When creative director Ben Watson and his partner, painter Claudio Tschopp, relocated from Basel, Switzerland, to Portland, Oregon, three years ago, they had been told about Portland’s Pearl District, a popular former industrial enclave now brimming with galleries, restaurants, and residential lofts. But the outskirts beckoned: “I decided that if I’m in Portland,” Watson recalls, “why not enjoy the essence of what the city is?”
That essence, he contends, is Portland’s concurrence of urban and natural environments. Besides the abundant natural wonders a short drive away, Portland also has the largest wilderness within a major American city: 5,000-acre Forest Park. On the edge of this wooded sanctuary, yet just minutes from downtown, Watson and Tschopp found their ideal spot.
Designed in 1972 by local architect Edgar Waehrer, the house is a later example of Northwest modernism, which combined the clean lines and open plans of mid-century modernism with an emphasis on natural local materials and natural light. The small, 1,200-square-foot house feels spacious, thanks to 16-foot ceilings and an abundance of windows that not only frame the picturesque view but also foster an openness that began with the architect’s decision to eliminate all doors (except for the bathroom). “It’s not for everyone,” Tschopp says. “The house forces you to do things together.”
The early ’70s décor left by the original owner, an elderly widow, had a lot of wood surfaces, which Watson and Tschopp felt created too much of a dark, damp, almost summer camp effect. But they liked the texture of the wood walls, which are actually the same material surface as outside. So instead of painting, Watson and Tschopp bleached the walls to better invite sunlight in while maintaining the tactile quality. They also replaced the faux-travertine linoleum floors with white wood recycled from bleachers at a high school gymnasium downstate. “I’d been thinking that white cork would be beautiful but it ended up being too rosy,” says Watson. The larger planks seem to draw one’s eye more to the house’s signature view and unique artworks.
Now, the interior light of this brightened space constantly changes throughout the days and seasons. On a clear day, sun filtering through the forest makes an elaborate moving pattern of shadows. And when the rain clouds move in come autumn, there is a delicate softness to the light, which has an almost painterly quality.
It’s not surprising, then, that home life has affected Tschopp’s point of view—professionally and personally. “If you look at what kind of art people produce in the Northwest, it’s a cliché to say there’s a tendency toward nature, but now I can see where that comes from,” explains the Swiss-born artist. “All that greenery and open space: It really influences you, not just as an artist but in terms of your overall lifestyle. If you live in other places, having lots of rain is supposed to be sad. But here, the rain makes life really mellow. You find yourself more accepting of things.”
Watson and Tschopp’s home expresses a casual style reflective of Oregon’s laid-back temperament. “When I think of my New York days, I think of everything being crisp and black and leather,” Watson says, laughing. “I didn’t want that here.” Accordingly, their interiors are more West Coast modern than downtown loft. In the dining room, for example, a pair of classic bent-plywood Eames chairs flank a circular marble dining room table by Saarinen, where the pair leisurely read the newspaper after their daily morning jog in the forest. In the living room, a clean-lined yet plush Cappellini sofa Watson bought back in Switzerland is complemented by a seven-foot-tall watercolor painting of a pomegranate—one of two the couple own by artist Anastasia Schipani—hanging above a dilapidated chest of drawers. Watson proudly says, “I paid five bucks for it at a junk shop in Connecticut and it has floated around with me for years, because it’s right.”
Watson and Tschopp considered knocking down the wall that separates the light-deprived kitchen—which is the only room with dropped ceilings—from the living room, but ultimately backed off in deference to the ar-chitect’s original plan when a simpler option emerged for their kitchen: removing the cupboards in favor of simple open shelves.
Light is in abundance in Watson’s spare home office, which is defined not by its furnishings but rather by the massive clerestory window where Watson peeks out, contemplating a run later this morning. “That’s how I look at a home,” he says. “It should be a background for your life.”
Brian Libby is a Portland-based architecture writer who has contributed to Dwell since 2004. He has also written for The New York Times, Architect, CityLab, Salon, Metropolis, Architectural Record and The Oregonian, among others. Libby additionally writes the Portland Architecture blog and is an award-winning filmmaker and photographer.
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