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Matt Pierce in his Portland backyard.
Matt Pierce in his Portland backyard.
Shawn Records

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House Calls: Touring a Designer's Renovated Portland Bungalow

One part wood, one part plants, and one part DIY

Though designer Matt Pierce—proprietor of leather goods online shop Wood and Faulk—calls Portland, Oregon, home, he hasn't decked his 1908 Craftsman bungalow with the kinds of decorative birds lampooned on the IFC series Portlandia. Instead, he's gone for an earthier vibe: an easygoing rustic-meets-modern look that's inspired by his childhood in Kansas, Japanese modernism, and the clean lines and simple materials of Scandinavian design.

When Pierce bought his house in northeast Portland's Alberta Arts District five years ago, he immediately set out to give it a much-needed update and make it feel a bit less cramped. At 903 square feet, the two-bedroom house wasn't exactly tiny, but was still ripe for a renovation to give it a bit of lift.

"Because the house had been added onto over the years, the main structure, which included the dining room and first bedroom, had ceilings that were 7 feet tall," explains Pierce. So, he teamed up with a local contractor, and they set to work raising some ceilings, removing plastic pergo flooring that covered the original wood (and replacing it with oak), and giving the kitchen a near-total overhaul.

The kitchen saw the most drastic changes: In addition to removing all of the existing cabinetry and tearing out the floors, Pierce installed wood paneling on two walls, and put open shelving in for pots, pans, and cookbooks. "I thought about expanding the kitchen, but I realized that while I could make a larger kitchen, the house is always going to be a tiny two-bedroom," explains Pierce. "I decided to make it as open as possible and use the area as best I could. I’ve never run into a problem where there wasn’t enough space."

Most of it was cosmetic, says Pierce, but all of it was in the service of getting the house to a state that modernized it while honoring its original vibe.

Craftsman bungalows are an institution in the Pacific Northwest. Early settlers built them at the turn of the 20th century as a reaction against the more ornate forms being popularized across the U.S. (Beaux-Arts architecture anyone?) The clarity of a Craftsman bungalow appealed to Pierce, for whom growing up in the midwest was "the root of a simple, modernist aesthetic," he says.

This aesthetic announces itself right when you walk into the house. The walls are whitewashed—Pierce swears by Behr Ultra's "Snow Fall", for those curious—to counter Portland's famously gray weather. Custom shelving, made of extra-thick Europly plywood sourced from Home Depot and mounted on white metal brackets, makes room for books, plants, art, and more. The goal was to provide a clean canvas for Pierce's stuff: "My vision for the house was to keep anything as light as possible, so the art and furniture and plants are what pops," he says.

And then, of course, there's the first-rate furniture.

"I like things that are worn in and show evidence of the user and that they’ve been used," says Pierce. "My very first Eames lounge chair was a brand-new one that I ordered from the Herman Miller dealer in Wichita, Kansas. And it just never wore in and became personal to me. I’ve since found ones that need repair, but have that wear-in, and have the half-down, half-polyurethane cushions."

"On my old piece, the cushions were so taut and firm," he adds. "The thought of breaking it in over my lifetime is beautiful, but, personally, I just like that character."

Luckily, Pierce lives in a city with excellent opportunities for the enterprising furniture thrifter. "Hawthorne Vintage is a really good shop in town. Look Modern is another," he notes. "But I really just trawl Craigslist. I’m really handy about fixing things. The Eames lounge that I have was a Craigslist find. I had to do a fair amount of restoration on it to make it look good."

There was an added benefit to having revamped the kitchen, too: The elegant, Shaker-style dining table, which clocks in at 9 feet long, wasn't a Craigslist find, despite Pierce's talents there; Pierce made it himself from some of the boards pulled from the ceiling during demo. The whole thing was then painted black to unify the tabletop and store-bought legs.

On the subject of his neighborhood, Pierce is effusive. When he purchased his house, the Alberta Arts District "wasn't a touristy area, but its galleries and shops made it a pretty desirable place to live." Five years on, though, Pierce is looking to sell the house, and parting is sweet sorrow. "I'm potentially going to be renting a place here in the city and buying on the coast," Pierce explains. Like the vintage furniture Pierce covets, his work on this little bungalow will have a new life, in new hands, for someone else to wear in.

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