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A Tale of Two Victorians

Designers in Portland and Seattle breathe new life into a pair of venerable homes—and into classic Victorian style

Written by Sally Finder Weepie / Photography by Matthew Galant and Aaron Leitz


Stewart Horner, Penny Black Interiors                     Michelle Dirkse


Penny Black Interiors House

It’s not your typical May-September romance.

In Portland, Oregon, a faded rose of the Victorian Age withered and waned amid Colonial mansions and soaring Tudors in the tony West Hills. If there were a fainting couch for houses, this grande dame could have used it.

A few miles away, Nike designer Stewart Horner’s career soared higher than a LeBron James jump shot. But his heart longed for something more.

Then the edgy Brit, with fashion sense inspired by Vivienne Westwood, met the 1896 Italianate Victorian. Sparks flew. Bulldozers were foiled. Horner bought the decrepit house and launched a renovation—and his own design firm, Penny Black Interiors.

“The interiors had been gutted,” Horner says, “so we had to bring ornate, period-correct detail back in.” That meant crafting custom millwork that echoes details from the original staircase and installing a tin ceiling with dressy embossed medallions. New Shaker-style cabinetry brings just enough ornateness to feel like it was always there.

An island provides the function families expect today, but turned, furniture-style legs nod to the idea of a Victorian Age worktable. Underneath, black-and-white concrete tile reads like a cozy rug. Edison-style bulbs illuminate pendants with an industrial edge that’s also seen in copper faucets and hardware.

“The range trim reminded me of copper pans hanging in a grand Victorian home,” Horner says. “I wanted to nod to that throughout the kitchen.”

Copper flashes against Horner’s dramatic palette, which melds shades of gray with black and white. “I’m tired of all-white kitchens. I wanted dark and moody but romantic,” he says. “And while much of what I do is trend-forward, you still need longevity. Incorporating black and white makes it timeless.”

Gray recedes while black and white rises in the master bath. (Psst: It connects to the master bedroom through a secret door—because fun is integral to Horner’s designs. He also hid an office behind the butler’s pantry bookcase.) A tiled floor introduces strong pattern that’s balanced by plenty of white. The freestanding tub is claw-foot, of course. But, again, there’s a secret. It’s filled from water flowing through a spout hidden in the ceiling. “I like to be traditional with the layouts and elements in my rooms but take a slightly left-of-center point of view,” Horner says.

That’s evident in his company, Penny Black, named for the world’s first adhesive postage stamp, a 1-cent 1840 release featuring a profile of (you guessed it) Queen Victoria on a black background. “The functionality of that design is the same today as it was almost 200 years ago. I love that,” Horner says. “That’s the essence of good design.”


Judge Ronald House

Like a benevolent specter, the presence of Judge James T. Ronald still wisps through this landmark Seattle home—and the new owners aren’t about to call the local exorcist.

“They wanted their home to be like a haunted mansion, with their dressing room like the back stage of Moulin Rouge,” interior designer Michelle Dirkse says. “They wanted historic but also a little over-the-top.”

So Dirkse, known for her sophisticated, modern interiors and painterly textile designs, went with that. She defied expectations as she and team members Kat Puma and Ashlyn Turner introduced a moody edge to this storied home, built in 1883 and expanded in the early 1900s—a time of newfound building technology, larger structures, and abundant neoclassical elements.      

“I wanted to honor the history of this great home and at the same time honor my clients’ personality, honor who they are,” Dirkse says.

First, to help the old house welcome modern life—without changing its footprint—she converted a bedroom into a master bath, installing a custom walk-in shower and a double vanity crafted from an antique cabinet. Oil-rubbed bronze fixtures are classic yet contemporary, as is the striking mosaic-tile floor.

“Do you know how many drawings we did of that tile layout before we actually laid the tile?” Dirkse says. “It’s not like you see on TV, where they just wing it. You need attention to detail to get an elevated look. One of my favorite things is how a row of black dots in the tile lines up perfectly with the carved detail on the vanity.”

Deep green walls feel comfortable in an old home yet also express the current bent toward moody color. It’s a prime example of how Victorian Era panache is resonating—especially, Dirkse says, “elements that are dark, ornate or carved, and a little spooky.”

Certainly, the Victorian spirit shows no sign of fading into oblivion, especially on this designer’s watch. “There aren’t many homes like this in Seattle, which is a relatively young city,” Dirkse says. “It’s so different. And I love that.” +