written by Melissa Dalton
When a couple bought this rambler in Portland’s West Hills, it still held much of its Mid-century charm, which the new owners loved. Soaring ceilings clad in cedar in the living room? Check. Original kitchen cabinets in excellent shape? Yes, please. Unfortunately, their swooning stopped upon seeing the master bathroom. “ The house was built in 1954, and I don’t think the bathrooms had ever been touched,” said Stewart Horner, principal designer at Penny Black Interiors, who worked with the homeowners on a refresh. “It was pretty much as it had been for fifty-plus years, and it wasn’t pleasant.” First, there was the room’s unappealing Jack-and-Jill layout. A popular treatment during the Mid-century era, it meant the bathroom was shared between the parents’ bedroom and their daughter’s, ensuring privacy for no one. Drab tile and a claustrophobic “cubicle” of a shower compounded the need for a complete do-over. Horner and Look Construction teamed up to gut the space, then reconfigure it as a self-contained master suite. Even after borrowing a bit of space from a nearby room, the new bathroom clocked in around 80 square feet. The homeowners’ wish list included a deep tub, double vanity and rain showerhead, all of which Horner was able to fit, while weaving in a modern aesthetic that jives with the home’s excellent Mid-century bones. “I call it more modern than ‘Mid,’” he said. “
That was the brief: to work with this classic Mid-century architecture but make it more modern than Mid-century.” Horner started with an interesting palette. “We wanted to use materials that were a little unusual,” he said. Now, the custom double vanity and tub surround are fabricated from sealed marine plywood, the edges exposed for a modern look. To safeguard water resilience, the surround was topped with a thin layer of Formica veneer that stretches all the way up the wall in the open shower. There, a glass enclosure has an angled edge. “It’s wider at the bottom and narrower at the top, which actually creates a really interesting look,” Horner said. He specified a clever cutout in the glass so the homeowners can reach in and turn on the shower without getting a face full of water. Small details add up to make the room feel spacious and luxe. A large frameless glass mirror hangs over the vanity, itself hovering about 8 inches above the floor. “Visually that gives you more space because you can see more of the floor,” Horner said. Sconces installed over the glass and nearby floating shelves afford more airiness, while brushed brass hardware and faucets lend a burnished shine that’s warmer than the typical chrome. The adjacent master bedroom boasts wallpaper on the ceiling and show-stopping artwork, and the connected bathroom delivers personality in equally unexpected ways. Take the bespoke “Bubble Hex” tile backsplash from Portland maker Clayhaus Ceramics. The dramatic dimensional pieces and striking white and gray gradient are an inspired take on 1960s pop art, to fashion just-the-right mix of modern and “Mid” that Horner and the homeowners sought. “It’s the showpiece of the whole space,” Horner said of the tile. “It’s the perfect fit.”
Kenneth Birkemeier was a designer and builder working from the 1930s to the 1970s. He erected around 700 custom houses and apartments, many in the Northeast neighborhoods of Portland. Many of his Mid-century designs were dubbed the “houses of tomorrow,” yet Birkemeier had a solid appreciation of old-world craftsmanship and used it in many of his builds, such as where he incorporated Craftsman-style built-ins fashioned from natural wood. When interior designer Courtney Nye set out to remodel the master bath in this Birkemeier-designed Alameda home, foremost in her mind was to modernize it without compromising his approach of blending the past and future. “We wanted to update but still tie in with the rest of the house and have a little ode to what it was before,” Nye said. The master bathroom presented challenges. For starters, the room was cramped and a singular shade of teal, from the tile floor to the sink to the toilet. Even after borrowing an extra 2 feet of space from a nearby closet, the entire layout was a mere 65 square feet. “Still, we were able to work within the small footprint and maximize the feel of it,” Nye said. First, she swapped the placement of the fixtures and combined the sink and toilet into one sleek, space-saving wall-mounted unit. Doing so enabled her to extend the countertop across the entire length of the piece and t in a generous, 40-inch trough sink.
A custom recessed medicine chest above the basin contains a large mirror, lights, and both open and closed storage. “I wanted to integrate as many components into one so that we wouldn’t have too many stops and starts, which could make the space feel smaller,” Nye said. Next, she exchanged a dark, confined shower for one that occupies the entire side of the room, streamlining it with a glass partition. By dropping the shower’s entry threshold to zero clearance, the floor tile now runs unobstructed throughout the room, creating the illusion of more space. White tile with a light-colored grout further prevents the tableau from feeling too busy. “I kept the floor and wall tiles white just to make it feel more open and bright,” Nye said. Her finish selections read modern yet timeless, since she aimed to reference the home’s current and previous incarnations. The natural white oak of the built-in vanity syncs with the home’s original oak floors. The tile backsplash behind the sink is a beautiful green that recalls the bathroom’s former teal palette and complements the tones of the wood. The end result accommodates the homeowners’ entire wish list—including luxuries like the double sink and a towel warmer—to conjure a true master suite, yet still flows seamlessly with the historical house thanks to Nye’s unwavering eye. Achieving such an elegant balance between the past and future, craftsmanship and modern function, we think Birkemeier would have approved.