Tim Abrahams

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A City with Many Names

Blueprint July 2008

In Refugees and Fugitives, Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, identifies what makes the inhabitants of Portland, Oregon so special. He continually returns to the remark of a fellow author – ‘everyone in Portland has at least three identities’ – as he explores the dark corners of this tightly packed, but outward-looking city in the northwest corner of the USA. Palahniuk may focus on the sexually permissive dimension of the city – Oregon’s liberal free speech laws have been used in Portland to allow more strip bars per head than any other city in the USA – but he also describes the fervent, creative atmosphere of this most progressive city.

The Nike World Campus has this raised bank around it which they describe as the berm. People talk about being inside the berm or outside.
By common account, Portland is not as wild as it was in the post-flower power, pre-grunge days that Palahniuk describes. His example of a tripartite identity is ‘poet, drag queen and bookstore clerk’, but it is still a frontier town whose inhabitants double, nay, triple up on their identities. Bill Fritts is a good example. He has made money introducing top-end European designers to the design-savvy corporations based up and down the West Coast. He has done fit-outs for Disney, Adidas and Microsoft Zune. He organised the furniture for the Seattle Public Library. He also writes bi-annual design reports on interiors for Nike and designs his own range of sustainable furniture called Solid Core.

Asked to account for the profusion of designers working in the city, Fritts thinks the corporate world is more important than the social milieu. Nike began as a distribution company for Japanese trainers in the city in the mid-Sixties and now employs 7,000 people. ‘The Nike World Campus has this raised bank around it which they describe as the berm. People talk about being inside the berm or outside,’ he says. He has two designers on retainer for Solid Core, Jason Martin and Carl Jonsson, who are former employees of Nike. ‘As far as I can see it, you leave Nike and set up your own practice and then you are invited back as a consultant,’ says Fritts. Martin and Jonsson have also worked with Logitech and Dell and are currently organising an exhibition of design called, Made in Oregon. By Non-Oregonians.

This dense vibrant city is benefiting from the land-use planning system enacted by Governor Tom McCall in Oregon in 1971. ‘Come visit us again and again. This is a state of excitement. But for heaven's sake, don't move here to live,’ McCall told CBS at the time. Unfortunately for McCall, the population of Portland was static throughout the post-war years, but the last two decades have seen a surge in growth. The population of Oregon has increased by 20 per cent throughout the 1990s according to the US Census Bureau, and so its cities have become denser. When Barack Obama received a rapturous welcome in Portland recently, he told reporters he would introduce this legislation across the country if elected.

‘A lot of cities in the USA have reached a level where they are no longer accessible for the average creative person to establish themselves. Portland is a city where you can come in with your own ideas, open your own store, and design your own stuff,’ says Mark Galbraith, vice-president of Nau, one of the most exciting clothing companies to be established in the USA in years. Peter Kallen, Nau’s design director, points out the quality of the design courses at local schools – the architecture programme at the University of Oregon gets particular raves – but he stresses ‘the spirit of youth in the town’ rather than the schools is what makes Portland such a hit. ‘You’ll be critiqued by your peers but you’ll
be accepted at the same time,’ he says.

Certainly, in terms of sportswear and outdoor apparel, Portland benefits from its geographic location. An hour
from the Pacific Coast and an hour from Mount Hood, where there is round-the-year glacier snow, the town is full
of surfers and snowboarders, explaining the focus on new clothing technologies. Nau reflects the environmentalist traditions of the city by creating products that
are recycled and recyclable but, most importantly, they express a robust urban sophistication. That’s what makes Portland such a fascinating city right now. Adidas moved its US headquarters to Portland, partly as an aggressive move to show Nike it couldn’t dominate the West Coast sports market but also to chase down the design talent that was being drawn to the city.

If that were all, Portland would be just another groovy little town in the USA, but what really makes the city so exciting is its industry. The area still has its share
of industrial manufacturing although it is highly specialised. Boeing is two hours away. The largest manufacturer of semi-conductors in the world, Intel, employs 16,000 people in the city, including its Smart Toy Lab where designers create new and exciting ways to fuel the need for ever- faster processors. In a similar way to Nike, former Intel employees have established numerous consultancies and design-led practices in the city.

In 2001, the Portland Business journal profiled 17 companies that had been started up by former Intel employees. In terms of entrepreneurial activity, as well as its lack of established cultural institutions: this is the Wild West. Design is closer to industry here. McCall’s anti-sprawl legislation means that the design community is a literal truth rather than a figurative one.

Ace Hotel is a case in point. This fantastic redevelopment of an old flophouse is a perfect access point to the city for those out of town. Local designers, Jeremy Pelley and Philip Iosca have provided a pared back, army and navy look, which features murals by Portland illustrators such as Evan B Harris and Brent Wick. Typically for Portland, the hotel represents not just its own values but as an ambassador for the city. Its foyer is a meeting point for the city’s creative types.

The adjacent restaurant Clyde Common is one of the highpoints in a culinary scene which is developing as chefs leave New York, tired of working flat-out in a city they can no longer afford to be in. Perhaps because they are aware of their remoteness, Portland’s inhabitants work hard on retaining their links with the rest of the world, with Japanese influence one of the most pervasive and important. Phil Knight, founder of Nike, began life by flogging running shoes made by Onitsuka Tiger, at athletics meets.

Today, the furious creativity one sees in the city’s graphics scene is fuelled by a constant drip feed of Japanese pop-culture. John Jay, the executive creative director and partner of Wieden and Kennedy, which has blossomed in the city thanks to the custom of Knight’s global brand, carries the torch. Having opened W and K’s office in Tokyo and lived there for six years, he is a one-man cultural mission, and has helped Tom Manley at the Pacific North-West College of Art set up exchange programmes in Japan and China.

Of course this multi-faceted approach is not quite what Chuck Palahniuk had in mind when he wrote about his three identities. A denizen of subcultures, Palahniuk describes a frontier town of strip joints, drag queens and abducted sailors. Portland is at the frontier of hi-tech industry and American libertarianism. No wonder their inhabitants opt for at least three identities.

As the corporations become better known it is worth remembering the importance of the town’s acceptance of all kinds. 1968 was the year that Phil Knight incorporated Nike. It was also the year that Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and his flower power chums left the increasily polarised political climate in California for the wilderness of Oregon. This respect for individual liberty has acted as a pull ever since. Successive generations will have to temper the urge to institutionalise the city’s creativity with an understanding that it has so far flourished without institutional support.

All cities have multiple identities, some of them are even expressed in names, New York being a classic example with its affectionate but ultimately indeterminate nicknames of Gotham and Big Apple. Few places establish their nicknames to such a significant degree. Portland is Rose City; a city amidst nature, sited between the coast, Mt. Hood and the desert beyond. It is an industrial, trading point spanned by steel box girder bridges so it is Bridge Town but it is also Stumptown; the latter name given to it because of the lumber trade. Lately the hipsters have taken to calling it PDX, the International Air Transport Association airport code for an international-minded city.

These names are used in a semi-official capacity, not as nicknames but signifiers of a complex city, held together by its forward momentum