Sarah Benson prefers traditional neighborhoods filled with early 20th-century houses and big trees and often surrounds herself with myriad connections to the past, from her collection of clown memorabilia to her grandmother’s Art Deco–era liquor cart, crafted from brass and turned wood. When she found a 1925 house in Portland’s Overlook neighborhood, she was charmed by the area’s curving streets, generous porches, tiny yards, one-car garages, and the occasional pocket park. Nestled against a bluff with a view of the Willamette River, the home was also conveniently located near a light rail that replaced a trolley that once ran two blocks away. But the property lacked one major element Sarah desired: a free-flowing, midcentury-style space.
Working with Leela Brightenburg and Alissa Pulcrano of the local firm Bright Designlab to tailor the home to her vision, Sarah fretted for months over how to mix her love of the old and her need for the new. A recent graduate of nursing school and a onetime art student, whose lightly Surrealist, watercolored prints festoon many of the home’s walls, she concedes, "I’m a perfectionist; I don’t make decisions quickly."
"The main driver was making the most of the space—just 1,800 square feet," recalls Pulcrano. But the reward, adds Brightenburg, was their client’s eclecticism. "Seventies, ’80s, midcentury, and then her grandmother’s things," Pulcrano says. "It’s great to work with so many time periods."
Removing an oil furnace, its venting chimney, and a water heater (switching to on-demand hot water) opened vast new vistas for the kitchen while clearing the way for generous basement storage. A breakfast nook became a bar. Uniting a once-distant sink and stove within a single stretch of countertop allowed for both a larger entry into the dining room and new French doors that open to the outdoors. The efficient layout works equally well for Sarah’s regular multitasking mix of homework, cooking, and tending to Louis, her labradoodle. "I spend most of my time in the kitchen," she says. "I can cook for friends. They can sit and see outside. Open the doors and the space just flows into the backyard."
Bright Designlab created the kitchen cabinetry and integrated white-quartz countertops and gray doors to elevate the kitchen’s bravest touch: a brilliant blue Hex Dot pattern cement tile by Popham Design that merges Moroccan tradition and American Pop. Drawer pulls and a trio of hanging Tom Dixon lights, all brass, connect the modern remodel with the house’s 1920s-era ambience and Sarah’s heirloom liquor cart.
Upstairs a new, roof-length dormer widened a hallway that once required a body bend to get through. Adjacent to the master bedroom, a second bedroom was converted into a new bathroom and a cabinetry-lined closet. There, too, the team went bold with a patterned floor tile, flown in from Marrakech Design in Sweden. "It wasn’t the most economical thing," says Pulcrano, "but everybody agreed we just had to have it."
Elsewhere, the touches are light, mostly new paint providing the backdrop for Sarah’s vintage finds, from a dining table designed by Arne Vodder for George Tanier to a mannequin and dress from Dressing Vintage, Benson’s aunt’s company (a frequent source for period costumes in movies like Tree of Life and American Hustle). The preserved lead-patterned picture windows now have an energy-efficient second layer of Plexiglass, thanks to Indow window inserts.
The intractably modest bedroom size necessitated one begrudging deaccession—a round bed. But the house is otherwise proving to be a great fit. "Some of the color schemes, the black hardware, the walnut shelf that wraps around the kitchen wall, are all things I could never have imagined," says Sarah. "But now they feel comfortable—just part of my house."