The interior designer and TV host is upholding the legacy of the late photographer, who died tragically in 2004

By Mackenzie Schmidt
August 19, 2019 03:01 PM

Nate Berkus is paying tribute to his late partner to mark what would have been his 54th birthday.

The celebrity interior designer and Oprah protege lost his longtime love, Argentinian photographer Fernando Bengoechea, in the 2004 Asia tsunami. The couple were on vacation in Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka, when the natural disaster occurred and were swept out of their accommodation, a beachfront hut, by the force of the wave, Berkus told Oprah in 2005. They managed to stay together through the rushing water, but were eventually separated. When the waves receded, Bengoechea was reported as missing and was never found.

His family released a statement soon after saying, “Based on all of the information we have gathered and the search team’s extraordinary efforts, we still have not heard any word of Fernando. Therefore, it is with great sadness, we are forced to presume Fernando died in the tsunami.”

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“It’s been almost 15 years since the tsunami, when we lost Fernando. Every day I think of him, but especially today on his birthday,” Berkus wrote on Instagram.

“Fernando’s brother Marcelo keeps his art alive by hand weaving photographs using the same technique and museum quality materials,” he continued. And while Marcelo’s project is ongoing, Berkus notes, “this month, @fernando_bengoechea_photo is donating 10% of proceeds from the sale of each woven photograph to the Tsunami Relief Fund via @globalgiving.”

Nate Berkus/Instagram. Inset: Gary Gershoff/WireImage

The designer shared an old snapshot of Fernando and an image of the woven artwork made from his photography. The image of a Joshua tree is similar to one Berkus displays in his own home, and can be seen in his former Chicago apartment, published in Elle Decor in 2008, and his former New York home in Architectural Digest in 2012.

Berkus wrote candidly about his life after the tsunami in 2005, recalling that the year began with him “lying in my bed, unable to eat, unable to string a sentence together.” It wasn’t until nine-and-a-half months later that he says he found a “new normal” and wasn’t solely focussed on grief.

Christopher Dibble Photography

Remembering a celebration at his home, he wrote, “My best friend had organized the evening, my best friend who had flown to London to save me. Fernando’s ex-boyfriend of seven years was at the table too. They were laughing and smiling. I was laughing and smiling too. He was a stranger to me before the tsunami. Now he is my brother.”

He continued: “That night it occurred to me that I could again be ‘happy,’ that I was not defined only by loss and fear and grief, but also by love and joy and light.”

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Berkus married designer Jeremiah Brent in 2014 and the couple now share two children, Poppy, 4, and Oskar Michael, 1. Oskar’s name is also a tribute to Fernando.

Ashley Burns Photography

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“[Fernando’s] middle name was Oskar,” Berkus, 47, told PEOPLE exclusively of the poignant inspiration in April 2018 — and what’s more surprising, the tribute “was actually Jeremiah’s idea.”

“We have always honored Fernando’s memory in our relationship. He’s a part of our love story,” explains Brent, 34. “It’s such an important chapter in Nate’s life. So the idea that we can honor his memory in a beautiful way was exciting to us.”

Fernando Bangoechea’s woven photographs are available on fernandobengoechea.com

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