Is it possible to design a better you? On each episode of Netflix’s Queer Eye, the answer is a resounding yassss—if you’re willing to air emotional trauma, buy appropriate clothes, pick up a trick or two in the kitchen, cut your hair, and renovate your space. No one said the journey was easy. Or cheap.
When I heard Netflix was reviving Queer Eye in 2018—it’s a spinoff of the Bravo show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which aired from 2003 to 2007—I was excited to see what the reboot would be like. Would it be as acerbic and biting as the original? Would men finally realize the virtue of clothes that fit them? Is the solution really just buying the right things, a not-so-subtle paen to consumerism? Refreshingly, this edition, now in its fourth season, is nurturing and warm and empathetic, the subjects more complex than the original show’s clueless bachelors with pleated khakis that could only be described as “unfortunate.”
Each Fab Five member—Bobby Berk on design, Karamo Brown on culture, Antoni Porowski on food, Jonathan Van Ness on grooming, Tan France on fashion, and all hands on deck for personal growth—could carry an entire self-improvement reality show. The big reveal I look forward to most each episode, though, is from Berk, a professional interior designer who runs his own studio, designs furniture, created a wallpaper line, and has framed art for sale.
Through most of the series, Berk appears in the first few minutes of the show, disappears, then comes back at the end and somehow, miraculously, has renovated homes, apartments, teachers’ lounges, restaurants. He’s even created an entire office from scratch.
He and his team do it all in just three-and-a-half days. That’s barely enough time for paint to dry. I’m certain they have divine intervention or supernatural forces on their side. His fans have noticed the tremendous amount of output Berk creates:
queer eye S4— alexis nedd (@alexisthenedd) July 22, 2019
jonathan: look me in the eye and tell me you love this haircut
tan: you wear tee shirts to perform manual labor??
antoni: i never really -knew- my dad
bobby: what i do is an entirely separate tv show no one will ever see
karamo: buckle up fucker let's talk TRAUMA
Queer Eye, and Berk’s work particularly, shows the transformative power design can have for people, and it shows it in a way that’s intentional, thoughtful, enriching, inclusive, and beautiful.
Let’s count the ways.
(Note: This is now a stan article for Bobby Berk, the clairvoyant, sensitive, witty, and brilliant design guru television needs.)
1. Queer Eye deals with very real human problems
Each “hero”—Queer Eye speak for the subjects of each episode—is experiencing a different sort of barrier between themselves and living their best lives, and often that shows up most clearly in their living or work spaces.
In the season finale, the Fab Five work with Matt, a recently divorced farmer who is struggling to maintain his business and build a new life for himself. Berk renovated a barn so it could be used for special events and retail, new lines of business for the farm, and also redid parts of Matt’s house. There was a very touching moment where Berk noticed where family photos previously hung on Matt’s wall—evidence of once-fond memories now gone.
“It was about taking a home that was always him and his wife and his kids and not erasing those memories—especially since his children are still a big part of his life—but creating a home that is his now,” Berk says. “To where he’s not constantly walking around a home and remembering what isn’t, but focusing on what can be.”
2. Queer Eye deals with very real design problems
While messy and disorganized houses have led to a cottage industry of design gurus (ahem, Marie Kondo), the design challenges on Queer Eye run deeper. Take the episode with Wesley, a wheelchair user living in a house that’s frustratingly inaccessible to the point that he regularly burns himself reaching the switches on his stove. Berk gets new appliances for the kitchen, redoes low kitchen cabinets so Wesley can get to things more easily, and designs a roll-under kitchen sink. He also enlarges the bathroom, adds a roll-under sink, and tilts the vanity mirror so Wesley can actually see his reflection. (The episode as a whole was the subject of debate and criticism among disability advocates about accessibility, framing disability as something to overcome versus an identity, and the problems with inspiration porn.)
Queer Eye got me crying again. But literally just for Bobby who has been asked to completely redesign a disabled man’s house to make it fully wheelchair accessible meanwhile Antoni has been given the mammoth task of purchasing a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken.— Matt Blakemore (@MattBlakemore) July 30, 2019
“With Wesley, it was making sure that we made a home that was super functional for him in every way, but still looked just as cool as a home,” Berk says. “I find that a lot of time in ADA design designers worry more about the function and forget about the aesthetics.”
3. Queer Eye designs spaces where people can heal and thrive
The heroes often experience depression and anxiety and the work of the Fab Five is to help them identify the root of these feelings and address them. Clearly, a week on a reality show isn’t a panacea—nor is just surrounding yourself with nicer stuff—but for the people on the show, it’s a start.
Each change—whether it’s clothes or hair or something else—complements the others, but a renovation to someone’s environment can yield some of the most impactful growth, Berk tells me. Fashion is how you present yourself to the world. But interior design—how you reflect yourself through your surroundings, or how your surroundings reflect who you are—is so much more personal and intimate.
“When you’re surrounded by a messy, disorganized, sad place every single day, it weighs on you,” Berk says. “When you wake up and the first thing you see is what you didn’t accomplish the day before, you feel like a failure. When you go to bed at night and the last thing you see is what you feel like you didn’t accomplish you feel like a failure. It just adds to that depression and sense of failure... Home should be a place that you recharge and if it’s chaotic and a disaster, you’re not getting a full charge.”
One episode where this was most apparent is with John, a single father with depression. His 10-year-old daughter, Lucy, lives with him part time in a disorganized home where the decor was “all liquor signs and Kansas City Chiefs logos,” as Berk describes it. The episode’s journey was about getting John to open up and be more present in Lucy’s life. (She was the one waking him up each morning and making breakfast.) Berk spruced up John and Lucy’s bedrooms and revived the kitchen.
“He wakes up in a nice happy space, he goes to bed in a nice happy space, and it really has an effect,” Berk says. “But mainly, it was about his relationship with his daughter and designing the house around the relationship with his daughter.”
4. Queer Eye isn’t one size fits all (even if it sometimes feels that way)
What’s exciting about Queer Eye is that you never quite know what the design element will be. The Jones BBQ episode in Season 3 was about making a family restaurant more competitive by making the space more welcoming to customers, making the back of the house more efficient and comfortable, and creating a brand identity so the owners, two sisters, could market their secret sauce. Season 4’s opener was the renovation of a teacher’s lounge at a public school.
Berk listens to the episodes’ heroes and seems to use some form of clairvoyance to sleuth out what they like and don’t like. In fact, a lot of his work happens before he even meets the heroes. In Season 1, we met Remi, a young man who inherited his grandmother’s house and was still living with her dated 1970s decor. Berk transformed it into a tropical-inspired modern space.
“I did my design based on the fact that Remi’s dream vacation is Cuba and he loves Mad Men, so I got mid-century furniture with a Cuban flair,” Berk says. “He’s like: ‘Oh my God, how did you get into my head?’ And I said, ‘I just asked about your interests.’”
I’m not a fan of typical design show tactics: sledgehammering everything in sight, blanketing everything in an inoffensive but bland “modern farmhouse” schtick, the get-rich-quickery of home flipping. While some home renovation shows focus on the marketability of their modifications, Berk just does what he thinks is best. He says he’s trend agnostic.
“I use a lot of blue and gray but here’s the deal: We’re going into people’s homes and redoing them,” Berk says. “Ninety percent of the time they’re not able to articulate what they like in design. Most can’t even articulate what their favorite color is! Eighty percent of them say their favorite color is blue, so I’m not going to go in and use orange or fuschia or some other color just because the last episode I used blue so we can’t use blue again. I don’t go, ‘Ok what colors am I going to use this season?’ I’m not designing just to design and just to do something different every week; I’m designing for that person. So if I know a navy wall is going to make them happy, they’re going to get a frickin’ navy wall even if the three people before them got a navy wall!”
5. Queer Eye is a tune-up, not a tear-down
It’s almost unfair to compare Queer Eye to other home makeover shows like Trading Spaces, Flip or Flop, and Property Brothers, since the cast prefers to call it a “make-better show.” Still, it’s the best of the lot.
“We don’t come in and try to make someone over because to us that’s saying to them, ‘What you were and what you are isn’t good enough. We need to come in, we need to change you,’” Berk says. “But for us, we’re going in to make them better because they are already great. They are already amazing. Often, their biggest hurdle is that they don’t believe in themselves and they don’t love themselves. We don’t want to be remembered as a ‘makeover show.’ We want to be remembered as that show where the five guys went in and helped people.”