Mark Stewart: Spiritually in-tune home designer

ark Stewart Home Design sits in the heart of the Pearl District, in what could be known as the design corridor. Just next door is an interior deco place, an expensive carpet shop, and the local organic market that serves them all. With an art gallery facing the street with selections of Mark’s paintings, a meditation room, and a big table in the center, all that’s missing to feel at home in this designer’s den are oriental rugs and a fireplace.

All around the studio are the offshoots of Mark’s artistic practice, manifest in various forms, but it is clear that this man designs homes. Physical homes. Big, expansive, beautiful homes. Small, single-family loft homes. Nearly a hundred framed photographs of different designs cover the back wall of his interior sitting room, impressive from my vantage point at the high, square table occupying the center. They become references as we converse, pointed out to describe a style or a particular experience, but are only a small sampling of what he has to show. Over the course of our conversation, he also pulls out magazines displaying his comprehensive design work, renderings of current projects, and descriptions that he paints in midair. Our conversation flows easily, weaving in through the various exhibits, giving life to his words—the same way he turns ideas into homes.

Mark Stewart is a deep man, and he’s not afraid to say it. He describes his success as an ebb and flow depending on how connected he is with his own spirituality. This connection catalyzed his about-face transformation, from a philosophizing college athlete searching for himself to landing a spot in the 1982 Street of Dreams, and has continued to be a powerful force in his life. This successful businessman and near six-foot former football player speaks from his core, as a man who has been tested and who has found a way to continuously create and evolve. This is, perhaps, his most distinctive element. While home designers could merely be removed architectural consultants, Mark cares about his work. What he enjoys most is the process, the people, and the prospect of being engaged in an inspired project.

As a boutique home designer how do you deal with the ever-increasing scale of your projects while maintaining your artistic integrity?

Our business has changed, but not in terms of quality. It used to be we did a fairly predictable “here’s our client” sort of thing. Normally it would be we would do 4 or 5 models for a builder in a subdivision and he would put different faces on them. That was the meat and potatoes. Now, I get to choose the projects that speak to me. Right now we’re doing a spectacular underground aquarium bar, designing cabins for 400 lots on a mountaintop, and we just completed a remodel on a really old house in Sherwood. So we do a variety of projects now.

Those all sound fabulous. What project are you most inspired by right now?

Just last week we heard from Legend Homes (one of the biggest home builders in the state) that we’re going to do a spec home of my latest design, what I call a single-family loft. It’s going to be a big deal. I’ve been working on this style for three years—it’s modern, organic, dignified, affordable and creative. The model we’re building has a garage on the bottom, a studio on top, storage in the back—all for a tiny footprint. It’s small, it’s sustainable, it’s modern—it’s what people want.

How do you stay ahead of the game with home design?

I can feel the trends changing. Sometimes we hit it just right, sometimes we’re too early, but I always know. In 1994, for example, we did a showcase of twelve Frank Lloyd Wright homes. Homeowners loved them—but builders weren’t building them. We were ahead of the curve. Last year, in the 2012 Street of Dreams, three out of six homes were that style.

You’re perhaps most popularly known for your work on the ABC TV show Extreme Makeover. What was that experience like?

ABC called in 2006 and asked me to design a home for two quadriplegics being featured on their show. I’m the only guy they’ve ever asked to design for them outside of their own staff or the builders design team.

The second house that we did was in Corvallis. I was given very little information, but enough to work from. I would need to have the home all worked out within three days, to the point where windows, doors, and siding could all be ordered. If I didn’t do that, the thing literally wouldn’t be built. The time frame was just silly. And then to get finished working drawings and engineering, I had another week. So I basically had 10 days for a 4000-square-foot home to be done really well—phone call to finish—without a check. But I loved it. It was totally worth it.

I am amazed how lifelike your renderings look. Does technology help or hinder the design process?

The thing is, it still all starts with me drawing. I design everything with a pencil and a piece of paper. You lose so much without that. Then you put it into these [computer] tools. At that point it’s all about helping the client see the vision more clearly. It’s only a benefit.

You’re a sculptor and an artist as well. Is your art secondary to your design work?

Design is art. It’s all related. I go to enormous lengths to get things just so—there’s nothing accidental about anything, it’s all composed as a whole. I’ve seen amazing houses that we designed be butchered in the building process. Builders and financiers don’t see it as art. Whereas to me, to take out architectural points is like eliminating entire figures from a painting.

What inspires your artistic expression, and does it push your own boundaries?

I’ve designed jewelry, I’ve done art, I’ve done sculpture, I do some painting. What I’ve found about all that is I’m better off in my own lane. I’ve become better at this job by doing all that other stuff, but I don’t think I’ll ever do anything else.

What does the tech future hold for design work?

What’s really interesting is to make a 3D virtual model and then put on glasses and immerse yourself. That’s where it’s at. A lot of people don’t have the ability to see things, so there’s a lot of trust involved.

Usually there’s one client who can see visually, but their partner can’t. But this tool will change things completely.

How do you distill what a client wants?

A lot of people come in the door with an idea of what they want, but they don’t know exactly. That’s why they need me. So I listen. And listen and listen. After I’ve reflected enough back to them so they’re comfortable, I go do it. What I’m known for is giving people what they really want. The more in tune with a person I get, the easier it is to give people what they communicate in their heart of hearts. Sometimes with a couple, it’s hard. You’ve got to figure out who’s the alpha dog, but who really runs things—and what I try to do is weave a compromise.

So you’re a marriage counselor as well…!

Way back, we used to do big dream homes for people. I can’t tell you how many of those people were divorced after two years. Now, that was before I started to weave compromises, when I used to listen to who was the loudest. But I have noticed that since working with both, I’m hearing less disharmony. Maybe it’s just that there are more happy couples… but I don’t think so.

Do your designs incorporate sustainable building practices?

In 1982 the House of Dreams house I built was a passive solar Victorian house. I moved into that house—it had a $250 heating bill for the entire year. What I know from experience is that within 5 to 7 years, you ought to be breaking even on a green investment. If you’re not, then you’re donating. And you can donate all you want, if that’s what you want to do, but don’t kid yourself—you’re not going to get paid back. What I do is incorporate whatever technology is offered that will give back within 7 years. Beyond that, people have to ask for it.

Has Portland changed architecturally since you’ve started?

In 1991 when we were located down off of Glisan (we were one of the first people down here), I remember sitting in my office looking at the brown-stones when they were first retrofitted and put up for sale. I remember thinking, who the hell would live down here? They didn’t sell. Then they started another project. And they started to sell. They were so cheap, and I thought to myself, I should buy one of those damn things. Now they sell for one million a door.

These sorts of redevelopment projects are genius—they’re fantastic. That neighborhood (Alphabet District) is one of the best examples in the country. It has its drawbacks, of course. While the urban growth boundary has forced a lot of infill housing to happen in Washington County, it’s created neighborhoods of 20-foot-wide homes with two or three kids per house, and two cars. You can’t drive into those developments without seeing a kid. Infill is disaster for me, but it’s a win for downtown.

How has your business transformed over the years?

In the past six years I’ve reinvented my little company about four times just to survive. When the recession hit, I had four acres at the ocean, I had a working design office with staff in Bend, we had 10 to 15 people here in Portland and a great big show-room—then boom. The recovery and reinvention process has been aggressive. It’s been an ongoing process. Right now my son, who is in the other room, he does the monstrous part of our drafting. Our entire firm is now 3 or 4 people. My daughter works here. It’s a family business, and hopefully I’ll be able to pass it on that way, and it’ll survive. That’s our core. So I wouldn’t trade it, really. My personal life at home is better than ever. The recession was a very difficult time. Now, if you’re still standing at the end, you’re probably stronger and wiser.

How did the recession affect the housing design industry?

About 70 to 80 percent of the small builders were wiped out during the recession. What’s being lost is the individual attention of a good builder. Not that they all do a bad job—on volume, they do a super job. But they’re never going to do the kind of job that a small time builder is going to do. The recession was a forest fire, and almost everybody got burned to the ground. The banking business doesn’t lend credit to a small builder. Over half the small builders we work with finance themselves, or have private money investors.

How has your spirituality affected your work?

During the 1980s I had run away from my spiritual self. I chose not to be responsible for what I had found and understood. I was designing a building, and basically, it was just so average. Then I began doing a small thing. I began to meditate. When I came to a very difficult design problem, I didn’t try to force through it. I relaxed and meditated. It affected my whole life and particularly my work—I became a star designer. I went from stinking in 1987, to having two Street of Dreams homes in 1988. The closer I am to my spiritual path, the better my work is.

Where does designing a home fit into your search for life’s meaning and purpose?

In a way, my spiritual practice involves having a constructive life. Having a job. So I’ve done whatever I can do to keep my job turned in the right direction. I could have a job in a stamping plant and lead a spiritual life; I’ve just ended up doing creative work. In a way, it means nothing. It’s just a job. But looking at it another way, if I can authenticate every day through a meditative relationship with Adi Da and a practice, then all the better. Some people complain that they work at a computer all day, and it’s hard to maintain a spiritual relationship. It’s more available, however, when you do quiet work. This is very quiet. I sit and breathe and draw. There’s not much else going on.

How does it feel now to be designing 400 lots on a mountaintop and be able to choose the projects that most inspire you?

I come from a place of thinking in which, if I get to work with a person that I can connect with, that’s what matters. It’s that whole transparent process that I enjoy.

About The Author: Amanda Eckerson

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