An adventurous couple turns a 1908 duplex into a home full of personality and charm
Many people are unsure about mixing styles and objects from different design eras. Setting a Danish midcentury table next to an ornate stained-glass window, for instance. Or combining painted tin ceilings with blue glass tile and Carrera marble. But then, Richard and Anne De Wolf were never ones to be bound by the rules.
Thirteen years ago, fresh out of high school, German native Anne traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, to help her father fix up a vintage sailboat. At the marina she met Richard, who was living on his boat just after studying architecture at Clemson University. The following month, they set off on a spur-of-the-moment cross-country trip in his convertible ― top down the entire way; their last stop was Portland, where they married and founded a design-build firm called Arciform, specializing in the restoration of pre-World War II homes.
"We have a passion and respect for old houses," Richard says. "Anything with age possesses a sense of security. It feels like a safe place to call home."
Their spirit of adventure came in handy in their own remodel ― a 1908 Craftsman in North Portland's Overlook Neighborhood. Built in the Western Stick style, the house had been turned into a blue-collar duplex in the '20s and had suffered through "80 years of neglect and bad decisions" when they bought it for $170,000. "It was a disaster ― definitely the worst house on the block," Richard says, noting the four layers of asphalt roof and the two-story back deck that would "sway in the wind."
Undeterred, the young couple moved into the smaller upstairs apartment, ran their fledgling firm out of the dining room, and embarked on an eight-year remodel that combined an appreciation for old-school craftsmanship with a celebration of eclectic personal style.
From the start, it was clear that this would be no literal restoration. "I love the art nouveau era, and Richard is an eBay junkie," Anne says. "A typical Craftsman wasn't what we wanted." The couple set out to transform the duplex back into a single-family dwelling that would showcase their firm's ideas. "We'd been in business a little while, so we were willing to experiment," Richard says.
The kitchen brings together the most creative mix of sources and materials. Richard bought the 1940s stove on eBay ― "from a little old lady in Iowa who had gotten it for her wedding" ― and purchased a hood that echoes the stove's curves. The commercial-grade refrigerator came from a restaurant-supply shop for a fraction of the price of an equivalent Sub-Zero. (To reduce its noise, Richard put the motor in the basement and ran the coolant line upstairs.) Original white cabinets combine with Arciform-designed walnut wood cabinets; stainless steel counters give way to Carrera marble (Richard's favorite surface) by the sink. Blue glass tile is used as a backsplash ― set on the horizontal behind the cabinets, on the vertical behind the stove. A tin ceiling, a type popular at the turn of the 20th century, and salvaged fir floors complete the mismatched look.
"If I put this palette in front of a client, it would be hard to sell," Anne says. "But if you keep the colors similar and the contrast low, it works."
The couple's favorite additions are the two butcher-block islands, set on wheeled metal stands with trays underneath for storage. The wood came from a felled fir tree on land that Richard and Anne purchased on the Washington coast. Richard fumigated the blocks for termites, then milled them and filled in the cracks with resin.
"Islands don't have to be that big ― these work with the shape of the room," Anne says. The two-island design keeps the direct flow between sink, stove, and refrigerator. "I've set up a few meals and wheeled them into the dining room so hot platters don't have to go directly on the table," Richard says.
For a more formal transition between the living and dining spaces, Richard designed an arch on four square columns inspired by a book on Craftsman architecture. Built-ins on either side store vintage glassware and his collection of antique fans. The domed ceiling in the dining room was also Richard's idea, while the stained-glass designs on the windows and buffet doors were influenced by the work of art nouveau architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, one of Anne's design heroes.
A passion for recycling and reuse carries over into multiple aspects of the couple's life. The house phone is a 1920s eBay treasure; Richard's 1960 Mercedes-Benz runs on vegetable oil (complete with the faint odor of french fries). Living with history comes with its share of quirks and imperfections.
"But for us, that's a fair trade-off," Richard says. "It's part of the adventure." Fitting for two people who've always been willing to take a risk.
What they learned
Richard and Anne De Wolf put a combination of "sweat equity and patience" into their eight-year remodel. "We set realistic expectations for ourselves, so we weren't disappointed," Richard says. Here are more of the couple's tips.
Get priorities in order. "Don't get carried away with the pretty stuff first," Richard says. "Make sure the systems are updated ― electrical, heating, plumbing ― and that the roof is sound." He recommends living in an old house for a while before remodeling further.
Buy vintage when you see it. An eclectic look requires confidence. "Vintage and salvaged items are one of a kind, so you have to be able to take a chance," Anne says. Always bring your home's dimensions and master plan on shopping trips.
Unify rooms through repetition of color. "Every room has a bit of each color in it, which helps link the house together," Anne says. The blue of the entry room ceiling is repeated on the dining room walls; all interior doors are oiled to the same natural finish.
Limit trendiness to accessories. "For things like furniture, artwork, or paint colors, the sky's the limit," Anne says. In architectural details, "be respectful of the house ― you don't have to be historically accurate, but what you do should tie into the home's essential character."
Info: Design, Arciform, Portland (503/493-7344).
How to fix up an older home
Remodeling a vintage house can be daunting. Portland's Architectural Heritage Center (503/231-7264) is a terrific resource for do-it-yourself homeowners, with seminars ( "What Style Is My House?"), hands-on workshops (from restoring woodwork to replacing windows), exhibits, speakers, and tours. For similar resources near you, contact your local state historic preservation office or search the Internet under "historic preservation."
Resources: LC4 chaise longue in cowhide from Design Within Reach ($2,650; 800/944-2233). Clemson pendant (over butcher blocks) from Restoration Hardware. Trays (below butcher blocks) from Cost Plus World Market (877/967-5362). Custom wood cabinetry and custom mobile islands by Arciform (503/493-7344). Roku Rain mesh-mounted blue glass tile by Walker Zanger (818/252-4005). Salvaged sink from Rejuvenation (888/401-1900). Porcelain light fixture over sink from Hippo Hardware (503/231-1444). Classic X1 espresso machine in red by Francis Francis. Classic Style electronic toaster from Cuisinart ($50; 800/211-9604). Plants (on windowsill) from Smith & Hawken (800/940-1170). Large pillow from Smith & Hawken (see above). Smaller pillow from Cost Plus World Market (see above). Cherner side and arm chairs in walnut veneer and stain from the Cherner Chair Company (866/243-7637). Arco lamp by Flos. Chandelier from Anthropologie (800/309-2500). Drake Barrelback chair in Brompton Cocoa leather ($1,815) and Roland side table ($725) from Restoration Hardware (see above). Tribeca classic white hexagon field tile, bordered by Flatiron gray mosaic field tiles and white Venatino marble tiles from Walker Zanger (see above). Vintage sink from Rejuvenation (see above). Bed from Kitchen Kaboodle (800/366-0161). Italian Framed Sateen Bedding in taupe from Restoration Hardware ($14-$279; see above). Duplo-Dinamico rotational ceiling fan in brushed nickel with wood blades from Matthews Fan Company (847/680-9043). Rug from Ikea.