Restaurateur Bruce Carey on His Approach to Interior Design and Creating Ambience

By Alisa Sloan, Foodable Contributor

When my mom first came to visit me in Portland, I took her to all the places I thought a first-timer should see: the International Rose Test Garden for the view, the coast because, well, the coast, Alberta Street for indie shopping… and to Clarklewis for the ambience. It’s industrial, citified and sleek, yet also rustic, glamorous and welcoming. The restaurant’s vibe is a magical balancing act that sums up what I wanted to convey about Portland to my mom: This town has class.

Not sure if it’s common Portland knowledge, but Clarklewis is here thanks to Bruce Carey, who also brought us 23Hoyt, Saucebox, and Bluehour. He has created an elegant Small Kingdom with some of Portland’s most notable restaurants, and still takes the time every week to do the flowers before they take the chairs down.

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Foodable WebTV Network

I found him, early one morning, arranging flowers at Bluehour. He had trimmed down a mock orange tree, hauled the branches into the restaurant, and was plotting the reworking of yard debris into an installation of oversized vases. And since I had him all to myself, it was time to get the scoop on what inspired his design choices, and how he achieves that louche yet simplified drama in his interiors.

All in the Details

Alisa Sloan: Looking at the spaces as a whole, how would you describe the design style?
Bruce Carey: I am a natural-born minimalist, but I know that current trends call for more visual interest in spaces and some decoration or ornament. My response to criticism that my "clean" interiors can be perceived as austere is to add unexpected, out-of-sync touches, such as a frumpy grandma style side chair in the sea of modern, low-back, leather Cassina chairs in the dining room at Bluehour, or the huge natural branches we add for wintertime decoration amidst the iconic columns of simple drapery there. The hodgepodge art installation at 23Hoyt is more evidence to how well quirky personal elements soften an otherwise severe, modern room.

AS: What goes into designing a new interior concept?
BC: I do better remodeling a space than creating something from scratch. The volume and arrangement of functional elements is the starting point from which ambiance is created. Then it's guided by the food concept and desired dining experience. At Saucebox, the strong shoebox-shaped room was never modified from what we found there back in 1995. Only an accessory was added ten years after opening when we expanded by adding the dining room, which had to contrast from the darker bar side, like yin yang. At Clarklewis, for example, I have resisted any temptation to close that kitchen from the dining area because allowing complete transparency speaks to the honesty and simplicity of the preparation of the food.

AS: What ties all the restaurants together?
BC: The goal is to communicate quality at each. And that can be conveyed in many different ways, just like any one person can adjust to mood with a change of an outfit. Different ensemble = same character.

AS: What are some of your favorite aesthetic elements?
BC: It wasn't my idea [tribute Brad Cloepfil], but the drapery at Bluehour has endured very well. Besides its acoustic value, [I love] the way it creates so many corners and alcoves. Everyone wants the corner table, and at BH you have several to choose from. I also love the play on scale that is created when we bring an artist in to do billboard-size murals in the dining room and bar at Saucebox. We tell them to make it too big, to convey that the art is greater than the space it's in. And at all the restaurants, we spend money on good chairs. This one feature is more important than anything else we do to the space, both in terms of the design and the function of the restaurant. I love a good chair.

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Foodable WebTV Network

AS: If we visited your home, would we recognize things from the restaurants, or vice versa?
BC: [My partner] Joe and I have done seven home remodels in the 14 years we've been together, and each one has had a different character. But in all of them, we start by taking away more than we put back — cleaning it up and creating cohesion of design elements, eliminating patchworks, etc. I guess this gets back to that minimalist inside, although sharing the home with our two young sons has required more tolerance for clutter. I'm always cleaning up and throwing things away — both at home and at work.

AS: You take the time to arrange flowers. Why do you find that so important?
BC: I learned from my good friend Sammy, who still does them [for 23Hoyt] occasionally. She taught me how to make a big impact with scale. Sure, the decorator in me comes out a bit, but in a butch sorta way since I am always shopping for the biggest thing, the longest stem, the fattest branch, the tallest limb. It's a regular creative outlet for me, and while I give up so much of the daily operation of the restaurants to my staff, this is one thing I hold on to — my personal stamp.

AS: How do you want people to feel in your spaces?
BC: There should always be a balance between feeling comfortable and feeling stimulated. Everyone is a good cook now, so to entice people in to one of the restaurants, it has to feel like an elevated experience. They should feel transported. With so much emphasis recently placed on "Portland Style," I think it's nice to feel like you are somewhere else when going out.