10 Questions With… Jessica Helgerson
Jessica Helgerson grew up with one foot in Southern California and the other in France, and her sensitive interiors are informed by reverence for both. Her firm, founded in 2000, does residential and commercial work but mainly specializes in breathing life back into historic houses. Helgerson constantly ideates new creative avenues for her studio to explore, such as Front of House, an installation gallery in the front of the JHID office, XUXO, a collaborative importing crafts from indigenous communities in Mexico, The 1% Project, an effort aimed at supporting non-profits working to end homelessness. She chatted to Interior Design about her new lighting collection with Roll & Hill, some favorite projects, opening a Paris branch of JHID, and more.
Jessica Helgerson Talks Residential Design, Lighting, and More
Interior Design: How did you get into design?
Jessica Helgerson: After a year living abroad in Italy, I returned to my hometown of Santa Barbara and was wondering what I would do professionally with my recently acquired English major, when I saw an ad for the UCSB Interior Design program. I took one class and fell in love with the work. I realized early on that interior design was a job that united everything I enjoyed and was good at: the space planning is a fabulously fun practical puzzle, the remodeling of beautiful old houses has an aspect of detective work to it, and the decorating end of things is poetic, playful and artistic.
ID: What is your design aesthetic or P.O.V?
JH: As the years have gone by, I’ve realized that my design point of view is responsive. What began as a love for green building has morphed into a desire to just not mess anything up and have it ripped out again. Our office tries to do the right thing for each building. We attempt to understand what the house wants, and what will last the test of time both functionally and stylistically. Our office does fall in love with (and specify) the latest light fixture or modern sofa, but with all the permanent built-in things, we just try to do what is right for the house.
ID: You have a studio in Portland, Oregon, and recently opened one in Paris, too. What prompted that?
JH: My mother was French, and I grew up spending the school years in California and the summers with my family in France. I’ve had a life-long yearning for a ‘real’ reason to be in France and finding a way to work here felt like a fun way to do that. Two years ago, I spent a semester in Paris with my daughter, and during that time reconnected with French designer Mathieu Bonnard, who had been a beloved intern in our Portland office nearly a decade ago. Over dinner, he mentioned wanting to come back to work for JHID. Just a few days later I was walking through the Marais in Paris and saw the perfect spot for rent. All the pieces seemed to sort of be falling into place, and so we took the leap!
ID: What inspired your first lighting collection with Roll & Hill and what can people expect?
JH: In the same way that I have a foot in both in France and in the U.S., the first Roll & Hill collection was actually two collections. I grew up on Del Playa Street, across the street from the ocean in Santa Barbara, in the 1970s. I spent my summers in France and have fond memories of my grandparents’ fancy apartment in Lyon, on Rue Sala. The two lines, named after those two streets, came from my childhood memories of those two places: Californian driftwood and earthy ceramics versus French bronze and cut crystal. The two worlds morphed in my mind into the two lighting lines. Rue Sala and Del Playa are also basically two manifestations of one shape—a line that plays with going very thin and then flaring back out. It’s a shape I’ve long admired in furniture legs, architectural components, and decorative objects but that I hadn’t ever seen in lighting. The two designs have a lot in common formally (basically they are just assemblages of a linear material that is turned) but they go in very different directions aesthetically because of the different materials they are made from, namely wood or metal.
ID: You specialize in bringing historic homes back to life. What advice do you have for that process?
JH: Listen to the house and be true to it with all that you do. What does that mean? It means to study it and remodel it in a way that is thoughtful to its essence. What is beautiful about it? What are its distinctive design features? What sort of floor plan makes sense for it? Can you visit other houses from the same place, same vintage, same style, same architect, before you begin? Older houses (before the mid-century) have distinct ‘rooms’ that allow for crown molding to wrap around cleanly, for paint colors to change from room to room, for wallpapers to circle around on four walls. There is a modern tendency to want to ‘open things up,’ which I totally agree with but creating very wide openings vs. removing walls (particularly corners) entirely, allows for much better redesign of older houses. In general, in residential design, our office tries, with all the more permanent, built-in things, to stay true to the house and its era (within reason of course).
ID: Can you describe some of your key projects?
JH: Our recent projects have been mostly residential, and they seem to fall into two categories—great bones that needs to be respected and their style followed, or a tear down that we can absolutely re-invent from scratch. Two of these are our LA French Eclectic which falls into the former category, and our French Quarter Brooklyn which falls into the latter. For the Los Angeles residence, we followed the existing bones of the house (thick plaster walls, flattened Gothic arches, a simple high-contrast color palette). For the Brooklyn project, the ‘before’ house was a run-down duplex and even the neighborhood was an ‘anything goes’ place where the architecture is recent and varies tremendously from house to house. This allowed us creative freedom, and the ability to create our own design vocabulary for the house. These clients had travelled a lot together in France, were deep Francophiles, and wanted a French influence on the project. France felt a little too far afield for us, so we settled on the design style of the French Quarter in New Orleans and let that guide the style we created for the house, with very significant moldings, large gracious arches, limestone floors, and a soft color palette.
ID: You have a strong commitment to social justice. What are some actions you take in this realm?
JH: When I was a teenager, I remember my father jokingly accusing me of being a ‘reverse snob’—a term I’ve thought of (and laughed about) many times. I’ve always cared about social justice. As the years have gone by, I’ve learned more and more about inequality and how the systems we operate within are designed to keep some people down while raising others up. Our Portland office, though in a beautiful old building, is in one of the neighborhoods in which our American crisis of homelessness is most apparent. Sometimes I feel like I’m at the epicenter of discrepancy in our office, designing the most beautiful details for someone’s second or third home, while just outside people are pitching their tents on the sidewalk. In a tiny way, I’m trying to work to rectify that imbalance in our own business, making sure that we offer very livable wages, excellent benefits, generous vacation time, etc. I’m proud that most of our staff own their homes. We offer paid sabbatical leaves. We’ve supported many designers though their parental leaves. It’s strange to me that these are decisions that one employer can make and another not, honestly. I’m not sure why they aren’t just things that we decide as a society matter, and that everyone deserves.
Several years ago, our office did a pro bono project for a Portland organization called Path Home. In working for them I realized the meaningful change they were bringing to the lives of families experiencing homelessness, and how far their small operating budget was able to go. I started researching other non-profits in our area, and each one I spoke to was similarly doing excellent and important work on a pretty small budget. I thought perhaps we could help support them by sharing some of our profits, and also thought what a truly immense aid we could bring to them if others in the design and home industry joined us. With that in mind, I founded the 1% project. Though we have been able to offer quite a bit of help to a number of wonderful non-profits, it hasn’t had the larger viral impact I’d hoped for. Perhaps I’ll be able to motivate more firms to join us in the future.
ID: Whose work do you admire?
JH: I think Pamela Shamshiri does beautiful work; her recent Maison de la Luz in New Orleans is probably my favorite project of hers, though I’ve been a fan of her work back to the Commune days. I also very much admire Ilse Crawford and the integrity and authenticity she brings to everything she does. And then Roman and Williams, for loving old houses, buildings, and historic details as much as we do, and advocating for their preservation and celebration.
ID: What are some favorite vendors?
JH: One of our favorite things to do is to collaborate with local glass artists, ceramic artists, decorative hand-painters, woodworkers, and more. These collaborations have been a wonderful way to y anchor our projects to place, and to involve the local community in our work. In addition, BDDW makes the most beautiful furniture and objects. Tyler Hayes is a creative genius. More recently I can also call him a friend, and now know that he’s a lovely human as well. Sawkille is also creating a lot of beautiful American furniture. I love the earthy, organic, odd, and beautiful furniture of Pierre Yovanovitch. I appreciate the breadth of contemporary design represented by The Future Perfect. In France I love shopping at the flea markets. The best and biggest is Saint Ouen in Paris, and Isle Sur la Sorgue which is an entire town of antiques. But there are also smaller ones all over the country, and professional ones just for dealers that are unbelievable treasure troves. In the U.S. I appreciate the huge offering of 1st Dibs for that. Additionally, I deeply appreciate Etsy for connecting us to small makers all over the globe. I’ve found rugs from Tibet and Turkey, ceramics from Morocco, hand-embroidered fabrics from India: an entire world of craft in one place. It doesn’t have a reputation for being the fanciest place, but I have found wonderful things there and am a big fan.
ID: What’s next for you?
JH: I am so excited to have opened our Paris office and look forward to growing that side of JHID. I suspect that helping American clients find, restore, and furnish homes in Europe will be the essence of our practice. I have also been developing several product lines in conjunction with Mira Eng-Goetz, who has been at JHID for over a dozen years and who is a brilliant creative force. We are developing a line of playful, colorful flat-weave rugs, a line of table lamps, and more.
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