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Queer Eye’s Bobby Berk on designing for Japanese homes, TikTok, and the new iPhones

Queer Eye’s Bobby Berk on designing for Japanese homes, TikTok, and the new iPhones


He’s got not one, but two TikTok accounts.

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Ivan Solis

The newest season of Netflix’s Queer Eye has the Fab Five bringing their joyful brand of self-love and wellness to Japan, joined by stars Kiko Mizuhara and Naomi Watanabe to act as local guides. In the four-part miniseries, the show handles language barriers and cultural expectations with a refreshing thoughtfulness, and each of the experts in food, fashion, culture, grooming, and design bring new perspectives to help their Japanese heroes, which is what the show calls its makeover subjects.

We caught up with the show’s design expert Bobby Berk at Adobe Max, where he gave a talk on how he balances running his own interior design business while juggling Queer Eye. Berk, who essentially transforms entire houses in the span of a week, truly shines this season given the challenges of working within the space limitations of Japanese apartments. He shared his thoughts on having not one, but two TikTok accounts, designing for Instagram, and the iPhone 12. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What are some things you had to take into consideration when you were designing for a Japanese home, compared to homes in the US?

The apartments in Tokyo are very small, it’s the biggest city in the world. Of course, it seems like the bigger the city, the smaller the apartments. So I had to really take in consideration the size. Also, rental apartments, they don’t let you paint anything on the walls or change the flooring, so we had to get creative by building out furniture. We had to build up, instead of out. So really just utilizing the space from top to bottom, left to right. 

Just thinking about it culturally as well, it’s more minimalist, which is my personal aesthetic, so I loved it. 

Speaking of minimalism, did Marie Kondo come up at all during the season?

She’s the sweetest, most lovely woman ever. She was nominated for an Emmy as well, so we got to hang out at the Emmys. I quote her all the time, because I really like her term, “If it sparks joy.” People always ask me, ‘what trend should I worry about?’ and I’m like, ‘you shouldn’t worry about any trend, you should worry about what sparks joy.’ If you see something and it’s a creepy clown collection, but it sparks joy? Then keep it! Don’t just do something because a magazine told you to do it, do it because it’s something that you really love. When you surround yourself with things and spaces that you really love, it helps you recharge more.

What stores did you get the furniture from in Japan?

We had to build creative spaces, so a lot of it we built ourselves with our local Japanese crew. But a lot of the other furniture that we did get, we got from Nitori. They’re all over Japan, it’s kind of like an Ikea meets Bed, Bath and Beyond, meets a Target, like they have everything for the home.

I’m curious if you’ve ever tried one of those online interior design services. I tried one recently called Modsy, where you take photos of your house, send it to them, and then somebody will mock up a 3D rendering. I know you’re a spokesperson for Havenly; how do you think these services are affecting the interior design industry?

I think it’s actually a positive thing. I think giving people accessible design is great for the industry. And for the industry, it keeps a lot of interior designers very busy. When a client puts in their information, it goes out to multiple designers in the network and they all send in what they think they want to do with the space, and the customer picks one. It’s employing way more interior designers than normally we would need. So I think it’s actually good for the industry.

Are there any design blogs or magazines that you like to read for inspiration?

Design Milk, I love. Jamie Derringer, she’s always finding the most amazing new furniture from around the world. She’s just always been really great about finding new cool modern stuff that you don’t see anywhere else.

I get a lot of my inspiration obviously on Instagram. A lot of design and architecture accounts.

What do you think about the current trend where restaurants and hotels are designing for Instagram? Is it inauthentic in a way because they’re trying to attract a certain crowd?

I think a lot of them are learning that they actually don’t want that route. I think for a while, they were like, ‘Yes, Instagrammers!’ Now, I’ve been reading articles about amazing hotels that are actually banning photographs in their pools and their lobbies, because it was nothing but Instagrammers who just want to come in and take photos. 

Ultimately, the people that you’re attracting to get there by these photos on Instagram, aren’t going to stay there. They still need to experience what they feel like they’re seeing on camera, and when they don’t, that just leads to bad reviews. 

We, especially as influencers and tastemakers, need to be careful about how we portray things that aren’t real. I personally don’t like to disappoint people, so if I’m putting something on Instagram, I’m not just making it look pretty, it’s the way it really looks.

What’s an app on your phone that you think not a lot of other people have? Or games?

I don’t have one game on my phone. I have Douyin on my phone, the Chinese TikTok. 

Why do you have two versions of TikTok? 

Because China’s a big market for me.

Okay, so you have two separate TikTok accounts. Do you post different content? What kind of content do you post?

Yes. Stupid stuff. You know, I find that the silly stuff that I post on the Chinese one... that gets a million views. The good stuff I post will get, 7.9 thousand. It’s funny, the sillier [stuff does better].

Is it that your engagement rates are higher on Douyin versus TikTok?

No, because TikTok is global everywhere but China. And obviously, I don’t speak Chinese so I’m not that great at the descriptions and the hashtags. I have a team that does my other social media in China, like my Weibo. But Douyin, I got so many followers so quickly, that I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ll just do this myself.’ But it’s been way harder.

That is fascinating. Okay, so you’re not a gamer.

There was a time where I did nothing but Minecraft. I was obsessed. The only thing I was obsessed with was the building part of it.

Of course.

I did nothing but build cities after cities after cities. Even on vacation. 

You know they’re bringing it to AR, so it’s like Pokemon Go, where you can play Minecraft in real life. 

(Gasps) You know how iPhones now tell you how much screen time you’ve used every day? It popped up yesterday that last week I averaged nine-and-a-half hours a day.

That seems normal. I don’t know, I’m too scared to look at mine.

That’s a bad thing, it is normal for me, but again, I run my company from it. We live in the internet now.

Have you ever played The Sims? The home building part?

Back in the day, I loved Sim City. I used to have a lot of games on my phone and then my last iPhone didn’t have as much storage. So I had to start deleting games. 

Do you have the new iPhone?

No. I used to be that person that got every new iPhone that came out. Honestly, I gotta say I really don’t think the 11’s much different.

I heard the camera’s really good.

But I also have a Galaxy S10. And the camera’s so much better. I don’t know if it’s better than the new 11, but I also heard that the 12 is going to be completely different.

I haven’t heard about that at all. What blogs are you reading?!

Everyone that I’ve seen online has been like, ‘yeah, the 12 is gonna be really good.’ Because they haven’t changed it in three years, really. Everything they came out with last year is exactly the same. I haven’t downloaded iOS 13.

Okay, don’t.

Right, and I never do.

And also don’t update your macOS, because it broke everything. My life is ruined.

I don’t really use a computer anymore.

What do you use for designing things?

My iPad and my phone.

Okay, one last question. What do you think of the memes online that are like, “Antoni: I made a salad. Karamo: believe in yourself. Bobby: I built a house”?

I’ve seen them. Our jobs are all equally important. Some are more labor-intensive than others. But yeah, all equally important.