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Schoolhouse Living: Ben Carstensen’s Fort-like Bungalow in Northeast Portland

Schoolhouse Living: Ben Carstensen’s Fort-like Bungalow in Northeast Portland

In a neighborhood full of grand old Victorians and stately Colonial Revival manors, Ben Carstensen’s comparatively modest bungalow stands out in a coat of coal-black paint. It’s not just any black paint, though. It’s a very particular shade of black that’s eye-catching but not garish. Along with a lush garden and forest green vintage Land Rover Defender parked in front, it gives his home presence and personality in a neighborhood known for imposing residences.


man walking two dogs

An experiential designer who works with clients like Adidas, The North Face, and Fox Sports, Ben has applied his unique visual skillset just about everywhere you look in his home. We were inspired by his collection of mid-century furniture, his enviable screened-in porch, and his 
Instagram adventures with pups Roy and Bruce, so we caught up with Ben to talk about life and design.

black house with a porch

How did you find your house and how did you know it was the right one for you?

I was very lucky to find this house. I saw the listing online, but it only had one blurry google street view photo of the exterior. It was the only house in the Irvington neighborhood that I could afford, so I wanted to take a look, fully expecting to walk into a disaster. I actually knew it was the house for me as my realtor and I were driving up the street, before I even saw the house. The surrounding large old homes, and big, beautiful trees that lined the street had me convinced that if this house wasn’t a total tear down, I would make an offer.  

Was it in pretty good shape when you bought it? Talk about the process of bringing it to its current state.

It was in ROUGH shape, but structurally sound. Between looking at the house for the first time, and the day I got the keys I made a game plan and thought about priorities. I convinced friends and family to lend helping hands on larger projects with lots of pizza and beer and over the last year we’ve really turned it around. We’ve completely gutted the kitchen, have gone through gallons and gallons of paint, tore out walls, and landscaped the front and back yard, amongst other things. It’s been a lot of fun, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished in just under a year.

patio with chairs and a table

living room with a couch and a fireplace and floor cushions

shelf with objects on it

One of the coolest features about your house is the screened in porch you built out back. What inspired that and how did the design and building process work out?

I knew I wanted to add more covered outdoor space that could be used year-round. The detached garage in back was large, but only about half was being utilized as a wood shop, so I decided to build a wall down the center and tear off the siding on the side facing the backyard and replace it with screen. The entire project really only took a weekend to complete. Once it was finished it immediately became my favorite thing about the house. 

What design eras or styles are inspiring to you?

I try not to pay too much attention to trends, and I think it’s important to blend styles and pull inspiration from different eras. In my opinion, a house doesn't feel very personal if every piece looks like it came from the same era, or even more importantly, the same store. I usually prefer to mix and match mid-century furniture with stuff that is more rustic and industrial. It feels less serious that way. It has to look comfortable and be comfortable, and if it’s something I’m going to be worried about it being trashed by the dogs, then it’s not for me.  

silver table lamp and a picture on a table

room with a table and chairs and plant

table and chairs in a room and plants

living room with a fireplace and plants

You have a significant amount of Schoolhouse lighting in your home. What’s your favorite piece?

I bought the green radar sconces above the fireplace as a housewarming gift to myself.  They’re without a doubt my favorite. They’re a perfect blend of modern and industrial, and feel a little unexpected, and playful. I usually don't like things that feel too polished or refined.

As comfortable as your home is, it seems like you’re always out on some adventure in the mountains or on a beach. How often do you get into nature and what pulls you out there?

I grew up in Montana and spent a lot of time outside. I moved to Oregon for college, and not much has changed. We are so lucky to live in such a beautiful place, and it’s so easy and accessible. You can camp on an alpine lake one night, and on the beach the next. It would make me feel guilty to not take advantage of that.  

You are currently in possession of a very cool vintage Land Rover. What are some other cars you’d like to have parked out front?

The Defender is my third Land Rover. I’ve always been a fan of the company, but with a focus on their older stuff.  The boxier the better. I lived in Amsterdam for most of 2015, and was on the hunt to buy an old Defender and import it into the US when I moved back, but I was lucky enough to find one for sale in Seattle. I bought it sight unseen and a friend was generous enough to go pick it up for me. It was here in Portland waiting when I moved back.

person with two dogs standing in front of a car

deck with a table and chairs surrounded by greenery

cart with alchol and art

room with a table and chairs and a desk and plant

Roy and Bruce are two very good dogs. Have you always been a dog person?

There has never been a point in my life where my family didn’t have at least two dogs (often three), and I intend to keep it that way. I like to joke with my friends that I’m happiest when the dog to human ratio is at least 1:1. Adopting Bruce and Roy were the two best decisions I’ve ever made.  

shelf with plants and pots

clock hangs from a wall

t feels like your lifestyle, your work as a designer, and your tastes in décor all inform each other. Do you ever feel like the lines between work and play get blurred or do you try to draw boundaries?

Working as an environmental/experiential designer I spend a lot of time researching current design trends, furniture design, art, music, etc. It all comes into play. It definitely helps make design decisions easier as I am working on the house, although, it's often in the opposite direction. I don't usually want anything to be too 'on trend' or 'cutting edge.' I just want it to feel comfortable and relaxed. My time spent outdoors is where I draw most of my design inspiration for the house. It’s important to me to bring the outside in, and vice versa.

Finally, what’s your next project for your house? Do you have big plans or are you just refining things at this point?

I have a few more major projects to tackle: adding another bathroom upstairs, restoring the original siding, and replacing a lot of the windows. That being said, I will always be refining and making changes. I would be bored if I didn't have at least two or three ongoing projects. It will never be finished. 

small bathroom with a plant on the shelf

bedroom with a bed and a window and a white ceiling light fixture

black garage door and string lights

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building with tents and a sign
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