Park Slope Limstone, photo provided by Jessica Helgerson

In Conversation with: Jessica Helgerson

2019-09-30 | 5 min. read

On October 4th and 5th, Vancouver Wash. will host Design Vancouver, a conference that celebrates design in all of its forms. In support of Vancouver’s first design conference, The Section Magazine will feature “In Conversation with…” (a series of interviews with Design Vancouver speakers). 

Jessica Helgerson has more than twenty-five years of experience designing residential and commercial interiors. The Section Magazine spoke to Jessica Helgerson about how growing up in France and the United States inspired her love of interior design and why she supports The One Percent Project.

The Section Magazine: You spent your childhood living between the United States and France. Did the differences in architecture and interior design between the countries inspire your love of design? 

Jessica Helgerson: I was struck, moved and motivated by falling in love with different architectural styles. In particular, seeing how different the buildings were in France and how much older they where. There is a house in Burgundy, France that my great-grandmother lived in that was built out of stone. Chunks of it date all the way back from the fourteenth century and parts of it were apparently a hospital during the Crusades, and so just that sort of history and then moving back and forth between that and Santa Barabra where I grew up which has a newer but also beautiful architectural style. I just like to look at those things and I like the feeling of those types of buildings and I think about what defines them. 

It was interesting to me to see how different people lived. My parents were very intellectual and rejectors of all material possessions and my grandparents in France wound up acquiring a lot of beautiful stuff. [I watched] my mom absolutely reject all of those gorgeous antiques and paintings and all of the things that my grandparents acquired. I landed somewhere in the middle. I have enjoyed acquiring things for other people but I guess I don’t care about acquiring things for myself. So I was influenced by both of those [living styles] as well. 

How would you describe your personal style?

We bought a lot of land on Sauvie Island about a decade ago and we (her family of four) fixed up and lived on a little cabin on the site that was 140 square feet. Then I designed and built a house with my husband who is an architect and that house is very much place-based. It's an American Farmhouse. I feel a lot of love and affection for a lot of architectural styles. I don't feel I have a particular style for myself. I's important to me that interiors are not fussy, particularly for myself. I need plenty of room for people and life and flexibility. I have a real love for little kids and we have a lot of friends with young children and I like to have a house that the kids can run around in and they can jump on the furniture. It's not precious and it's not perfect.

Tusk Counter, photo provided by Jessica Helgerson

What inspired you to start your own design firm?

I was working in Santa Barbara for an architecture firm and simultaneously, I was on the board of a non-profit project called The Sustainability Project (working towards a more sustainable future) with people working in the built environment. I was working on this nonprofit and getting so much joy and fulfillment out of it. I reached a point where I thought I needed to leave my job and start an office in Santa Barbara to do the work that I wanted to do.  I did not see how it was going to possibly work, I didn't see how the numbers lined up but I had a feeling that I had to try. So I did. I wound up writing to the Santa Barbara News Press and telling them that I was opening my office and somebody came and interviewed me. They did a lovely article on green building and my new office in particular. On day one, somebody walked in who ended up being a longtime patron and client and said, “I've never heard about green building and this answers so many things for me,” and he ended up asking me to put together a team for his giant project. 

There was really a need for it at that time and I think people were interested.

How do you keep your projects fresh?

We are very much influenced by the building we are working with and the clients. We do not have a particular look that we do over and over. We have some things that we have learned and design principles that we follow but with each new project we think about the era of the building and who the original architect was. We have a two-pronged approach and we are really heavily influenced by the era of the building and so we are using materials and details that are appropriate to that era. Then for us things like furniture and decorative lighting feel much more ephemeral and are influenced by the client.

Alhambra Kitchen, photo provided by Jessica Helgerson

What design principles have you learned throughout your career?

We see a lot of really awkward space planning. We are working on a project right now where the drawings are really a source of merriment in the office because there are walls that are going to run into a window and so the wall jogs to the side to miss the window, there are closets sticking out into rooms. Unless there is a really compelling reason to do something angled or circular or an outside corner we try to make rooms into clean rectangles because they function so much better. Anything that deviates from that, we need to really think about why we are doing that. Occasionally, a site or architectural style will dictate that things are different but we try to clean things up and make sure that walls aren’t running into windows. 

Also, early on when we are doing space planning we will lay out the furniture as well—not that we're picking it at that point—it's just to understand how the rooms are going to function and to make sure things fit properly. The other principle is that we really listen to the house and what feels right for it.

Do you have tips for young prospective interior designers?

Our profession is very wide and amorphous and  it's not a licensed profession. It includes everything from picking window coverings and pillows to major architectural remodeling. Our work tends to focus on major architectural remodeling and things like that. It is important to understand the various niches and opportunities that the profession offers and then to move in a direction that supports whatever that person's interests are. An interior design degree is really essential and we mostly hire people who are coming from 5-year interior architecture programs. I usually like to hire people right out of school—not always—but that's a big bulk of our staff.

Stumptown Cobble Hill, photo provided by Jessica Helgerson

Can you tell me about The One Percent Project? 

Our office is in downtown Portland in Old Town and it's the heart of social services in our city. Portland, like a lot of West Coast cities, is experiencing a really terrible homelessness crisis that is particularly concentrated where our office is. While we are doing very high-end residential work for some people’s third or fourth houses, people are setting up their tarps on the sidewalk outside of our office. I'm highly aware of the discrepancies and perhaps it's more in my face than others. Personally, I wound up dropping out of high school (I picked it back up again) and I have very deep mental illness in my family, with my mom. So, I feel like it's a lot of luck that has landed me on my side of the glass at our office as opposed to the sidewalk side and so I feel pretty compassionate and aware of this homeless crisis and also how much money is out there. So the idea is to build a coalition of individuals and businesses who are willing to give 1% of their profits or whatever feels comfortable to them. It is an aggregator fund that then distributes the money to a whole host of nonprofits in town, many of whom have been here for a long time. In particular, we have been doing a pro bono project for an organization called the Portland Homeless Family Solutions. They do amazing work and are going to be housing 27 families in their new building but they have a waiting list of 1,400 families. There is a huge waiting list and they cannot begin to meet the need. So the idea is that the community recognizes that these organizations are helping all of us and that we work together to support them. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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