Women Who MAKE: The Nate Berkus Studio Team

Hello world! I’m super smoking excited to bring you this month’s Women Who MAKE interview x3! As some of you may know, this summer I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to work as a project management intern at Nate Berkus (on the interior design side of things). There is also an amazing studio team that works closely with Nate on all his branded products. The three beauties pictured below (and above) are the team who make it happen! You know that amazing NB pillow, blanket, lamp, table setting, the list goes on – these gals worked to take it from concept to reality to your local Target store shelf. They are also kind and gracious to interns : )

I could ramble on forever about how creative, inspiring and just darn nice these women are, but I’ll let you hear from them yourself. Also, don’t miss the Nate Berkus at Target + Centered By Design giveaway on Instagram!

Photography for Centered By Design by: Carolina Mariana

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Name, Age, Title & Years at the Company: (ladies pictured above from left to right)

  • Meredith Smerchek, 35, Art Director, 7 years at NB
  • Tara Shade, 39, Creative Director, 9 years at NB
  • Gabrielle Exner, 24, Design Assistant, 2 years at NB

What is your first memory of making [art]?

Gabby: I remember drawing a self-portrait in Kindergarten and making the *artistic choice* to draw my nose with a purple crayon. My teacher expressed her disapproval and despite being an enormous teacher’s pet at the time, I stood up to her! Well, specifically, I said “SO…” with enough ‘tude to warrant being taken back by the cubbies and yelled at for “talking back”. The fact that I was scarred by that moment for months aside, I like to think that was my first artistic statement.

Tara: “Painting” with water on the slate sidewalks of my family home. Armed with a bucket of water and a house-painting brush, and I’d go to town making drawings as quickly as I could before they’d evaporate.

Meredith: When I was little, I absolutely loved Mr. Sketch markers. In fact, I loved them so much I decided to “decorate” all of my sister’s clothes with them! I don’t think my parents were seeing my “creativity” as a positive attribute at that point.

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How did your education or past work experience give you the confidence to interview for and land your current role?

Tara: I’d been through many interview and presentation scenarios for the advertising jobs I had held in the past. I felt strong as a designer, was seeking new possibilities, and found myself intrigued by the interior and product design angle of the job.

Gabby: I went to school for studio art and business; I knew I wanted a creative job but I didn’t know what it would look like. I didn’t think the gallery world/artist lifestyle was right for me, but I didn’t want to let go of making in some capacity. After school, I snagged an internship with NB Studio and was elated that a job like this even existed. I loved it and it must’ve shown; after a couple semesters I was hired on. I believe that if you work hard and like what you’re doing (with a dash of luck), good things will happen.

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Tell us about the process of designing products for Nate’s home and fabric lines. Best parts? Biggest challenges?

Meredith: For me, the best parts are also the biggest challenges. I absolutely love to see our products out on store shelves, but I’m always looking at every collection thinking, how we can make it better, what can we do differently next time? The best part is being creative on a daily basis, but there are times when you really have to push to make sure you’re thinking outside the box and not getting stuck in one direction. I love the design process with Nate. He’s got such a great eye, and is always empowering us to be our best, most creative selves.

Gabby: We work very closely with Nate and his collaborators to help bring his product ideas to life! I also help create original patterns for Nate’s fabric lines, Target items, and whatever else may come our way. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job; I love to experiment with combining hand-made and digital techniques. There are so many steps between our team’s initial concept and what you see on the shelf at Target or on a roll at Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores. There are a lot of opportunities for things to go awry or change but that’s also what makes our job rewarding! When things turn out really well or surprise you, it’s that much sweeter.

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Do you have a funny story to share about a product that never saw the light of day, but you loved?

Tara: I loved the idea (ital.) of this product: a wooden branch centerpiece, coated in silver leaf. For a whole bunch of reasons, it came back as a chunky metal log, complete with an end that resembled an open beak. It was a weird sort of log/bird hybrid. We named him Walter. Oh, Walter.

Meredith: Ha! Well, we had a llama figural that came out a few years ago, and for some reason, we could not get the shape right to save our lives. We finally got it, but ended up with about 10 “misfit” llamas of all shapes and sizes, that we affectionately called “The Llama Farm.” I loved those little guys!

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What is your favorite part of the creative process? What inspires you and why?

Gabby: Working on initial concepts for any line…be it a mood board, fabric patterns, or a product sketch is so fun it honestly makes me feel spoiled. As great as it is to find amazing imagery on Pinterest, catch a gallery show, or check out vintage pieces I could never afford, working so closely with such talented, creative people inspires me the most. I think it takes a special team to take all that inspiration and translate it into something that’s well made and affordable.I also love when I’m perusing social media and I unexpectedly spot a Nate product. It inspires me to see how people use the collection in their home, at work and beyond.

Meredith: I love the moment when I become inspired—especially if I’m worried that it may not come! That feeling never gets old. I’m always extremely grateful. When it comes to inspiration, I’m all over the place. There are a million visual things, and they are always changing. I think what drives me to be inspired in the first place are the people around me and my relationships with them; Nate, and the awe-inspiring design team at NB Studio.

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What is the best advice you have for other creatives, artists, or those wanting to work in similar fields?

Tara: Follow your creative nature and stay open to the opportunities that arise.

Gabby: If I’ve learned anything from my own search for a creative job, it’s that there are opportunities to work creatively in so many different capacities nowadays. If you keep an open mind and you are willing to experiment, you’ll find something that encompasses all of your interests and passions.

Meredith: Never be afraid of making mistakes. Let yourself go creatively. You can always reign it back in (if you need to).

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Do you have a design philosophy, and if so, what is it? (Editor’s note: The team has fully embraced Nate’s design philosophy!).

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Which product are you most excited to see come to the market in 2016 (or however far out you are planning!)

Gabby: I’m excited about this large decorative mirror coming out for the Fall/Holiday season, big impact at a Target price point!

Meredith:  I can’t wait for the Holiday 2015 collection to land in Target stores come the fall.  There’s such a rich mix of materials and item types that are new for us, I’m excited for people to see it all.

Tara: There are so many great 2016 products coming down the pipeline, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. I’m excited for the fall/winter 2015 holiday offering at Target. There’s a cheese tray and these gorgeous serving utensils that knock my socks off every time I see them.

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Has there been a runaway best selling item or fabric?

Gabby: The white furry stool from the 2014 holiday season! LOVE that people embraced such a playful item.

Meredith: People LOVE themselves a turtle! Our very first season with Target, the collection included a resin tortoise shell wall art inspired by an actual tortoise shell that Nate’s mom found on her honeymoon years ago. It was such a hit…people are still talking about them. Recently, we did sandcasted metal tortoise shell boxes that Target guests went mad for.

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What do you enjoy most about the creative community here in Chicago?

Meredith: I love that you can find it all around you—whether its expected or not. I recently went to a gallery show in a basement that was incredible! Also, there is such a strong teaching community here. I love taking classes and each time I meet amazing people (teachers and classmates!) that I learn so much from.

Tara: The community is so, so large, with really tight-knit pockets, and the support I see within these collectives is strong. I have a group of friends passionate about fiber arts, and we meet up and share both creative and social time. People work hard and live their craft.

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Centered By Design is my business name, but it’s also the idea that we can find a bit of sanctuary each day through design, that good design can center us and make us feel great. Does your design process center you in any way? If so, how?

Gabby: I’ve always enjoyed working creatively and I definitely think doing what I love “centers” me. Any stress that I experience feels worth it. Creating patterns can even feel meditative for me at times. All that being said, I still have those less-than-zen, step-away-from-the-Pinterest moments.

Tara: I’d like to think so. To me, design is an answer, a resolution. Once I see or land on a design that is on-point, I feel elated. There’s nothing more satisfying than, “Yes! That’s it!”

Meredith: Absolutely— I love the moments when I’m completely immersed in a pattern or sketch and suddenly there is no concept of time or judgment. There are no mistakes, and there is no “perfect.”  It’s tricky to describe with words, but the closest I can come is that it feels like home!

Nate Berkus Studio Team’s Chicago Favorites (Editor’s note: This is a selection of answers from all the ladies in no particular order). 

  • Favorite spot to get inspired:

Gabby: I’m the weirdo that could get inspired anywhere; don’t be surprised if you see me snapping a photo of what appears to be a decrepit window grate because “it has a really cool pattern”

Meredith: Anywhere I’ve never been before. I always get the most inspired when I step outside of my daily routine/comfort zone.

  • Favorite florist: Kennicott Brothers, Sprout Home, Trader Joe’s, Asrai Gardens, Fleur, Foxglove Studio and Flowers for Dreams.
  • Favorite place to shop for home décor/furniture: Crossing the border for estate sales in WI, Pavilion, Scout Chicago, Randolph Antique Market, and Target, of course!
  • Favorite place for coffee: Atomix Cafe & Star Lounge
  • Favorite place for a sweet treat: Black Dog Gelato, West Town Bakery & Miko’s Italian Ice!

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Many thanks to Meredith, Tara and Gabby for being game to share on Women Who MAKE! You can see more of their work by visiting the full range of Nate Berkus at Target Products and Nate Berkus at Joann: Fabric and CraftDon’t for get to tag your NB finds #MyNateBerkus as well!

And just to sweeten this deal a little bit more the NB team is gifting a lucky reader some gorgeous office accessories! To enter simply follow me on Instagram and Facebook, and tag a friend in need of some major desk organization assistance! You’ll both be entered to win (reposting the picture below gets you entries x3). One winner will be chosen Friday, July 3rd through a random selection, will be contacted by 12am CST and be mailed the collection of office items next week. Good luck!

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XO – CLAIRE

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