To close observers of Queer Eye, design expert Bobby Berk seems to have the most taxing job of the Fab Five. While Jonathan Van Ness cuts hair and preaches the gospel of beard oil, and Tan France fixes a withering eye on the makeover subject’s closet, Berk spends most of an episode offscreen. By the end of each installment—just days after the Fab Five first meet their subject—Berk has torn up floorboards, gutted the kitchen, and repainted the entire house.
Berk, who has run his own design consultancy and retail business for years, says the speed and scope of Queer Eye makeovers would be impossible if it weren’t for his background in home building. His latest venture, a furniture collection with A.R.T. Furniture, is a “natural evolution” of his design career.
We caught up with Berk recently to talk about the line and how he manages such ambitious projects on Queer Eye.
Fast Company: You recently released a collection with A.R.T. Furniture and its new CEO, Jeff Young. What inspired the line?
Bobby Berk: The inspiration for the furniture line comes from fans that watch Queer Eye and constantly message me, “I wish that you could pick out all the furniture for my house. I wish you could help me design my house.” I had manufactured some of my own furniture for my stores, but I had never really done a mass line that was attainable for almost anyone.
I think of your home like your phone charger. You need to get a full charge or you’re not going to make it through the rest of the day or the next day. Putting things in your home that make you happy, relaxed, and grounded can really have a huge impact on your mental health.
So I really wanted to make a line that translated that and made it affordable. I thought it would be kind of an asshole thing to get on Queer Eye every day and preach that changing your home can change your life—but only if you’ve got a lot of money. I wanted it to be good quality furniture that you’re going to keep for years.
FC: You said this feels like a natural evolution. Can you talk about what brought you to this point in your career, and how your background prepared you for an opportunity like Queer Eye?
BB: I don’t even know if I’d really call it a career. Every single job that I’ve ever had, every part of my career, has always been in entertainment, even though it technically wasn’t what you would traditionally think of as entertainment. I was a server at Applebee’s. As a server, I was an entertainer. I was giving those customers not just food, but an experience. The [better] experience you’d give them, the more tips you’d get.
Working at the Gap, it was about an experience. I would give [women who came in] the best “gay best friend helping you pick out your clothes” experience you could have. People enjoyed it, and they came back for it. Even selling long-distance service as a telemarketer—that was also entertainment. I would use different accents and be different characters.
People always say there’s no way we get those houses done from Tuesday to Friday. And the thing is, we do.”
So it was all about the experience that I was giving people, no matter what industry I was in. And I think that has helped me with Queer Eye. Maya Angelou said that people will never remember what you said to them. They will only remember how you made them feel. People may not remember exactly what I said on the show or exactly what Jonathan said, but they’ll remember how it made them feel inside.
FC: I want to talk about how you’re so productive on Queer Eye, because you seem downright superhuman. How do you manage to pack an entire renovation into just a few days?
BB: My planning for an episode usually starts a few weeks before. There have been episodes where there was no planning available. But usually our heroes are cast a few weeks before we meet them, so my team is usually able to go to the hero’s home beforehand. I don’t meet them, but I at least check out their space and get basic measurements. We often give them new flooring or window shades or kitchen cabinets, and those are the type of things where there is no way to do it the week of. So if we are planning on doing a big renovation, those things do have to be planned out. So we will usually go out there a week or two before, and we’ll figure out a game plan on the major things.
Before we start filming, my team has found a [makeshift] warehouse, and we basically turn it into a big store of our own. We pre-order tons of art and accessories and candles and pillows and bedding, and we just line this warehouse full of stuff that I could possibly use. That way, we’re not running around the city the day we’re filming and going to all these different stores. Often I will figure out the main pieces of furniture that I need because for the most part, stores don’t stock things anymore. You can’t just go into a West Elm and be like, “I want this sofa.”
FC: But you do usually incorporate personal elements into your decor. How do you weave that into your process, especially if you’re stocking your warehouse ahead of time?
BB: The type of art that we order is so random and so crazy. Sometimes we’ll pick things and I’m like, “There is no way we’re ever going to use this. This is awful.” But then I’ll get to a hero’s home and I’m like, “That awful piece of art that I would never have imagined I would ever use in a home is so perfect for them.” It’ll be something weird and quirky that I’ve learned about their personality, and when they see that [art], they’re like, “Oh my god, you get me!”
For example, AJ in season one who came out to his stepmother. I [found out] that the very first trip he and his boyfriend took together was to Miami. So in his bedroom, I put up a piece of wall art that had MIA, the Miami airport code. He saw that and was like, “This reminds me of the first trip we took.” And I said, “That’s exactly why it’s on the wall.” Those are the type of things that I listen for.
When you come in and you completely change somebody’s home, [you] don’t want them to feel like they’re not walking into their own home. I want there to be so many personal things that they’re like, “This is my home, and this is exactly the way I would’ve done it if I knew how to put things together like this.” We accomplish a lot of that with art and family photos. If they don’t have photos, I have great people on my team. Their job is to start knocking on doors and calling their families. Sometimes, that is happening even before, as our producers are interviewing their family members and finding out their story.
FC: So there’s a lot of preparation that goes into each episode behind the scenes. How long are you allotted for what we actually see on Queer Eye?
BB: For the most part, our [filming] schedule usually is Tuesday to Friday. So on Tuesday we meet them; we call that ambush day. And that’s when I truly start digging through their personal stuff and finding stuff out about them. On my first visits to their home, I don’t dig through their stuff. It’s really just sizing the actual space up. When you see me find something interesting in their home the day we meet them, I want that to be real. I don’t want to be like, “Ooh, so producers, I found this picture that’s probably gonna make them cry. I’m going to have it here, so be sure to have a camera on me when I find it.” There are shows out there like that, but we’ve always been very, very aware of not doing that. I really do want to be shocked or disgusted for real that day when you are seeing it for the first time on TV.
People always say there’s no way we get those houses done from Tuesday to Friday. And the thing is, we do. All the clean-out that you see, which often can take the entire first day or more, and all of the construction, painting, flooring, furniture installation, drapes, art—that really is done between Tuesday and Friday. The preparation is in order for us to have everything we need to get that accomplished.
FC: And while you’re doing that preparation, you’re also working on other episodes, right?
BB: Yes, very much so. It’s not like the week before you’re filming, you have nothing to do and you’re just prepping for that episode—while we’re installing, we’re also still prepping for the next week and the week after. We’re making sure that the things that we ordered are arriving, and that’s a whole job in its own, handling the tracking and the logistics and the project managing. At any given time, we’re working on [up to] four heroes. We’re installing one, and we’re prepping for two to three more.
If I didn’t have that experience, I think Queer Eye would have definitely broken me.”
[In] season one and two, I just had one team, which made it really, really hard. Season three and four, we learned that I would have Tommy—who was like my main man and had been with me through all of season one and two—and another team leader. So one week I would be installing a hero’s home with Tommy, and then at the same time, I would be preparing for the next week’s episode, [which the other team leader] Nate would be project managing, and then it would rotate. The next week, Tommy would be preparing for the next episode as I was installing with Nate and his team. That made life way easier, so we’ve become a very well-oiled machine now. Tommy also did this on Extreme Home Makeover, so he was really great about teaching me the ins and outs of how to prepare for this show.
FC: How structured are your filming days? Do you have a daily routine?
BB: There’s just no way. You have to roll with the punches because with installation, you never know what you’re going to run into. In season two, when we were doing some construction for [Mayor Ted Terry], we ran into a huge termite infestation, which he didn’t know about. So that threw the schedule off. Also, a retailer was supposed to be sending a huge shipment of furniture that we ordered, which never showed up. So that week, we actually did have to send out multiple cars to stores all over the city and try to pull as much furniture off their floors as we possibly could to furnish the house.
In season three with Joey Greene: On Wednesday night there was a big storm, and it knocked a tree down, and it took the power out for the whole campground. We were in there with flashlights trying to paint and get stuff done in the dark.
Most of the time as a designer, you’re doing a home over a period of a year, and you’re doing the install over a few weeks or few months. But my design firm actually focuses on working with home builders, so we will design five homes in a community at once. Granted, we’ll design those sometimes over a year from start to finish, from when we first look at the architectural plans to breaking ground. But when we install them, we’ll sometimes install five homes—and when I say install the whole home, I mean everything—in less than a week. We’ll pull in with a few tractor trailer loads for these homes, and we’ll knock them out in a few days. And when we install these model homes, we usually start installing on a Monday, and 9 times out of 10, their grand opening will be that Saturday. So it’s not like we can [say] we need a few extra days. If I didn’t have that experience, I think Queer Eye would have definitely broken me.
FC: Can you share any details on your budget per episode? Because the challenge for you isn’t just maximizing your productivity, but doing so within a budget.
BB: Our budget is way lower than you think it is. We really have to stretch the dollar. I can’t share much, because I have before, and I got yelled at. But the budget is low. I would say 80% of my budget is eaten up on construction. This is just a random number, but let’s say that normally installing a floor over a couple of weeks costs a dollar. I need that floor installed in a couple of hours, if not overnight. So what they would normally charge a dollar for, they’ll charge me $50 for because they need to send in 10 people from the construction team to get that done. So my construction costs are hugely inflated just because of the manpower they have to throw at it to get it done in the time that we need.
In the very beginning, we weren’t even allowed to say what the show was, so we’d have to call up retailers and say, “We’re doing a makeover show and wondering if you want to partner with us.”
FC: I’m surprised to hear that was the case, even with Netflix behind you.
BB: I understand because having my own retail stores before, I would have shows contact us all the time wanting things for free. And [most of the time], it wasn’t beneficial. The Housewives used to contact us all the time and said, “You should do our house. It’s going to give you so much exposure.” And no, that’s not the kind of exposure I want.
All of us really were cast and hired because we’re experts in our field. Especially in the beginning, it really took a village. Not that our producers aren’t amazing—but it really took us working with our producers to leverage the relationships we had in our real careers to make the show happen. For season three and four, even though my furniture collection with A.R.T. wasn’t out yet, they provided 50% or more of the furniture we needed.
FC: Now that you’ve done this for a few years, is there anything you’ve found especially surprising about being a part of Queer Eye?
BB: I would say the biggest surprise was that it was successful. None of us thought it would be. We were like, “Oh, this is cute. We’ll film for five months and then go back to our normal lives.” That didn’t happen. We’re the luckiest little boys in the world, we always say. I think the success is due to the social impact that we’ve been able to have on people—just the philosophy of loving yourself and taking care of yourself and accepting yourself.
This interview has been edited and condensed.