For Jason Berke, a self-described “atmospherist” and former product designer for Target, design is as physical as it evocative. His design studio, Warmhouse Story, has an aesthetic that sits perfectly at the intersection of oddities-shop-meets-Victorian-era-salon. Berke’s designs and profile have graced the covers and pages of award-winning design publications. He has created lavish tablescapes for dinners with the renowned Minneapolis Institute of Art, but it would be remiss to call him an interior designer or limit him to simply designing tablescapes. It is the atmosphere itself that Berke conjures, through moody color palettes, dried flowers, and delicately placed handmade treasures of silk, ceramic, metal; a melange of textures in conversation with one another.
We sat down with Berke at the precipice of both a career and geographic transition—in the midst of moving from his long-time home in Minnesota back to his home state of Florida—to talk about his love for creating intentional moments with community through thoughtful atmospheres.
As a steward of creating memorable atmospheres and living beautifully, where has that influence in your life come from? Why is it so important?
Jason Berke: Atmosphere is more than just a mood or surroundings. It is the gaseous envelope that protects all of us on the planet. I believe that we all carry around a little atmosphere that makes for a warm welcome with others. Many of these wonderful elements of atmosphere were learned by watching my grandmother, Vivianne, who was a renaissance woman and the ultimate hostess. Details mattered to her and people felt well tended to in her care. She had a French accent and an approachable sophistication that put people at ease. She has inspired me to use a full suite of creative talents to make others feel seen and welcome. It is my personal mission to help people learn how to host warmly, live beautifully, and make memories through the use of atmosphere.
What led you to creating a platform like Warmhouse Story? Did you always have the vision to design this universe for others to experience?
JB: Warmhouse Story, my brand and vehicle to reach people, came about in a pinnacle moment in my life. I asked myself: If I applied all of my talents from over the years into a focused approach to making my way in the world, what would that look like? I was a nationally recognized public speaker and teller of tales. I was a boots-on-the-ground shopkeep helping people make their house a home. I was ultimately a director of product design for Target and traveled the world seeking inspiration to bring great design to all. Much of that was in the service of companies or brands. I wanted to step out with my own muses and an aesthetic that is distinctly my own so that people could experience a left-of-center point of view on living at home. Warmhouse Story brings the skills and my very informed point of view on a kind of classic maximalism (with a dash of magic).
You have a robust background in product design and visual merchandising, having served as a Design Director at Target for nearly two decades. How did that career inform your approach in launching Warmhouse Story?
JB: When it is your assignment to design on behalf of brands and personalities, one needs to take their personal taste and preferences out of the creative process. Over many years, I learned to design for consumers with a liking for various aesthetics from modern to traditional or farmhouse to loft living. There came a point when I had worked on enough fabulous design influences that it was time for me to weave together my own point of view on color, form language, pattern, materials, and atmosphere. It is moody but clever. It is classic with a twist of current relevance. It is never quite finished until the storybook element of wonder is mixed in to make it decidedly original and quirky. It brings me joy to see people react to my work. But I always try to make sure that there are understandable elements that almost anyone could try. If you look at where I place focus, the easy tips on fun design are there for the taking.
Reflecting on the past two years since having started Warmhouse Story, what expression of your work are you leaning in to presently?
JB: I am at a reflection point and looking for new ideas to present to the public. I also like to wander my own path. There is something in the current world of home retail brands and the media’s repetition of what is “stylish” in a home. Home TV shows, catalogs, Instagram, and magazines have held the white-walled, neutrally grounded vibe up on a pedestal and people have fallen in love with the look. You can call it “relaxed classic,” modern farmhouse, California casual, or the new traditional. It is all too close together, in my opinion, and excludes a lot of voices that make up the mosaic of our world. There is a world of culture, color, and risk taking that needs more time in the sun. I am working hard to teach people about depth of color and, specifically, nature’s role in demonstrating that to us. I am trying to teach people to use old things as a kind of conscious consumerism. My work is gentlemanly and I think that diverse looks should be brought forth in the places where people seek home inspiration.
Where do you feel we are culturally as it relates to gathering and hospitality and creating community for one another?
JB: I believe that we are still getting back our footing after the pandemic. Homes have biome offices. Isolating became comfortable. It’s time for us to care a little less about having the perfect atmosphere to invite others over. A warm atmosphere that reflects real life can be the perfect way to make people feel at home and at ease. Let’s do it!
What tips would you provide for someone wanting to host a small holiday dinner gathering with friends or is hosting their first large holiday gathering?
JB: My advice is to keep things easy. If you are not a cook, order in. If you don’t have a big table, use your space creatively and people will adjust effortlessly to a buffet and gather approach. Most of all, think about the spirit of the season and each guest for a moment. If your sister is coming over and you have a platter she gave you, use it! If you have a guest that loves dark chocolate, pull them aside and give them a little bar as a special touch. You can simply take the time to share a memory. Tend to as many guests as you can in that way and you will make moments that they will not forget!
What are a few unique ways that one might add more decadence to their space for a holiday party?
JB: I have a few favorite ways to pump up the drama in my atmosphere.
First, consider abundance! If you were going to put out five brass candlesticks, put out 15 instead. Using an element in many places creates a sense of decadence and stops people in their tracks. Imagine taking over your mantle and fireplace surround with over 20 faux trees that have some element in common. It is like a tree lot in your house!
Second, mix in flora native to your region as well as traditional evergreens. In Minnesota, I often worked dried hydrangea, peonies, strawflowers, and wispy dried foraged greens into my floristry. The mix of textures can be breathtaking!