A Modern Portland Home Explodes with Light, Lines, and Color

With a smart new stairwell and small details like concrete knobs and quirky furniture, a Southwest Portland home is transformed.

By Amara Holstein October 5, 2015 Published in the Design Annual: Fall 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

In the crook of a curving, leafy road in Dunthorpe, Southwest Portland’s most exclusive nook, Tatiana and Justin Wills’s home has great bones. Built in 1967, the angular structure orients toward a panoramic view of Mount Hood, with deep overhanging eaves and a groovy wraparound wood deck. Walls of glass, double-height ceilings, and a sprawling open floor plan lured the couple to buy the 3,400-square-foot, midcentury-modern house. “It’s got this loft-in-the-woods vibe,” Justin says.

Previous owners had added a modern kitchen and bathrooms. Still, the aesthetic of all-white walls, brown shag carpeting, and recessed can lighting could be summed up simply: boring. As Tatiana explains, more diplomatically, “It was a clean white shell. We took it and made it into what we needed it to be.” They didn’t need to gut the place, but rather to strategically tweak the existing design—and in doing so, they completely transformed the space. 

Tatiana and Justin—she’s an artist, he’s a filmmaker and entrepreneur who cofounded the online independent art retailer Society 6—hired designer Leela Brightenburg of local firm Bright Designlab. Brightenburg’s goal, as she describes it, was to “bring out their personality in the space by focusing on the details,” both in terms of functional design and stylistic sprucing. “The smallest details can create the biggest delights, whether they’re functional or decorative,” says Brightenburg. “And I think people really feel that in this space.”

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An expansive patio replaced a hill of bark mulch and loose gravel.

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The open floor plan is perfect for sprawling parties.

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The central stairwell anchors the main floor.

Brightenburg began with the central stairwell, a rickety affair of open treads and a steel frame. (“Really child-friendly!” she remembers with a laugh.) Mindful of the couple’s toddler son, Brightenburg worked with Portland’s Hammer & Hand for six months to craft an ingenious structural system, pairing vertical white steel slats with floating oak treads without the help of support walls, resulting in an airy, two-story stairwell that soars through the house. The team carefully integrated thoughtful touches: matching the steps to the original oak floor, for example, and designing vertical slats such that light streaming through nearby windows creates an ever-shifting interplay of shadows.

Brightenburg then turned to the details. She replaced fussy metal pulls in the kitchen that snagged clothing with handmade flat black pulls and hand-cast concrete knobs. She tore out the downstairs carpet and replaced it with airy cork flooring. Her selection of furniture is understated yet quirky, matching the house’s midcentury vintage with the family’s artistic style. Upstairs, a classic Womb chair and period France and Son chairs mingle with funky cork stools by Moooi and a sleek sideboard by BDDW. Downstairs, Bright Designlab custom-designed an office desk that Master Furniture Makers then fabricated with reclaimed barn wood from Central Oregon, along with a vintage photo lamp from the Good Mod, as well as a custom-made wood coffee table with inlaid red crosses by New York shop Uhuru. Graphic throw pillows from Society 6, printed with everything from whales to ampersands to Bill Murray’s face, punctuate almost every room.

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FROM LEFT: Graphic paint illuminates upstairs bedrooms; funky cast concrete knobs in the kitchen.


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Modernist landscaping helps to divert stormwater runoff.

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A cozy bedroom lounge area is decorated with Acapulco chairs, a CB2 knitted pouf, and a silky wall hanging by artist Julie Thévenot.

Outside, the couple worked with Pistils Landscape Design & Build to transform a bumpy hill of gravel and dirt into angular terraces of green. A seating area with a fire pit from Design Within Reach provides clear views of Mount Hood, a narrow rock bed handles stormwater runoff, and a cedar hot tub made by J&K Cedarworks in Silverton anchors the space.

Brightenburg says she chose colors to “add connection through the spaces and have a subliminal effect.” The family calls aqua and red their “team colors,” so Brightenburg repainted the front door in a vibrant mixture of these hues and then repeated them throughout the home, from the aqua ledges downstairs to zippy red metal legs on the family-room chairs. An impressive selection of artwork enlivens the spaces, including then-cheap ’90s posters by Shepard Fairey, fantastical bearded mermen by Society 6’s Michael Hsiung, wall textiles by Julie Thévenot and Native Tribe, and eclectic photos and prints by Tatiana and friends.

For the walls around the stairwell, Brightenburg opted for black chalkboard paint accented with colorful chalk drawings and notes by the couple’s son, Liam, and daughter, Lily. It’s a fitting touch in a home in which every detail was considered in concert with its art-loving, design-obsessed owners. “We wanted different aspects of the house to pop out,” says Justin. “It wasn’t about just flat art on the wall, but about the way we inhabit the space.” 


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