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C At Home

Coastal Cool

For design star Nate Berkus, crafting the interiors of a family home in Malibu offered the chance to tap into the Pacific state of mind.

Nate Berkus had never been given as a birthday present before. A Chicago-based interior designer, best known for his role as the resident makeover guru on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Berkus has the difficult task of balancing his marquee work with more low-profile projects. But when a fan called to say she’d been given a complete house makeover for her birthday and asked him to steer the project, he couldn’t resist the offer.

The 3,400-square-foot Malibu beach house was purchased in pristine condition, with white walls and a clean structure that did not require any remodeling. When Berkus first visited the property, tucked away on Malibu’s private Encinal Cove beach, all he could see was the ocean. “I had the same feeling when I walked into my own Chicago townhome, which overlooks Lake Michigan: Nothing should distract from this beautiful view,” he says.

As a result, white plays a key role in the decor, along with an array of neutral, natural fibers. “We’re both no-color people,” says the homeowner, who also has a primary residence on L.A.’s Mulholland Drive (“It’s all brown,” she says), a ranch in Oregon and a desert house in La Quinta. Berkus recognized another similar sensibility in his client. “We’re both extremely organized,” he says. “I started taking cues from her as to how she lives—she has a clean, pristine home. It’s what’s calming to both of us.”

The color palette comes straight from the seascape that unfolds beyond the glass walls at the front of the house—“including the birds and the palest gray on the inside of an oyster shell,” says Berkus. White sofas, bedspreads and towels provide the backdrop; rich browns in the floors, furniture and a few baskets—even a handcrafted balsa wood surfboard—add warm accents. When asked if the house is an exercise in balancing high and low, Berkus says, “Isn’t everything high/low?” A foot-friendly marble side table rests below a gilded 18th century French mirror. Sea grass in one room invites, by its very name, the dumping of a beach bag or wetsuit, while a zebra hide adds softness in the master bedroom. “It’s how I like to dress,” says Berkus. “A worn-out T-shirt with a beautiful pair of shoes. I’d rather see a vintage chest of drawers sitting on a cotton rug. All the rugs in this house were meant to be throw-aways.”

Berkus met with the homeown­er—the wife of a premier spine sur­geon—only a few times during the design process, inviting her once to his offices in Chicago to vet selections he’d culled for various fur­nish­ings. He presented three options for every piece, and 90% of the time, they agreed on the first pick. From there, Berkus and his staff worked mostly undercover until the “big reveal”—the dramatic unveiling of the finished product Berkus has made his signature on “Oprah.”

With three children grown and out of the house, the homeowners needed a place that could accommodate their brood but not necessarily cater to them. Upstairs, a glass desk and chair in the study overlook the view and living room below from an open landing that closes off to become a guest room with doors on rollers one might see in an old elevator or warehouse (“I like things with a touch of the industrial,” says Berkus). They also added a counter with stools adjacent to the kitchen as a casual seating area for breakfast or opening up a laptop. A patch of lawn outside adds a groomed distance from the beach beyond, perfect for sunbathing or throwing around a football.

Although he is “in talks” to design a hotel, Berkus says, “I really love residential design. I love how personal it is and getting to know people on that level.” By personal, he means not only getting to know the client, but also reflecting the spirit of the environment. “That always comes into play, whether in Milan or Greece or Manhattan or Malibu,” he says, adding humbly: “My favorite thing in the house is the view. To me, that’s the house.”

Written and edited by Sally Schultheiss.
PHOTO: Lisa Romerein.

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