written by Melissa Dalton | photos by Christopher Dibble
Kristen Siefkin is no stranger to reinvention. The Portland-based interior designer first became intrigued with her field while working as a public relations professional for McMenamins Hotels, Pubs and Breweries in the late ’90s. “Design had never really been on my radar,” Siefkin said. “I always hear designers say, ‘I grew up rearranging my family’s living room,’ and that was never me. I learned about design from Mike McMenamin, who was obsessed with the details and history and creating layers and creating spaces that people talk about.” After that unofficial introduction, Siefkin studied the topic formally at the Heritage School of Interior Design and swapped her PR career in 2015 to start her own firm, Interior Design Alchemy.
In the interim years, she cultivated her passion for design via her own home renovations, designing four houses over ten years, and experimenting with several different styles in the process, from a traditional Tudor and Craftsman to a contemporary LEED-certified abode. “I had the opportunity to test my mettle with all of these different aesthetic styles, ”Siefkin said. Then a 2017 divorce led her to a condo in the Pearl District and her newest design challenge—personalizing a small space without much innate architectural character.
During her real estate search, she saw “a lot of places without a lot of moxie,” Siefkin said. She chose the best of the bunch—a one-bedroom unit that juxtaposes large windows and hardwood floors with an industrial-tinged concrete ceiling and exposed ductwork. “While I can create my own space with my things, I think having an interesting canvas to start with is even better,” Siefkin said. Here’s how she applied her design philosophy to her new home.
Siefkin’s process always starts with the “discovery” phase, which delves into the specific items a client feels are representative of them. “I like incorporating things that people already own that they love,” she said. For her home, that’s art. At the top of her list of condo search criteria was to find a place with enough wall space for her extensive collection. Now, every piece on display is a sliver of her personal history, from the striking multimedia painting she spied in artist Lane Van Doren’s studio on a trip in San Miguel de Allende ten years ago, to the Kokeshi doll recently gifted by a happy client. “I brought only the things that made my heart beat fast,” Siefkin said. “In a lot of ways that’s been a really good exercise for me, because I’m surrounded by the things that I absolutely adore.”
Get the right fit
Décor should always suit the scale of the room. In Siefkin’s condo, that relationship is tricky, since her 500-square-foot floorspace is limited, but the ceilings are 12 feet high. She made sure she got the proportions right in subtle, creative ways. The gallery wall for her art collection climbs nearly to the ceiling, then down to the floor. Above the couch, a suspended mobile composed of slim brass rods and felted airplane shapes is an airy way to bring the ceiling down. Vignettes atop tall cabinets and kitchen cupboards also give furnishings the illusion of more height.
In the living room, an extra-long couch and 7-foot walnut credenza, both from local boutique Hip Furniture, were chosen not just for looks, but for the way each piece fits their respective wall perfectly. “It was a challenge because obviously this wall is huge, and I needed a piece that could stand up to that,” Siefkin said. Smaller furnishings might seem more appropriate for a small space, but they would have chopped up the expanse and made the room feel more cluttered.
Siefkin likes to display groups of favorite objects that she can rearrange. “It’s trial and error,” she said of her approach. With the popularity of Instagram and the internet, “There’s just so much pressure to have a perfectly composed home, and I don’t feel that’s necessary.” And not every piece has to be too meaningful, either. Some finds just give off an irresistible charm that loosens up the overall scheme, like the large carved hands Siefkin bought o the back of a vendor’s truck in Kenton, and which sit on the floor in a place of pride. “I couldn’t resist them,” Siefkin said. “They’re just so weird and wonderful.”
Make storage eye-catching
The backbone of any design is excellent function, which Siefkin needed in the form of more storage, as hers was limited to the kitchen cupboards and a single closet in the bedroom. She got creative about containing the rest of her odds and ends by sprinkling antique Tansu chests in various spots. Tansus are traditional wood Japanese storage cabinets with exposed metal hardware and fun combinations of drawers and doors. She tucked low-lying cases under the window sills and stacked two atop one another by the entry, effectively screening the bed from the front door. The chests bring in a vintage patina that contrasts with the modern bones of the space and offer storage galore, holding everything from dog leashes to sunglasses to towels. “These are lifesavers for me,” Siefkin said.
Siefkin has long wanted to live in the Pearl District and is enjoying everything about her latest reincarnation there. “I have a tendency to hibernate,” Siefkin said. “I knew that if I were in an area of town that forced me to get out and walk the dogs, and go grocery shopping, and do all of my essentials, then I would be forced to communicate with my neighbors and strangers.” An added bonus has been building relationships with nearby shopkeepers, to whom she waves on her daily sojourns through the neighborhood. Still, returning home to her condo remains a pleasure. “I didn’t expect to like small-space living as much as I do,” Siefkin said. “I don’t know that I would ever go back to a 2,800-square-foot home again.”