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Expert Advice: 8 Questions for Portland, OR, Designer Jessica Helgerson

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Expert Advice: 8 Questions for Portland, OR, Designer Jessica Helgerson

April 8, 2016

We’ve been fans of Portland, OR, designer Jessica Helgerson for a while now, ever since we spotted her 540-square-foot cottage on Sauvie Island, where she lived for four years with her husband and two children. Helgerson was early to the eco-conscious aesthetic and her interiors are light hearted, unfussy, and livable. We recently asked Helgerson about her views on living small, what designers are inspiring her right now, and what she can’t live without.

N.B. Jessica Helgerson recently began working with Decorist, the online interior design service; go to Decorist to learn more.

Photos by Lincoln Barbour courtesy of Jessica Helgerson, unless otherwise noted.

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Above: The tiny cottage where Helgerson lived with her husband and two small children for four years.

1) You spent four years in a 540-square-foot cottage with your family; can you share some survival strategies for living in a small space?

We lived there for four years while we were building a bigger house on the same property. Survival strategy? Built in storage! Anywhere and everywhere, the more the better. And go out before you get cabin fever. The hardest times were the winter weekends, and we just learned that we needed to make plans and get out and into town. Friends invited us during the cold months, we invited them when it got sunny and we could be outside. Our kids are teenagers now though, and are definitely appreciative of the added square footage.

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Above: In Helgerson’s Brush Prarie House, a desk flanked by built-in storage creates an instant office in the living area.

2) What got you interested in design?

I had graduated from UCLA with a degree in English, was just getting home from a year in Italy where I had cocktail-waitressed and taught English, and I went, sort of on a lark, to an introductory presentation for the interior design program at UCSB.  It seemed to fit everything I loved; art, color, architecture, beautiful materials, thinking about space.  I took a class to try it out and it immediately felt right.  I’ve never really looked back.

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Above: A kitchen remodel in the 1926 converted Alhambra building in Portland (see more at Steal This Look: Spanish-Inspired Kitchen by Jessica Helgerson).

3) Where did you grow up and how did it influence your “design eye”?

I grew up between Santa Barbara during the school years and France in the summers. Santa Barbara has a strong Mediterranean influence in much of its architecture, lots of thick walls, white plaster, beautiful tile.  I still love all that and it’s definitely in my design DNA.

My childhood summers in France have probably even more profoundly influenced me, though.  My grandmother’s country house in Burgundy is still in the family, as is my grandfather’s house in the countryside outside of Lyon. They go back seven generations on the one side, five on the other. When I think of them, I think of their stone walls, courtyards, beautiful antiques, heavy linens, but even more so the profound importance of family and friends.  There is no feeling more beautiful to me than sitting down to endless Sunday lunches outside with long tables, lovingly prepared food, kids running around, parents drinking wine and talking.  I have definitely kept that going in my life; we live in a farmhouse in the country 15 minutes outside of Portland, Oregon and those memories of the French countryside and my childhood there have shaped our lives here.

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Above: Helgerson designed the offices for Joint Editorial in downtown Portland, located in the former General Electric Supply Corporation warehouse space.

4) Any new trends in green design you’re excited about?

I think the small house movement is great. I think it’s good for the environment but also good for families and relationships. If you’re so physically close I think it helps create strong emotional ties as well. I’m also happy that people are moving back into inner cities, and re-using old buildings. It makes me sad when I see great old buildings getting torn down, and happy when I see them being re-imagined and re-used.

5) Dream project?

A little boutique hotel, in a fabulous old building.

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Above: The Wild Herb Cafe by Helsinki designer Joanna Laajosto.

6) Favorite sources for design inspiration (places, people, other designers)?
My current interior designer is Ilse Crawford. She can do no wrong. I also really like Helsinki designer Joanna Laajosto. From the past, I love Tony Duquette; such joyful and exuberant excess! I also think that anything photographed by Simon Watson is amazing. He creates the softest, crispest, most amazing light. I also have a favorite design book, Art de Vivre Dans le Monde, which is full of gorgeous images of interesting and mostly un-designed interiors from the world over. I am a big fan of the undesigned, especially in decorating. Hard to achieve as a designer, but it’s a goal.

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Above: Canoe in Portland, OR; photo via Kinfolk.

7) Favorite Portland haunts (restaurants, bookshops, clothing shops)?

I love Porque No Taqueria ; it’s a little hole in the wall, but so yummy. Of course I love Powell’s Books (what Portlander doesn’t?).  For shopping, the stores that make me the happiest are Alder & Co,  Beam & Anchor, and Canoe. For clothing, I’m a fan of the vintage find and there is one particular vintage shop that I love it’s Seams to Fit. I have found gorgeous Chanel dresses, Prada shoes, Valentino coats. I can’t understand why anyone parts with them, but I’m so happy to rescue them. For jewelry I love Twist, and the annual sale at Odessa; well worth the mayhem.

8) What are five things you can’t live without?

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Above: T-Project’s Tangled Up in Blue Tea is $14 from Kiriko in Portland.

Really and truly? 1. My sweet and lovely kids. 2. My true-blue husband. 3. My thick-and-thin friends. 4. My family in France and America. 5. Trees.

Probably could live without them, but I sure do like them: 1.  Freshly ironed, lavender-scented vintage French linen sheets 2.  A cup of my friend Teri Gelber of T Project’s Tangled Up in Blue bergamot tea. 3. Handmade tile; nearly perfect but even better. 4. Hand-embroidered and hand-woven Mexican textiles 5. A glass of delicious, bubbly Lambrusco wine on a summer day.

See more of Jessica’s work here: Steal This Look: Classic Black and White Bath Remodel and A Scandinavian Cottage in Portlandia.

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