Photography by Sara Tramp
It’s noon on a Thursday in the quiet Dunthorpe neighborhood of Portland, where celebrity style designer Emily Henderson and her team are setting up to shoot the dreamy and bright kitchen of her largest and most ambitious project to date. A bowl of Rainier cherries sits on a carved cutting board atop Carrara marble countertops, their blushing yellow a sweet contrast to the briny grey cabinets. In the dining room several feet away, Henderson is thumbing through some old photographs she just picked up at her parents’, of their childhood roaming free in the National Forest behind her childhood home in Coos Bay.
“We had an acre, but we thought we had 50,000 acres,” Henderson said. “My parents never knew where we were, but they knew we were in the woods.”
Little has excited the style community in the Pacific Northwest as much as Henderson’s return to her home state of Oregon, where the L.A-based stylist and winner of HGTV’s "Design Star" has been renovating a 1980s fixer-upper in the Dunthorpe neighborhood of Portland. Over the past year, Henderson has flown back and forth between Los Angeles and Portland eight times for the remodel, a side project she is using as a showcase of her emerging style and talents in a setting where she has complete control over every decision. Henderson had been looking for an investor for such projects and found one in her younger brother (she grew up one of six) and his wife.
“It’s so fun working with clients, but it’s been great not needing to run everything by someone,” Henderson said.
Once a prop stylist for Jonathan Adler and magazine clients, Henderson has positioned herself over the past decade as one of the web’s most engaging and most followed style stars. Tiny in stature, and with a happy, eclectic style that makes her projects feel both curated and lived in forever, she and her team tell the stories of her projects on her popular site, stylebyemilyhenderson.com. With the Portland project, she is testing her chops on a larger-scale remodel, one where she is taking on more and more of the interior architecture of the project in addition to the styling. She’s excited about the learning curve, and also the challenge.
“This home was half the size,” Henderson said. “We completely redid every single thing.”
Henderson is not exaggerating. It was a tricky project from the get-go to transform a home without any personality of its own into a showcase of show stopping style. Only a single room in the home – the drop-floored living room – retained its original footprint.
“The original home didn’t have a driving concept,” Henderson said. “We kind of had to wake it up.”
The home, a 3,500-square-foot mid-1980s home on a winding and sleepy street in Dunthorpe, sat on a .69-acre property and had all the makings of a great fixer-upper. Smaller than other homes in the area and with an unfinished feel, it offered many opportunities for Henderson to test out a new style she is calling “modern traditional” while adding space, completely overhauling the floor plan and using the emerging rooms as a showcase for her work.
“We wanted it to feel like it’s been here forever – like it could be here forever,” Henderson said.
In the end, the home would grow another story, add 1,300 square feet to a grand total of 4,800 and, under Henderson’s direction, emerge with a completely overhauled floor plan. To the home’s exterior, she added professional landscaping, new siding, new windows, a front porch railing, new exterior lighting and the aforementioned additional story. Inside, the downstairs master became an elegant dining space, the stairs moved to the front of the house to create a welcoming and elegant entryway, the front door grew in stature, and the covered porch got a new, more stylish footprint. The master suite moved upstairs across a styled hallway from two bedrooms with their own bathroom. Open a secret bookshelf door and a hidden playroom is set up for small children.
“I was my own client,” Henderson said. “When you don’t have a client, it’s harder to take yourself out of it.”
Henderson pops out for a moment for a quick on-camera interview with the makers behind Fernweh Woodworking, a Bend-based furniture company, which supplied one of its award-winning Walnut + Leather sling chairs for the downstairs media room. As is often the case with an Emily Henderson project, her team reached out to artists and makers throughout Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, who then contributed wall art, furniture, styling props and all manner of handmade, beautiful things she will showcase on her site’s blog in the coming months.
“The Portland market, especially, is so good,” Henderson said. “I don’t think it’s better than L.A., but it certainly feels more curated.”
Tile in the children’s bath came straight from Pratt & Larson, based in Portland’s Central Eastside. Rejuvenation and Schoolhouse Electric contributed light fixtures throughout. Some of the home’s traditional vintage vibe, like a set of old filing drawers, were sourced from Aurora Mills Architectural Salvage. It’s a thrilling experience to walk through – the home’s atmosphere all but effuses Oregon, an appealing mix of vintage items, emerging design and classic forms that together create that feeling of “modern traditional.”
Sound like a complete oxymoron? It works. The home has assumed an air of timelessness while also nodding to current trends – that green in the kitchen, for example, and the liberal use of natural textiles.
Henderson’s been living in the house for a few days with her family at the end of a massively busy week photographing in the space and hosting an open-house party for collaborators and fans. Soon she will return to the L.A. grind, but she says that in a perfect world, she’d do one of these full-scale remodels a year. She walks around the space eyeing the baseball-bat banister, running her hand along the steel stairway she designed herself.
“It’s really functional,” she said. “It’s been great to have the pressure off and not be walking through constantly thinking about every little thing.”