Hostels have long been a perfect solution for travelers who would rather spend on experiences and dining, rather than blowing their budget on a hotel room that they don’t plan to spend much time in anyway. Recently, a rise in social hotels—the updated version of the hostel—poses a modern solution. In addition to the option to book shared, dorm-style rooms at a lower rate, social hotels also boast shared communal spaces and pride themselves in providing more opportunities for social interaction with fellow travelers. They also offer a sense of style that the hostels of yesteryear never possessed.
The Icelandic social hotel, KEX, recently opened their second outpost, KEX Portland in a fully-restored 1912 building not far from the banks of the Willamette River. The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was formerly home to the Vivian apartments.
KEX Reykjavik was founded by Kristinn (Kiddi) Vilbergsson in 2012 and the mini-chain is named after the abandoned biscuit factory in Reykjavik where it is located ("Kex" means "biscuit" in Icelandic). Vilbergsson arrived in the Pacific Northwest via Seattle, but fate led him to Portland and he was smitten. One thing led to another and the hotel has been in the works for the last seven years, finally opening in November 2019.
Before: The Lobby
After: The Lobby
The stylish interiors of KEX Portland were designed by Hálfdan Pedersen, who is also responsible for the design of KEX Reykjavik. Pedersen sourced an eclectic and moody mix of furniture, artwork, building materials, and objets from the 1920s to the 1970s on buying trips to the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Egypt, and Iceland. He stored his finds in a Portland warehouse and later restored and assembled them on-site. And while Pedersen has created a definite European vibe, there are also plenty of perfectly Pacific Northwest touches: the lobby flooring is reclaimed Douglas fir beams from the Fort Vancouver train station, reassembled in a herringbone pattern by the Portland-based Salvage Works; custom wallpaper illustrated by Melanie Nead of Lonesome Pictopia, another Portland company, lines the hallways (and features adorable puffins—a bird found in both Oregon and Iceland); the basement sauna, lined with locally sourced Western red cedar, is from Finlandia Sauna, also a Portland-based business; and the shared rooms feature custom bunk beds by the Bainbridge Island-based Blackmouth Design, all with privacy curtains and personal hanging storage bags from Portland's own Revive Upholstery.
Dóttir, the Icelandic-themed restaurant in the light-filled, ground-floor lobby, wraps around a large oval-shaped bar serving Nordic-meets-Northwest cuisine under the direction of Culinary Director Ólafur (Oli) Ágústsson, a top chef in Iceland. Under his leadership, KEX Reykjavik's restaurant, Dill, was awarded the first Michelin star for an Icelandic restaurant. He is assisted by Executive Chef Alex Jackson, formerly of the Michelin-starred Sons & Daughters in San Francisco. An L-shaped, soft leather banquette and a mix of refurbished chairs and tables create a cozy atmosphere, and help make the restaurant a welcome addition to Portland's burgeoning hotel lobby dining culture.
The end results are nothing short of a total transformation. Scroll ahead for a glimpse of how this former apartment building became one of the next big things in the City of Roses.
"We are a concept born in Iceland, but we are very much a local hotel. We've created a space and an experience in Portland where locals feel like travelers and travelers feel like locals," says Vilbergsson.
Before: The Kitchen of Dóttir
After: The Kitchen of Dóttir
Before: The Inner Courtyard
After: The Inner Courtyard
Before: The Original Lobby
After: The Original Lobby Becomes a Hotel Guest-Only Entrance
Before: The Bedrooms
After: The Bedrooms
Before: The Bathrooms
After: The Bathrooms
The Bespoke Wallpaper
Before: The Lower Level
After: The Lower Level
Related Reading: Kex Hostel, Reykjavik
Architect of Record: Hennebery Eddy Architects
Builder/General Contractor: R&H Construction
Structural Engineer: DCI Engineers
Civil Engineer: Froelich Engineers
Landscape Design: Leather Storrs Landscaping
Lighting Design: Þórður "Orri" Pétursson
Interior Design: Baulhus / Hálfdan Pedersen
Sound Engineer: Ohm Systems
Cabinetry Design/Installation: Baulhus / Hálfdan Pedersen
Custom Bunk beds: Blackmouth Designs
Upholstery: Leland Duck at Revive
Additional Upholstry: Mario Reyes of In-Ex Upholstery