The Culture

‘Queer Eye’ Designer Bobby Berk on Creating Space

Houston-born ‘Queer Eye’ designer Bobby Berk is changing hearts and minds one neutral color palette at a time.

Bobby Berk Queer Eye
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue with the headline “Creating Space.”

For Bobby Berk, the interior design expert on Netflix’s revival of the reality makeover series Queer Eye, repurposing heirloom furniture and installing storage isn’t just about fixing up a house—it sets the stage for the episode’s “hero” (as the show refers to its subjects) to live more confidently. But long before Berk started reimagining homes for a television audience, he spent his childhood summers hunting for antiques in Galveston and gardening with his grandmother in Alvin.

Season two, which dropped this summer, introduced us to heroes throughout Georgia, and Berk and the rest of the Fab Five are already hard at work filming season three in Missouri. The designer’s mission is the same, no matter the locale: to use a physical home remodel to uncover potential and to help viewers and heroes alike see each other with kindness, regardless of political beliefs.

Texas Monthly: What are your earliest memories of being interested in design?

Bobby Berk: I grew up in Missouri, but all my aunts and uncles and grandparents lived in Texas, so I would spend most of my summers there. One of my favorite things to do when I was little was go shopping with my aunt in Galveston to all the antiques stores on the Strand. My aunt loved finding weird things like doll heads that had no bodies and turning them into lamps—she was a really cool artist and had very quirky taste.

TM: Where did you develop your eye for design?

BB: I remember going into Target when I was a kid and seeing the Michael Graves collaboration they did with him in the early nineties. It was spatulas and toasters and tea kettles, but that was the first time I saw that products were things that were supposed to be functional but could also bring you joy. Before that, I thought you put furniture in a house and sat on it, you bought a spoon and used it. That was one of the first moments in my life where I really started thinking about design as something I wanted to do.

It’s a show about using the tools that we have—in my case, design—to enhance somebody’s life.

TM: What made you want to be on the reboot of Queer Eye?

BB: It was such an iconic show, and I love how it not only opened up awareness for my community but also helped people. The five of us wanted to take that even further and make it more of an emotional transformation than just a physical one. It’s not a fashion show or a cooking show or a culture show or a design show. It’s a show about using the tools that we have—in my case, design—to enhance somebody’s life.

TM: Often, the most emotional moment on Queer Eye is when the hero walks into their remodeled home for the first time. How do you see the potential impact of designing a home for someone?

BB: When you wake up every day in chaos and start your day off that way, it never leaves you. It’s been really rewarding to be able to see how just hitting reset for people can make them happy. I’m not saying it’s all about material things—it’s just about being in a space that’s clean and organized so you can start your day off in a good place. Bobby Camp [a hero from season one], who has six kids, told me, “Every day when I came home and this home was a disaster, I was reminded that I wasn’t enough. Now we don’t have to dwell on the fact that everything is a mess. We can focus on the happy parts of our lives.” That was a real aha moment for him—the chaos that surrounded them created chaos inside.

TM: How did you first realize how a living space can affect the way that someone moves through their day emotionally?

BB: I think it’s something that I noticed on a personal level a long time ago. I left home at fifteen, and my late teens and early twenties were very nomadic, very poor. I would end up living in these really awful, trashy places, and I noticed how it made me feel, having to live in places that were in disarray or were run-down or gross. When I didn’t have much money to spend, I’d go and get a can of paint and I’d paint the place and go to garage sales and thrift stores, and I’d make my place nice, no matter how horrible it was. I noticed a difference in the way it made me feel. When I would wake up in a space that made me happy, it would encourage me to do more and go further and think, “How do I work harder to get something nicer?” I’ve definitely realized in my own life that surrounding yourself with environments that you’re passionate about and make you happy not only keeps you sane but motivates you.

TM: Do you hear from people in small-town Texas, where your family still lives, or rural communities elsewhere about their reaction to Queer Eye?

BB: Oh, constantly. I used to try keep up with the messages, but it’s impossible now. I get hundreds and hundreds a day on Twitter and Instagram from people reaching out about how the show affected them. I’ve had preachers reach out and write that they always thought that homosexuality was an abomination and that gays chose to live that lifestyle but that hearing my story of begging and pleading and crying in my teens for God not to make me gay made them realize that it wasn’t a choice and that they would never preach that type of hate in their church again. It warms my heart to see the effect that we’re able to have on people. I think everyone right now is really looking for a ray of hope—that there are still good people out there, on both sides of the aisle.

TM: In the first episode of the second season, you were remodeling a church’s fellowship hall for Tammye. You initially refused to go into the church because of your negative experiences  coming out in a religious community. That moment has resonated with so many viewers. What has it been like to have a painful part of your life play such a cathartic role for your audience?

BB: That episode was really hard for me. When I first got cast, I told the producers, “I’ll do whatever you guys need me to do, just don’t ever ask me to go into a church.” Ms. Tammye’s episode wasn’t supposed to happen, but the person who was going to be filmed that week had a medical emergency. When I found out I was supposed to redo a fellowship hall, I said I wouldn’t do it. After many a long night talking to producers and friends and Karamo [Brown, Queer Eye’s culture expert], I had a conversation with Joel, a marketing director at one of our production companies. He said, “You need to do it to change the minds of some of those people—so that little Bobbys and little Joels don’t have to grow up with that self-hate and deprecation that we had to grow up with.” That’s what made me do it.

TM: The first iteration of Queer Eye, which ran on Bravo from 2003 to 2007, was largely about exposure and acceptance for the gay community. How do you think that mandate has changed for the reboot?

BB: The original show was about putting a face on gay people and elevating five successful gay men. But if the original Fab Five had opened up the way we do today, the world would not have accepted them. Karamo has two kids, but if Thom Filicia [the interior design expert on the original show] had talked about his kids and his husband, viewers would not have been okay with that. For us, it was very important to show people that we’re more than just the stereotypical gay guy: we’re husbands, we’re parents, we’re brothers, we’re sons.

We really wanted people to see who we were, not what we are. That was very important because that’s how we go in with our heroes: We don’t say, “Oh, he has Trump signs in the yard, so he’s not going to have anything in common with us.” We try to put all the politics aside and just connect on a human level, and I think that’s what makes it so beautiful.

TM: There’s a general sense that having open-minded conversations with people who hold opposing viewpoints is especially important and rare in this divided political climate. Do you see Queer Eye as uniquely positioned to have those conversations?

BB: In our very first episode, with Tom Jackson, we came to a very important realization—that we had the ability to bridge a gap that’s gotten really wide lately. Everyone is so polarized right now. There’s the left, there’s the right, and there’s really nobody in the middle anymore. Our goal is to show people that, no matter where you are on that spectrum, we need to start seeing the humanity in each other again. You’d never think that five gay guys from New York, London, and L.A. would find communality with a good-ol’-boy truck driver from Dallas, Georgia, or a white cop with a Make America Great Again hat on from Winder, Georgia. But we did because we went in with an open mind, not to push an agenda but to shower you with positivity and love and help you see in yourself what we see.

TM: Do you think the show, which is primarily set in small towns, helps liberal viewers gain perspective too?

BB: I think it works both ways. On both sides, we’ve gotten to where we only talk to people with the same point of view as us. With Cory [a hero who works as a police officer and voted for Donald Trump], we definitely didn’t go into the episode trying to change his mind about politics. But after working with us, he was able to see, “Oh, wow, there’s an entire group of people that I didn’t really think about whose lives and rights are being affected by somebody that I voted for.” I think that broadened his mind. If we can think of society as a whole and not just as a small demographic of people that are just like us, that will help us all get out of the political climate that we’re in.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Tags: Screens, Style, Television, bobby berk, fab five, Interior Design, Netflix, queer eye

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