From The Outside In

To harness the Portland views that captivated her clients, a designer creates a space informed by the surrounding landscape.

Written by Jorge S. Arango / Photography by David Papazian
Download the article in PDF format

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks,” wrote the 19th-century naturalist John Muir. By that measure, the owners of this house— perched on a ridge commanding panoramic views of the Cascades and the Willamette River (as well as downtown Portland)—got an unquestionably sweet deal.

The vista was priceless enough to seduce an advertising executive and his wife, a practitioner of Chinese medicine, into purchasing the 1997 home for themselves and their three children, even though it was smaller than their residence at the time and of a more traditional style than what they were originally looking for. “I wanted us to be aware we were overlooking nature,” confirms the wife, whose desire informed the directive she gave designer Jennifer Leonard in their first few meetings. “I asked for something colorful and beautiful, but for something that also worked with the natural landscape outside the windows.”

After the family closed on the house in late spring, timing dictated the first order of business: outfitting the terraces so the family could enjoy summer outdoors. Next, Leonard turned her attention inward. To accomplish the mission laid out by her clients, she decided to pull textures and motifs from the natural surroundings into almost every room. “We wanted to stay somewhat neutral, but with some sass,” she says of the palette she and the homeowners selected. “We had to work with all the lush greenery seen through the numerous windows and play off the kitchen’s existing green counter and warm-toned cabinetry.” 

Beginning with the rugs, which Leonard calls “the foundation of a space,” she built her outdoorsy theme. For the living room, a Nepalese hand-knotted wool-and- silk carpet features a pattern of leaves. The foliate design references the sylvan setting, as do the window shade fabric of colorful of birds perched on flowering branches and the cloud-shaped mirrors. “There is a playful quality with the birds,” Leonard says, “as well as with the introduction of the feminine palette of pinks and purples.”

These hues imbue the space with the desired “sass,” but they are aided by other elements that impart a mellow shimmer to various surfaces. The silk content of the rug is one example; another is the grass-cloth wallcovering. Though it is essentially organic in texture and thus reminiscent of the natural surroundings, the wallcovering has a subtle shine to it, giving the room a sense of low-key glamour. “The sky in Portland can be pretty gray a lot of the time, so it’s nice to bring in a little shimmer that reflects light,” says Leonard. Also, notes the wife, the palette might have tilted too heavily toward a “dollhouse look,” something mitigated by the grass cloth and tactile fabrics. “Adding a lot of texture made it more interesting,” she says.

This strategy moves consistently from room to room. It is manifested by grass shades and the verdant greens and earthy browns of the family room, which are counterpoised with the discreet gleam of the sectional’s mohair-velvet and gilded-iron floor lamp. It also shows up in the den, where Leonard paired a banded sea-grass carpet with a gold version of Scalamandré’s zebra wallpaper and shiny black-lacquer built-ins. Even a bathroom’s shower curtain summons a sense of the outdoors with a flowery pattern of dianthus, thistle, hydrangea and other blossoms on whose stems still more birds perch.

Some spaces, such as the subterranean media room, convey “sass” while eschewing hints of the outside. There, a charcoal-upholstered sectional, a hide ottoman and wall-mounted Boris Bally bowls made from old traffic signs convey whimsy amid a darker brand of coziness. Where appropriate, Leonard weighted the balance with more lustrous formality. The avian theme reappears in the dining room wallcovering for instance, but in silver forms against a taupe background. She upped the glam ante with the shine and sparkle of a silky rug, a high-gloss dining table and a crystal chandelier. In two of the bedrooms, textures move from coarser to softer. Take the master bedroom’s grass cloth, which uses more delicate material and a much more tailored weave.

Punctuating this carefully calibrated blend of organic tactility and polished refinement is artwork that lends a note of the unexpected to the spaces. “We end up with unusual art because we have to find common ground,” jokes the wife, who has an affinity for the soothing, while her husband’s immersion in a creative career impels him toward pieces that are bold and graphic. But, she says, “I like it when everything is perfect and then there’s just one piece that seems unusual.” With fun artwork and a stunning outdoor environment, Leonard had an ideal foundation to build upon. “Now, the interiors match their personalities as comfortable, easy, fun and playful people to be around,” Leonard says.