Maison Inc. founder and president Joelle Nesen and her team create interiors that are timeless, not trendy. They have an easy elegance that makes them feel super livable but also sophisticated. We asked the Portland native how she became one of the city’s most respected interior designers, where she finds inspiration and her philosophy on design.

Written by Juno DeMelo
Photography by David Papazian

When did you know you wanted to be a designer?

I was kind of born to do it - my grandparents were antique and art collectors, which sounds fancier than it was, but they spent a lot of time at auction houses in Portland and had an affinity for Asian antiques which I found fascinating.

I also grew up in an old house in Portland and my mom had this great ’70s high-style aesthetic: a white Chesterfield sofa, string drapes, Bukhara rugs. It was unique and influential. As a kid I never really played with dolls, I played with the scenes and the environments. I would spend hours building an elaborate set for Barbie, creating her apartment over and over again. I would force my brother to help me move the furniture around in the house starting in early grade school. Frequently, my mother would come home from work and not know where anything was.

What were you doing before you founded Maison in 2001?

After graduating from design school, I was an intern for a designer who had in-depth infrastructure and construction details knowledge and experience, which helped me build a strong foundation. She later recommended me for a job at Lloyd’s Interiors, the premier furniture store focused on interior design and high-quality furniture.  It was there that I learned so much about both furniture lines and people skills.

Later, I worked for a woman who was a local entrepreneur who inspired me to trust my instincts. She taught me that I should take risks and trust my gut. After that, I started Maison with a college friend,  as I was having my first child our lawyer literally brought all the papers to the hospital room to sign.

Has design in Portland changed a lot since then?

When I first started, young and old sought out interior designers either through a store like Lloyd’s or hired them independently. I may have been jaded from working there of course!  Portland went through a phase of box store design, kind of a mass-produced comfort zone, at least that was the case with some new to design clients. 

I think we have circled back to a more bench made or handmade philosophy, quality over quantity.  Modern or antiques mixed with upholstery made here or North Carolina and a more curated art and accessory vibe.

What makes Maison stand out?

We really shine in full-turnkey renovations, meaning we remodel entire homes from space planning, cabinetry and finishes down to all the details like hardware, millwork details and furnishing it with all of the furniture, furnishings, art and accessories.

Those are our dream jobs, and we do four or five a year but we also do smaller jobs that still let us transform a client’s home in a significant way. Our goal is to have long term clients and we have a knack for getting to know their personalities, the ins and outs of them, pretty quickly. We want to understand what makes people tick.

Is it difficult to marry your aesthetic with your clients’?

There’s a sweet spot. I’m not here to just source what a client wants, but I’m also not here to design my house for you. I want to know what a couple or individual dreams of, then we spin that into the best version of what it can be. She might like French farm and he likes Northern California, and then we marry that, taking into account architectural appropriateness.

Some designers have a very clear style. When you look at our portfolio, the jobs are specific to the client, not to any aesthetic of Maison. We challenge them a bit and gently take them a couple steps out of their comfort zones to execute something they never knew they could have, but always wanted.

Are you ever afraid a home will look dated 10 or 20 years from now?

We are not about throwaway design; we are about creating visual longevity. With that said, if you do something really well and you have a clear vision that is executed at the highest quality, it can transcend the times.  Something that was done in the ’70s and one might think it’s too much or dated, you can still appreciate the design vision.  Take Dorothy Draper hotels, they were so of a moment, and such a clear style, and her vision really comes through.  

We are careful in our design process with our clients because many people want the trends because it’s the easiest thing for them to find and resonate with.

How do you go about choosing your materials?

As designers, we usually start with a pile of materials that inspire us and tell a story… the choices begin with the inspiration and desires of the client.

Ann Sacks is a great place to be inspired, because their tile selection is unique and varied. We’ll gather tile, wood and plumbing printouts, and pile it all onto a giant worktable. Then we’ll start to scheme our rooms.

We love to work with natural materials: ceramic, marble, etc. We really believe in brass and bronze, copper and nickel, materials that will show a tarnish and life versus things that are powder-coated and flat — we are looking for soul.

Do you encourage your clients to think outside the box?

We do! Your trim doesn’t need to be white! You don’t have to do a tile detail only three-quarters of the way up a wall. We put tile everywhere, not just in the shower — on walls, ceilings, fireplaces.

There’s nothing wrong with a good subway tile. But sometimes you want something handmade and hand-painted, or large-format marble. We’re working on one now that will have barrel-vaulted kitchen ceilings with hand-painted tile bricks.

Does designing in Portland differ from designing elsewhere?

We do a lot of work in California — Palm Springs, San Diego, San Francisco — and in Idaho and Utah. We choose different materials for different regions. For example, for a house in Palm Springs, we used glass tiles that we custom-designed in multiple colors and patterns and we had real terrazzo poured throughout. But again, there aren’t really rules, it just has to work.

In Portland, the trick is more drama: lighter lights, darker darks. That creates this yummy feeling on a cold day but isn’t gloomy when the sun does come out. We really create moments that feel good in any kind of weather, which is ideal in this area.

How would you describe your design philosophy?

Interior design is for everyone. Buying pieces that make you feel good, having interior design in your life—it makes you feel more productive, it’s physical and mental. It’s really about feeling nurtured and inspired.