Hilltop House: Designing, Remodeling, and Reinventing

There is something innately invigorating about the idea of starting over for me. I remember one art class I took in college where we explored the concept of Tabula Rasa – a blank slate. I have always loved this idea of wiping the slate clean. And while I am metaphorically speaking here, I am also not kidding – I really like to wipe it all out. This comes in handy with my interior design projects. I can walk into a space and visualize it completely transformed. There are a few steps before that transformation reveals itself, but the clean-slate beginning is the birthplace of amazing ideas.


Something about starting over feels comfortable to me. Perhaps it’s my personal interest in psychology, but there are a fair few of us who like this cycle of upheaval that ultimately leads to a fresh start. I guess it is why we have taken so well to DIY shows, blogs, shops and sites selling great home goods and interior design inspiration. Perhaps it is also why I am so fond of renovation – I love to walk into a completely worn out, old, out of date space and imagine what it could be after a make-over.

Renovating or designing a space is fun, hard work, but for me there is a method to the madness, and I generally follow a few guiding principles. The first being that it all starts with wishful thinking. The dream of “could I make this place uniquely amazing” – that’s what fuels the first steps.


My latest project in the Council Crest neighborhood overlooking Portland was just that beginning. An average 1950’s ranch house minus the cool, coveted mid-century vibe was in need of some renovation and a little TLC. I very often get the question, “how do you know how it’s going to turn out – do you have a vision?” I always say that good design begins with solid decision-making. There are close to an infinite amount of choices we could make in a place – there are fewer right choices, but within that list of correct options the ability to be agile in the decision-making process can make a project run smoothly.

For example, starting with a good group of working partners – contractors, sub-contractors, design era, artisans and a talented architect will help your project run smoothly. The list is essential and can determine the difference between a good experience and a bad one. Luckily, I have that arsenal of teammates, so I can scout out properties with the confidence that I can move quickly and assemble the team if I find a place. I extend that relationship with my working partners to my clients.


Walking into the house on the hill, I knew immediately that I could bring this property into present day reality and really celebrate what was so special about it. It’s my second principle that when renovating or re-designing a home, honor the heritage, architectural integrity and true gifts of the property. If your home is a turn of the century Victorian, you might want to think twice before you start tearing all the walls out for that open-concept family room. It’s good to honor some of what was amazing about your property to begin with.

The Hilltop House had a solid base level layout, but needed some structural adjustments on the top level (which, in this case, was the main level.) The first decision was to remove a small wall in the former outdated kitchenette on the main level to create a larger, open kitchen area. Raising the ceilings created additional volume of space, and removing a doorway to the garage created an “L” opportunity for kitchen essentials – fridge, ovens, sinks, a microwave and stove top. We curated a large, reclaimed-wood dining table made by local Portland artisan, Jason Gillihan from Black Rabbit, which maximized the seating and workspace. The chunky table doubles as a dining table and kitchen-island. Together, we designed a bar cart that doubles as additional seating at the large table. Simply remove the wheels and the bottom shelf, and it nestles up to the table for two extra place settings. The cart’s full time job is a beautiful walnut gathering place for cocktail essentials, as pictured under the Warhol print. I also added double French doors onto the deck to capitalize on the fabulous view. This constitutes my third guiding principle, invest resources where it matters. This comes into play on structural changes, mechanical upgrades, and high quality fixtures, at least wherever you can afford it.


The modern master suite is no longer an after-thought in contemporary homes. It is the sanctuary for any master of the house. It is the recipe I obediently follow – make a luxurious retreat starting with a spacious master bathroom. In this house, I took two very small bedrooms and 2 small baths and created a wonderful master suite oasis. Since the bathroom is at the back of the house, I added double French doors so you can soak in the tub while watching the sunset. The area is so private and nestled in the trees, you actually feel like you are in a tree house with no one around for miles. I love the placement of a tub in the middle of a big bathroom because it just insists that you relax every night. A large shower with a rain shower-head, a separate toilet room, and two large, separate vanities with an ample linen closet make this master bathroom an amazing place to relax. When I first saw the space, I knew I wanted to vault the ceiling and give the suite a grander feel. The rooms were not that big to begin with, and the small 50’s windows gave it a boxy, cramped feeling. The vaulted ceilings really open up the space, and the added double French doors give a great perch-view in the trees.

I used Arabescato Carrara marble throughout the entire house. In some spaces it is honed, others it is polished. I laid it in a herringbone pattern on the heated master bath floor and powder room. It also provided clean bright work surfaces on kitchen countertops, backsplash and bathroom vanities. The rest of the floors in the house have wide, 7-inch wide white oak plank floors for a clean modern feel.

Between the master bathroom and bedroom, I added two separate closets completed with custom closet shelving. Perfectly designed closets are an essential luxury for any master suite. My penchant for constant change is only subdued by order. I can get as excited about a custom closet layout as I can about beautiful wallpaper.

My guiding principle number four — acknowledge trends without being trendy.

Wallpapers are definitely trendy at the moment, and they offer a wonderful pop of personality.. We have gorgeous grass cloths, hand-printed graphics, and whimsical prints from all over the world, and I use them like art. In place of a heavy mirror or artwork over beds, I use amazing wallpapers – (we also live in earthquake zone, and a wallpaper won’t crash on your head in the middle of the night. Eek!) In the master suite, I chose a gold graphic print on white, made by the amazing ladies at Hygee & West. I am a big fan of their work and you see it often in my clients’ homes and mine as well. This is the partnership I spoke about earlier – it takes a village, a very talented village, to make an amazing space. The red and white wallpaper in one of the lower level bedrooms is also one of theirs.

Throughout the house, I mixed both vintage and contemporary light fixtures to give the space a unique, authentic design. Both the master bathroom and closets have vintage lighting. In the kitchen, we installed two large industrial lights that were once used in an Oregon dairy farm - we have them re-wired and powder-coated with black and gold. This works nicely with guiding principle number five, let your space tell your story. We all have special things we have collected from travels, our past, our relationships, and our families.


Our homes should be a reflection of who we are and the things we collect tells our story. People will ask me how do you design for different clients with different tastes and styles – this principle helps me do that. I think it is important for your home to reflect the people that live there. It makes my job much easier when I grow to understand what is important to my clients.


Window treatments are the last and final brush stroke in a beautifully designed space. I aim for the best window coverings a budget can afford. Clients often ask me – what is the difference between store-bought window treatments and custom? Well, it is like the difference between a pair of pants that were made just for you or ones that were made for someone 4 inches taller than you. With custom drapes, the perfect piece of fabric is chosen and lined with white backing (and additional black out if needed,) then cut and hand-sewn to the exact proportions of your windows. The hardware is custom-sized and professionally hung for perfect spacing. The black and white striped drapes in the master bedroom are made from fantastic Schumacher linen with a cream leather stripe. I fell in love with this fabric as I was kicking off this project and knew it would find a place in this home. The hand-made black shutters throughout the house were custom-made and painted the exact black of the doors and window casings in the house. I love shutters because they add an amazing architectural aspect to a space. The dark doors also add drama against the stark gallery-white walls of this space.


When all is wrapped up and the last drape is hung, contractors have vacated the site, you can sit back and enjoy this new space – one that has been created perfectly in your vision.. You can marvel at the fact that it represents you and your family, and that you worked hard to create a home. As much as I gush about the drapes, fabrics, and wallpapers, the most important consideration is, “did I create a space that my family and I are able to call home?” I keep this thought in the forefront as I work on clients’ homes as well.


I even create a little mantra for each client – it’s how I keep my focus. Have I created a home that is comforting, inviting, invigorating, inspiring, and a place they call their own?