Oct. 15, 2012— -- At home, interior designer Nate Berkus surrounds himself with things he loves, things he has collected and things that hold meaning for him: Bracelets he brought at the opening of Winfrey's Leadership Academy in South Africa. The first note, now framed, Oprah ever wrote him. Fish candlesticks that a friend gave him.
After becoming a household name on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," which led to his own spinoff daytime talk show, Berkus is back designing. His new book, "The Things That Matter," illustrates his simple design philosophy, that no matter how much money you have, the objects in your home should tell your story.
"I think things do matter," he said. "Obviously people are important. They're more important, but things really do matter. They're what we touch every single day. They're what we surround ourselves with."
The 41-year-old home makeover guru has transformed his apartment in Manhattan's Greenwich Village into a work of art worth of next month's Architectural Digest, and he is about to edge into Martha Stewart territory with his own line of home furnishings for Target.
"I wouldn't be sitting here with you if it hadn't been for Martha Stewart," he said. "She was the first person who really empowered people with ideas and got everyone in the country fascinated by design."
Berkus' attention to detail borders on the obsessive, and as a young child, he said he used to arrange and rearrange his bedroom.
"I shared a room with my brother. I ruined his life, essentially," he said, laughing. "He was a normal child who didn't want to put his laundry away. I would stage fits, like breakdowns. Finally, I would just clean up after my brother every day too."
And now Berkus is working toward building an empire, not unlike other former Oprah proteges before him.
"I love what I'm doing," Berkus said. "I've learned a lot. I've had a lot of lessons."
The biggest lesson came with the full force of a tsunami. In 2004, Berkus was on vacation in Sri Lanka with his boyfriend Fernando when a massive earthquake struck under the Indian Ocean, causing one of the deadliest tsunamis in history. Berkus and his boyfriend were swept out to sea, but only Berkus made it back to land. Since then, he has reached deep into his psyche to find the heart of a survivor.
"Survive means to not only have had that experience but actually to open yourself, open your heart, open your mind to moving forward in the world," he said. "And I think that honors his memory. He would not want me to be pining away."
When the tsunami struck, Berkus said he surprised himself with how he handled the tragedy.
"I always believed that if I witnessed anything I would be the person shaking in the corner, sort of paralyzed," he said. "But I functioned. I was giving medical treatments, like helping clean wounds and tie off things. It really shocked me that I had that in me because I never thought I would be that guy."
Not only did Berkus survive, he became determined to thrive. He started dabbling in movies while hosting his own daily daytime talk show, "The Nate Berkus Show," and was an early supporter of a manuscript called "The Help," which became an Oscar-nominated movie.
"I read probably three or four books a week," he said. "I can't go to sleep without reading. I read the book…before it was published and I thought, 'This is a great story. This is exactly what I'd like to be affiliated and connected with.'"
Berkus said he is currently working on a second film based on a novel. The Emmy award-winning talk show was canceled this year, but Berkus saw it as another opportunity to pick himself back up.
"I was concerned because I was concerned for my staff. I wanted to make sure that everybody would get jobs," he said. "I think that is something that came out of the tsunami as well for me. You know what, I survived that, cancel the show, we'll find something else to do."