A Chat with Jessica Helgerson
We’re sure by now you have followed Portland-based interior designer Jessica Helgerson on IG. It’s hard not to do a double-take and tap the ‘save’ icon on every picture she posts of spaces she and her team at Jessica Helgerson Interior Design have designed. All of these spaces are classic and simple, yet cozy and sophisticated. We chatted with the Portland-based interior designer about her career path, the mantra she follows in both her professional and personal life, and her secret to bringing new life to a room on a budget.
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You own and operate Jessica Helgerson Interior Design. Tell us about how you got to where you are.
I grew up in Santa Barbara, California, across the street from the beach. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do early on, so I followed in my father’s footsteps (he was an English professor at UCSB) and majored in English at UCLA. After college, I lived in Italy for a year where I learned Italian, cocktail waitressed, taught English, and tried to figure out what to do with my life. When the Italy year was up I moved back to Santa Barbara and, on a whim, went to an informational evening at the public library, presenting the UCSB Extension Interior Design program. I thought - wow, that’s everything I love! I should try it. . .
The rest is (sort of) history. I did love it. I worked for a few years at an architecture firm in Santa Barbara, but I didn’t agree with their approach to running a business and my HEART was totally in a non-profit I was on the board of, called The Sustainability Project. We were a group of architects, builders, landscape architects, all working for a greener built environment. I finally got to a point where I HAD to do my own thing, I really wanted my own values to guide my professional life, so I started JHID. That was twenty years ago. A year or so into business ownership I met my husband, Yianni Doulis, an architect from Portland, Oregon. He eventually convinced me to move here with him, and I’ve been in Portland, running JHID part two, for fifteen years. Over those years it has grown to an office of ten. We have a ton of talent in the office - JHID is now much more than JH! :)
Your spaces often lean towards traditional with pops of modern. How do you achieve that balance?
On all of our remodels we really try to listen to the building we’re working on and what it needs. Where is it? When was it built? Who was the architect? What were the materials used at the time, what were the details of that period? I think that careful process helps us create timeless interiors that don’t feel trendy. But then when we are layering on lighting and furniture we use things that feel right for the present, right for the client. We aren’t creating period sets, we’re creating livable places for the people who will inhabit them now, and the less permanent things like furniture and lighting really reflect that.
What is your most favorite project you have worked on to date?
Whichever one I’m working on right now! I’m not really one to rest on my laurels, and I get pretty excited about whatever project is current and underway.
You live in Portland, OR! What are a few of your favorite things about living there?
I think the two things I loved the most about Portland when I first moved from California, were the seasons and the (relative) affordability.
I loved that someone could live in Portland, make handbags out of recycled sweaters, and own a HOUSE! That is changing, unfortunately, but when I moved here from Santa Barbara it felt like the place where you could be young, artistic, creative, and also a homeowner, which was awesome!
And then I grew up where the weather only really fluctuated between 65 and 80. Living here, I LOVE the rain, the snow, the spring, the fall, all of it. I think I was really missing that growing up.
What are a few of your secret tricks to bringing new life to a room on a budget?
Antiques!! They are surprisingly affordable, often beautiful, often beautifully made, and frequently much less expensive than new, good quality furniture.
And natural light! Every room, if at all possible, should have a window.
The Pacific Northwest is gorgeous in every season. Is there a season you always feel most inspired by?
When I was little I used to cut out photos of moss and ferns from National Geographic and they lined the walls of my room, so I think I was always meant to be here - I have always craved the lush green. I’m much more of a snail than a lizard! SO I love the SPRING when the Northwest is at it’s very greenest.
What is the best advice you have been given on running a business or being a designer?
I have one piece of the best advice ever, and I think it’s worked for it all - life AND work.
When I was pregnant with my son, our next-door neighbor in Santa Barbara said; “You’ve been given a seed. It might be a poppy seed, it might be an oak seed, it might a cabbage seed. Don’t try to make the poppy an oak, don’t try to make the cabbage a poppy, just prepare the earth, water, and take good care of it. . . let it grow into the best poppy, oak, or cabbage it can be.”
That has been such a guiding mantra in my parenting but also professionally. Each project we work on we try to really listen to. . . what does THAT house or building want? What makes it itself, and how can we celebrate that? And NOT try to make a mid-century house be a Victorian, a Tudor be modern, a farmhouse be fancy.
Every space you design is so beautiful. Are there ever times when you are doubtful a project will come together as you had anticipated?
Thank you ! and yes, of course, there’s always some doubt and worry, but also a certain amount of confidence that things will turn out ok, just because I’ve done it sooooo many times now :)
What’s next for you and Jessica Helgerson Interior Design?
In the last year, I’ve gotten clearer on what I’d like the next decade to look like, and I finally think I can see growth as a good thing. We’ve spent SO much time designing tons and tons of custom things - light fixtures, furniture, house parts, tiles. For a long time, it was a point of pride that we were continually "designing from scratch” but on the other hand we were also constantly in the prototyping phase, and as soon as we figured something out we’d just move on. I finally think I’m ready to do something with all of that, whether it is manufacturing ourselves or licensing is still to be determined.
I also think we are ready to take on larger commercial projects particularly boutique hotels, and I’d also love to expand into the international market. At this point, we are definitely national, only about 10% of our work is in Portland, but I’d love to work in other countries too! Diversity in project type and location really keeps us interested in what we’re doing, as the years go by.
I only recently wrote all of this down, and just last week we got a contract for a project in Montreal and an inquiry to do a lighting line, so I think the stars are aligning :)