Chris Soderberg’s ascent coincided with the rise of Portland’s Pearl District. Now her focus is renovating commercial and residential interiors, many of them the condos she helped design over a decade ago. She told us about getting in on the ground floor — and how’s she’s revamping the penthouses at the top.

Written by Juno DeMelo
Photography by Fuoco Photography
Special thanks to the Petersen Family

Tell me about your path from college grad to owner of a design firm.

After I graduated from Santa Clara University, I followed my best friend to San Francisco, where I became a European handbag buyer for I. Magnin. I was hired away by one of my vendors, Bottega Veneta, to open a new store on Rodeo Drive. It was at that point, working with their architects, that my eyes were opened to a new career path. They were designing a jewel box space with lacquered rosewood cabinetry, velvet lined drawers and innovative lighting. I knew I wanted to switch gears.  

I moved back to Portland, where I had gone to high school, and got a degree in architecture from what was then the Oregon School of Design. I was very lucky to be hired by one of my professors and revered Architect, Thom Hacker. After a few years at his firm, I started my own design firm with Ann Laman, a woman with whom I’d gone through school. We worked successfully together for 17 years. I have been working on my own with a small staff of very talented women since then.

What sort of projects were you taking on in the beginning?

Our first projects were mainly traditional craftsman style homes. Then the Pearl District started to be developed and John Carroll, a major developer of Pearl Condominium projects gave us a great opportunity. We joined his team that built the Gregory, the Edge, the Elizabeth, and the Elliot. The take-away from that experience was my appreciation of the positive results that came from working with the same team on each project.

Why are so many Portlanders renovating their condos?

The pearl is now 15 years old. As new owners acquire existing condominiums, they want to update the space and create their own environment. We are renovating many of the spaces that we worked on with the original owners, particularly the larger units and penthouses. The same applies to the commercial spaces in the buildings. A measurable amount of our work now consists of renovations of the shared common spaces.

What do you think attracts clients to you?

I used to say we don’t have a signature style, but I think in fact we do. We produce design that has clarity: clean and modern details with a use of materials that relate to the architectural space. Clients that are interested in that aesthetic are often interested in working with us.

How do you help them choose materials?

Typically, we develop a couple of material/color palettes that we feel fit the design direction of the project. But it is our job to help them articulate their vision. At the end of the day, it is their home and we do not want any one project to look like another. Every project is unique to the client.

How does Ann Sacks fit into your process?

Going to Ann Sacks is always the highlight of the various field trips taken with our clients. The showroom can offer the most revealing insights into our client’s true design aesthetic. The staff is so knowledgeable about their products and helpful in answering questions. Our clients always leave with a narrowed selection of tiles they will take home and live with for a while. It is kind of a kid in the candy-store experience.

Is there anything new you want to try career-wise?

I love our niche. With that said, we’ve done a few restaurants, and I would love to do more of that. You can be a bit more innovative and push the envelope further in a commercial space.

Last question: What does luxury mean to you?

Luxury is that added layer that elevates the pleasure and livability to our environments. High-end furniture, custom designed carpets and cast lighting fixtures are all what typically define luxury, for me art adds that important level of luxury and has a significant impact on a project. When a client has acquired a collection, large or small, that has a meaning to their lives, the project takes on another dimension. The perfect placement and lighting of art energizes a room in a way that few other elements can.