Portland, The Brand

The genesis of Portland, which had in its early years been branded “the clearing” and later “Stumptown” was sprung from chaos by some sort of undocumented design. As in much of the West, settlers migrated from the East with ideas of their own, or, at the very least, came packed with thoughts and plans for what they envisioned their homes and their families to be.

Downtown Portland, Oregon skyline, facing North Downtown Portland, Oregon skyline, facing North

Editor’s Note:
The basis of this article was initially written in 2011 on assignment for Media Inc. magazine. The industry publication had asked two advocates about the state of design. One story would reveal what was true in Seattle. This piece—from our own Eric Hillerns—would cover Portland. This is an excerpt.


“Design naturally reflects the culture in which it lives,” wrote Ralph Caplan in By Design1, the author’s written illustration of why things are. Within his chapter exploring the relationship between design and society, Caplan contends that design, as with architecture, is often measured by its exterior, rather than by the quality of its space (or the content) inside. He concedes that there really wouldn’t be a need for any exterior if there is something of great importance that we are driven to accomplish within.

I was reminded one rainy April afternoon that Caplan’s central organizing thought was that every thing (and every place) is designed; be it for good or ill, whether seemingly considered or hurried and regardless of price. It was Tim Leigh, the Portland fixture (a writer, designer, crafter of handmade pens, and long-time partner in the agency Bronson Leigh Weeks) who was doing the reminding in this case, as it often is. Leigh is impossibly fit, in mind and in body, and his 60-plus years defies any logic suggesting that we as humans are designed to steadily recede in our later days. As had become our habit, the Driftwood Room at the old Mallory Hotel was our inside and was the place where we had often discussed Portland’s design legacy. On this day, however (and largely because the Mallory has ceded to her swank replacement), we held court elsewhere while discussing Portland’s current crown as a hotbed of creative energy; a preferred destination for designers, artists, musicians, chefs, authors, actors, pimps and potters. As I rushed to establish my line of thinking on this supposed new movement, he reminded me, yet again, that to a degree, it has always been this way.

The genesis of this place, which had in its early years been branded “the clearing” and later “Stumptown” was sprung from chaos by some sort of undocumented design. As in much of the West, settlers migrated from the East with ideas of their own, or, at the very least, came packed with thoughts and plans for what they envisioned their homes and their families to be. It was the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers that first provided the arrow pointing to here as the place for those early settlers to stop and drop. In 2011, Portland remains a confluence of chaos and order that has forged a city manifest recognized for its attention to planning and design; its carefully-considered urban growth boundary, a singularly visionary, yet uber-managed network of city parks, and a reputation for incubating the theories and practice of sustainability unmatched anywhere in the States. Yet in spite of that over-governed enthusiasm, we still lay claim to the greatest number of strip clubs, per capita (including Las Vegas!). Go figure. The unofficial city slogan, “Keep Portland Weird” and our well-funded, focus-group-approved plea to tourists, “It’s different here” do well to illustrate the wonderful contradictory spirit which is Portland, a culture defined by coloring outside the very lines that are at once revered and decried. It is the confluence of the exceedingly straight and the freakishly peculiar.

Rarely will the Portlander initially reveal, unless firmly pressed, what they do for a living

If you ask someone from Portland what they do, they’ll likely reply, “I’m a gardener.” Or “I make things.” Or “I like to write little books.” Rarely will the Portlander initially reveal, unless firmly pressed, what they do for a living; that they’re an accountant, a pediatrician, an insurance advisor, or, as we’ve come to learn: a stripper. This lack of admission is hardly an issue of shame, or concealment, or sloth but rather a confession of personal architecture; in effect how people here are made: how they have designed and constructed their lives. A Portlander’s statement of purpose is simply different. What they do as it is defined in other places (in essence, what defines them as humans) is not about work, but about life. They come (and they usually stay) to make a better life, not make a better work. And yet in making the better life, the better work has shaped our culture and is again, being respected—even celebrated—beyond our borders.

To Leigh’s point, Portland has always been that way. The labels of accountant, pediatrician, and, say, graphic designer are just that; brands that are tailor-made for the three-second elevator speech. (The buildings are still bit shorter here.) Our area is defined by what we’re doing and in many cases, it’s about what occurs in and around this environment; those things that happen on the inside as well as the outside; observation, reflection, self-examination, exploration. In fact, much of our most inspired graphic design work is not being developed by people who would consider themselves designers, but rather, by those who would refer to themselves as ponderers. Or makers. These are the chefs and the musicians, the hobbyists and gardeners, the students (of history, English, mathematics), the filmmakers, the beekeepers and the programmers. The accountants and the brewers.

At our roots, we Portlanders are a natural bag of non-joiners, eager to slash the binds of the oft-required post-work cocktail party cleverly designed to discuss: wait for it… more work. As with the parties, our varied interests suggest that the labels seem somewhat limiting, and to a degree, even false. As designers, we’re also all of those other things, whether those other things have been fully decided or not. In one way or another, we’re all designing our next move.


During the past four years, this installment has been republished on more than one occasion. Things have changed, yes. But as they say, so too have they remained the same.

References:
1 Caplan, Ralph. By Design: Why There Are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and Other Object Lessons. 2nd ed. New York: Fairchild Publications, 2005.

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