An artist couple brings an iconic beach home back to life.
Cole and Lea Anne Gerst were in the middle of buying another Coast property when the listing for Marvin Witt’s family cottage in Manzanita came on the market. Witt, an iconic Portland architect, had built the home himself in the early 1980s as a personal family retreat. Known for his many contributions to the development of Northwest contemporary architectural style, Witt made work that embodied the midcentury edicts of functionality, natural materials and harmony with the environment. The family cottage is no exception. More like a treehouse, the home sits on a small footprint, not disrupting the adjacent ecology, but rather growing through and as a part of the coastal landscape.
“We were looking for a project that would spark our creativity,” said Cole, a visual artist and product designer for KEEN Footwear. “The Witt cottage had fallen into disrepair and needed someone with vision to see its possibilities.”
For midcentury decorating, consider a neutral base palette, but don’t hesitate to accent with pops of color or pattern. These can take the form of a piece of art as a focal point, a singular piece of furniture that catches the eye in a daring shade, or an abstract rug. The neutral walls allow attention to focus on design elements. The Gerst’s took “graphic” to heart, with bold patterns showing up from blankets to backsplashes.
The Gersts, both artists and creatives themselves, didn’t hesitate to change tactics. This cottage was calling to them. The Gersts wanted to create a retreat different from the standard cedar shingle and shell-filled rentals they had frequented over the years. Even though the Witt family had several competing offers for the house, they were thrilled to hand it over to the Gersts knowing they would be able to honor the original design while updating.
With their own vision for the remodel, the Gersts engaged contractor Mark McCorkle to bring it to life. When upgrades to the interior vertical staircase became complex, they hired Portland architect Risa Boyer, known for her midcentury renovations, to assist with structural planning.
“We wanted to expand upon the interior staircase as the connective tissue between the floors. By keeping the whole structure open, we could capitalize on the light it brings throughout the entire home,” said Cole.
Midcentury homes pioneered the idea of “indoor-outdoor” living. From nature-framing window views to easy outdoor access, the Gerst-Witt cottage feels like living in the trees.
Cole’s father was an interior designer, and he felt confident in his and Lea Anne’s ability to choose their own fixtures, finishes and furnishings. They have kept the color palette neutral, prioritizing durable surfaces for beach living. Energetic graphic patterns turn up in everything from Pendleton bed linens to Block Shop Textiles accent pillows and a custom Fireclay tile on the kitchen backsplash. Much of the artwork is Cole’s own, drawing on his personal illustrative style. His strong lines and formwork echoes midcentury pop and poster art. The ubiquitous Nelson bubble lamps throughout are classic midcentury lighting fixtures that bridge the gap between contemporary and retro.
The Gersts also wanted to preserve the best of Witt’s original intentions for the home.
“We really leaned into all the wood and the beauty of the original design,” said Lea Anne, a creative studio director for Opus Agency. “We accomplished more light and brightness in individual rooms like the kitchen and bathrooms while bringing them up to code. We increased the overall functionality and added extra comforts like heated floors.
One challenge was the lack of storage space, a common complaint about homes of this period.
Midcentury style starts with the basic concept of an uncluttered line. Simple lines and motifs can be interspersed with eclectic pieces, with functionality taking priority over the merely decorative. Lacking closet space in the bedrooms, the Gersts chose attractive minimalist garment racks. They made sure to include lots of useful hooks throughout.
Midcentury minimalism doesn’t mean uncomfortable or cold. Many midcentury icons like Frank Lloyd Wright were all about warm, inviting spaces using natural materials and organic forms and colors. The Gersts embraced the natural wood-paneled walls as a critical feature of the midcentury style of the cottage.
“We had to be very intentional with how we chose furnishings and accessories,” said Lea Anne. “But that kind of intention is sympathetic to midcentury design’s focus on functionality.”
The tiny, triangular bathroom presented another challenge. Wanting to add a second shower option for guests, the Gersts transformed the powder room into a completely open “wet” room—something not very common for remodelers to undertake.
“We were blessed with a contractor so willing and open to our vision,” says Cole. “Mark and Risa were able to roll with our ideas and bring them to life, honoring all of our collective abilities.”
The finished effect is contemporary and artful—capturing the dramatic spirit of the house and the coastal environment while remaining inviting and cozy. It’s the perfect blend of warmth and style.