this show.
BERK: Well, I mean, yes.
BERK: But I knew that going in.
BERK: Like, I knew that, you know, the design aspect of the show was going to take a whole lot longer than the cooking or the fashion or...
BERK: ...The hair, you know? And Jonathan, though, there have been haircuts like Jody in Season 3 or 4. She had that long hair she hadn't cut in 22 years. I think that took him, like, eight hours between the color and the cut. Like...
JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: (Laughter).
BERK: ...So it takes him a long time, too. But, yes, it's just...
COULTON: Some haircuts are harder to do than a kitchen renovation. It's true.
EISENBERG: Yeah, right.
BERK: You know what? In all honesty, there probably are.
EISENBERG: Less choices.
BERK: You know, I know how that kitchen is going to react to bleach.
BERK: He doesn't always know how the hair's going to react.
COULTON: That's right.
EISENBERG: And right now, you know, because of quarantine, we're all spending a lot more time in our space looking at our stuff, our things. Do you have a succinct design philosophy?
BERK: I mean, my approach to design is really about how it will make people happy, how it will make their life function better, how it will affect their mental health. Oops, I almost hit stop record on that...
EISENBERG: ***** So on the show when you - you know, you walk in to your heroes' living space, and you're thinking about functionality, pragmatism. And then you're adding that extra thing of, you know, how is it going to make them happy? That's, like, the - that's the hardest element, I imagine, because that's so specific.
BERK: So I usually go out a few weeks before the other boys. And my team and I - we find a warehouse. And we fill it full of shelves, and we start ordering, I mean, anything you could possibly think up. And then that week after I meet them, and I learn about them, and I learn about stories from their past and their families and lovers and their dream vacations and favorite shows, that's when I start finding out things that I'm really going to infuse and make it really personal for them, to where when they walk into that home, they don't feel like they're walking into a home of a stranger. They feel like they're walking into their home.
BERK: And then I have a big box truck with shelves on the sides, and I go in and I fill that box truck's full of stuff. And I'm like, all right. This feels like them. This feels like them. And then we park that in the front yard, and that's kind of our little mobile store, and we just go and start doing things.
EISENBERG: And you share a lot of your own personal story on the show. Part of that is that you've shared that you have been fired from almost every job you've ever had before owning...
BERK: Yeah, pretty much.
EISENBERG: ...Your own business, of course. Yeah. Were there any particularly glorious firings?
BERK: Yeah. I mean, I got fired from Restoration Hardware while Thom Filicia was in the store filming "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy."
COULTON: Oh wow. He was the original you - right?
BERK: Yeah. Big mistake, huge.
EISENBERG: Was it something that happened with those two situations colliding?
BERK: No. No. So I was the merchandising manager and visuals manager, so I was at the store the night before, like, getting the store perfect. You know, I'm a Virgo. Nothing but perfection is acceptable. So we were - the team and I were supposed to have left at like, 8 at night. I ended up leaving at, like, 1 in the morning. We all forgot to clock out. So next day, I get to the store. "Queer Eye" is there filming. And I go down to clock in, and I realized that we hadn't clocked out, but the general manager had assumed we left at 8 like we were scheduled to and just clocked everyone out at 8:00. I saw that. And so with another manager standing there with me, I was like, I'm fixing everyone's time, including my own. Well, changing your own time was very much against the rules.
BERK: And so the general manager reluctantly had to fire me. And like, it wasn't a, oh, you're fired. It was a, oh, why did you do this? Like, and the manager that was there with me, come to find out, like, had a - wanted my position and so wanted me out of there. And so...
BERK: She's the one that went and ratted me out. Candy (ph), I remember you.
BERK: And so, you know, she had to fire me. But it's funny. Like, I've kept in contact with that general manager throughout the years. Like, it wasn't a negative experience.
BERK: You know, it was a, I get it. It's a technicality.
EISENBERG: It was like regulations.
BERK: She was my mentor. Yeah. Yeah. And so when the press came out that I had been cast on the show, like, she sent me a DM, and she's like, aren't you glad I fired you? I'm like, yes.
BERK: I am.
EISENBERG: I mean, it's - you are very self-sufficient. You leave home at 15. You move to New York when you're 22. Short time after that, you are the creative director of Portico. But in between that, you lived in your car for two years. You had a lot of different jobs in retail and service. I just think, you know, not everyone lands where you are having to survive like that. What kept you going?
BERK: I mean, just because I, you know - you see where I landed, but, you know, there's been failure after failure after failure. There has been, you know, many times where I didn't know where I was paying my rent or where I was being able to afford my next meal. And, you know, those times - it hasn't really been that long ago.
BERK: You know, I had my own businesses for years, but there was also, you know - I opened up my first store in New York, you know, November 2007. You know, and then the market crashed in 2008. And, you know, so there was always some very - there were some very hard times. You know, it hasn't always been a success. But, you know, I think the key to it has just always been not taking - not looking at failures as the end. The failure is just a lesson to help you do it better the next time.
EISENBERG: Right. And you have been dispensing decorating tips for people's virtual homes on the social simulation Nintendo game "Animal Crossing."
EISENBERG: Yeah, you give hip tips.
EISENBERG: Hip tips. So what's a reoccurring (ph) hip tip that you're giving a lot?
BERK: Move your furniture from the walls and put it in the middle of the room. People are like, I just don't know how to spatially put it. I'm like, why is everything, like, pushed...
BERK: ...Against the walls? I'm like, put a rug in the middle of the room. Bring your furniture into the middle of the room. That's, I think, the No. 1 piece of advice I had to give people.
EISENBERG: Great. That's a great one.
COULTON: I will say that's hard for New York City living, because...
EISENBERG: It is.
COULTON: ...Sometimes the room that you're in is the size of a couch (laughter).
BERK: Agreed. Agreed. I believe it. I was in New York for 14 years. I very much get it.
EISENBERG: So we - based on that, we have a ASK ME ANOTHER challenge for you kind of about "Animal Crossing." Are you ready for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
BERK: Yes, please.
EISENBERG: OK, fantastic. For our listeners who are not familiar with "Animal Crossing," it's a game where you live on an island with a bunch of anthropomorphic animals, and it has a heavy interior design element to it. So - and in this game, you are just going to guess the animal we're talking about based on a description of its home.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) It all becomes perfectly clear right now. OK. Here's the first one. Come take a look at Lily's pad. Her decor keeps things fresh - freshwater, that is. The poster of Kermit on her wall really pops. Plus, she's got a great DIY recipe for catching flies, which pairs very well with turnips.
BERK: Could it be a frog?
EISENBERG: Why, yes, it could. Yes, it is.
EISENBERG: Since she's the world's largest bird, villager Phoebe finally broke down and paid for an expansion. Now she has room for her custom turtlenecks with extra neck. You could try holding down the B button to race her, but I doubt you'll beat the fastest bipedal species on earth.
BERK: She's the biggest bird and the fastest?
EISENBERG: World's largest bird, fastest bipedal species on earth, so yeah.
COULTON: A flightless bird.
EISENBERG: Flightless bird, yes.
BERK: Oh. Is it an ostrich?
EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right. Exactly.
EISENBERG: Yeah. Exactly. I know, ostriches...
COULTON: Did you have in your head - you were like, wait a minute. I know what the fastest bird is, and I know what the largest bird is, and they're not the same. Is that what was happening in your head (laughter)?
EISENBERG: A flightless bird is a weird, creepy thing. I will just say that.
BERK: If it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck but it's fast and big, it's an ostrich.
COULTON: That's what they say - that old expression.
EISENBERG: All right. Here's - let's see if you get this one. I have a good feeling you'll get this one. Ava finally grew up and flew the coop - sorry - co-op apartment that she shared with 15 fowl roommates who were really rustling her feathers. Now she has plenty of space to hide her eggs for the Bunny Day egg hunt. It's her first one, so she'll have to wing it.
BERK: Is it an Easter bunny? No - a chicken.
EISENBERG: A chicken. And, you know, we've been saving up as many chicken puns as we have for 10 years or so. So we were able to put them all into that one question.
COULTON: We have the big - the encyclopedia of chicken puns on our desks.
BERK: That was like a Vegas hotel and casino.
BERK: Like, the designer had all these great ideas that they've come up with over the years. And they go to the developer, and they're like, hey; we have all these great ideas. Which ones would you like to do? And the developer is like, yes. And they're like, wait. Wait. No. But which one? And he's like, yes, all of them. Let's do all of them.
EISENBERG: That's right.
COULTON: (Laughter) All right, this is your last clue. In the 4 to 6 hours that he's awake, Ozzy is constantly crafting furniture at his outdoor workbench. In those other 20-ish hours, this marsupial is either cross-breeding flowers or zoning out while chomping on eucalyptus leaves.
BERK: A koala.
COULTON: That is correct - koala.
BERK: Do you guys know why they sleep so much?
BERK: Because there's actually cyanide in eucalyptus.
BERK: It puts them to sleep.
COULTON: Oh, really?
BERK: Yeah. We learned that when we were filming in Australia. There's actually cyanide in eucalyptus that - and that's their main diet. And it just knocks them out.
COULTON: I do the same thing but with whiskey.
EISENBERG: You did amazing. Of course you did amazing. Thank you so much. The new season of "Queer Eye" is out right now. Thank you so much for joining us, Bobby.
BERK: Thank you, guys. It's such a pleasure. I'm such a fan of the show.
EISENBERG: Well, thank you. Season 5 of "Queer Eye" is available now on Netflix. ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.
COULTON: Hey. My name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.
EISENBERG: Our puzzles were written by our staff and senior writer Karen Lurie, with additional material by Ashley Brooke Roberts and Cara Weinberger. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Kiara Powell (ph), Nancy Saechao, James Farber and Rommel Wood. And this week we have to say goodbye to our amazing intern Nick Garrison.
COULTON: Raining rocks.
EISENBERG: We are so happy Nick was here to help us with so much, including helping us figure out how to turn a live event trivia show into something we could tape from home. And Nick always brought an amazing attitude, took on everything we threw at him and even wrote some of the games you've heard over the past few months. So, Nick, thank you so much for everything. We're going to miss you.
Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neel. Our bosses' bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thanks to our production partner WNYC. I'm her ripe begonias.
COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.
EISENBERG: And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.