Pam Williams didn’t love her loft in the Pearl District of Portland, Ore. Its orangy bamboo floors and cabinets didn’t speak to her, nor did the imposing steel ductwork from a previous renovation. To create a place that felt like her own, she figured she would have to move.
Then she saw another apartment in the building.
“It just blew me away,” said Ms. Williams, 74, a retired public library director and widow who volunteers with the Portland Art Museum and the Armory performing arts center. Although her neighbor’s space was similar to hers, it looked like a different world, with a crisp black-and-white color scheme, concrete floors and a pared-down collection of modern yet comfortable furniture.
Pam Williams asked her designer, Jessica Helgerson, for “a nice, clean palette, not fussy.”CreditAmanda Lucier for The New York Times
“I had saved money to buy a new place, and was looking,” Ms. Williams said. “But I started to think maybe it would be wiser to just stay here and have it redone by somebody who could turn it into a real gem.”
The most obvious way forward? Call the interior designer who had overhauled her neighbor’s place: Jessica Helgerson.
After meeting Ms. Williams, Ms. Helgerson was not only up for the job, but eager to take on a client who seemed to have endless creative energy and enthusiasm.
“She’s a human ray of sunshine,” said Ms. Helgerson, recalling that Ms. Williams often arrived at her office with bundles of fresh flowers she had grown in a community garden, and would send drawings and handwritten notes after meetings. “Everyone in our office had a massive crush on her.”
It helped that Ms. Williams was also a very trusting client. She shared some broad thoughts about what she wanted, but otherwise let Ms. Helgerson and her team follow their instincts.
Ms. Helgerson described the space she designed as warm and subdued — “a welcoming cocoon.”CreditAaron Leitz
“I gave them a bunch of adjectives to describe the elements I was looking for: serene, minimalist, flexible, spacious, inventive,” Ms. Williams said of the home she envisioned. “I asked for a nice, clean palette, not fussy.”
She also gave all of her furniture away to family — “It was all really nice, but I was ready for a change,” she said — so Ms. Helgerson could begin with a clean slate.
“I realized from when I helped with building libraries that when you’re paying people all this money because of their expertise, you should give them as free of a rein as possible, so they can be very inventive,” Ms. Williams said. “That paid off for me.”
Ms. Helgerson’s plan for the 1,075-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bathroom loft, which Ms. Williams bought in late 2009 for about $400,000, was to strip everything back to the original brick, concrete and wood shell, which dated to about 1910, and start fresh.
“We wanted to create something soft, calm and cozy, with a modern and youthful feeling,” Ms. Helgerson said. “A welcoming cocoon for her to live in.”
At the same time, she wanted to add extensive storage that would make it easy for Ms. Williams to keep the apartment clutter-free.
The design she arrived at involved extensive built-in furniture and an edited palette of warm, subdued colors, including off-whites, light grays and peachy pinks.
The living room has a built-in sectional sofa with large storage drawers in the base. It also has a wall with open and closed storage that Ms. Williams likens to a painting by Piet Mondrian.
“It tolerates and even encourages real flights of whimsy, fun and change,” said Ms. Williams, who likes switching out the objects on display.
The kitchen has bleached red-oak base cabinets with brass pulls, but no upper cabinets, which makes the space feel larger. Instead, the wall is covered in one-inch-square tiles from Design and Direct Source, which also line storage niches and the range hood. In the bathroom, the same tile wraps around walls and inside the shower, and covers the vanity.
“There’s no Sheetrock anywhere in the apartment,” Ms. Helgerson said. “Everything is either brick, concrete, cabinetry or tile.”
The snuggest area is a raised study with a built-in desk, shelves and cabinetry, where she lowered the floor and eliminated stairs for accessibility, but also dropped the ceiling so that the space cradles anyone who steps inside. Ms. Williams calls it her “rainy-day room.”
When Paul Hegarty Construction began work in May 2017, Ms. Williams temporarily moved to Wisconsin, where she has family. She returned that September and, when construction took a few days longer than expected, stayed at Ms. Helgerson’s weekend house until the reimagined loft was ready. The total cost was about $350,000.
“It turned out to be a wonderful experience,” said Ms. Williams, who was as impressed with her contractors as she was with her interior designer. “Not only did I get a home, but I also got people whom I consider to be friends and mentors.”
The feeling is mutual, Ms. Helgerson said: “We really poured a lot of love into this project. She deserves it.”