Portland, Oregon, has become one of America’s food meccas over the past decade thanks to its chef-friendly bounty of nearby agriculture, vineyards, and fishing, and a populace that is receptive to culinary ingenuity. But since it rains in the city for nearly half of the year, diners are often looking for more than just delicious cuisine: They crave a sense of escape—preferably to someplace that feels warm and sunny. While the founders of the restaurant Tusk rejected any Middle Eastern design tropes to go with their Israeli- and Moroccaninfluenced cuisine, they, along with local designer Jessica Helgerson, wanted to create a feeling of being whisked away—not to Marrakech or Tel Aviv, but instead to 1970s Southern California and the desert of the Southwest.
Rock ‘n’ roll attitude
Named after the 1979 Fleetwood Mac album, Tusk was designed around its signature artwork, a large Michael Cooper photograph of another rock legend, the Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards floating on his back in a swimming pool. “We wanted to make a statement with that piece,” recalls Tusk co-owner Luke Dirks, “And we wanted to establish a vibe that says, You’re going to have fun when you come here. We’re not taking ourselves too seriously. I mean, it’s Keith Richards in a Speedo.”
At the same time, the relaxed ambiance was carefully orchestrated: Veins of the Carrera marble bar top beneath the iconic photo seem to meld perfectly with the light reflecting off the pool water in the photograph. Tusk’s head chef, Joshua McFadden, had wanted a clean, white, minimalist design palette, which the restaurant certainly has.
But, as Helgerson explains, “We always try to warm things up. Since the Keith Richards photo was a given, it dictated this kind of Palm Springs-y, pale, restrained design palette.”
One way that Helgerson added warmth was with custom banquette seating clad in a naturaltoned leather with the whimsical touch of cushions connected to each other by buckles, like a belt. Whitewashed maple tables are paired with chairs in a natural finish. This design choice was made, in part, to address one of the client’s directives to avoid a showy use of reclaimed wood or familiar species like Douglas fir, both of which the owners believe have become a Portland cliché.
Complementing the use of earth tones are a few bright accents, particularly in pink and yellow, that are seen throughout the interior, including the geometrically abstracted paintings by Portland’s Ellen McFadden and Brooklyn’s Lauren Portada located near the entrance. The owners also consider the food and cocktails to be part of the interior color palette. “With a bright but muted toned background, we have these amazing color pops via the product,” Dirks says. “When a plate or a cocktail comes to a table, we wanted them to be these explosive color moments.”
Lighting is key in Tusk, especially given the owners’ desire to create a restaurant that’s popular both day and night. During weekend brunch service or late-afternoon happy hour, the space feels bright and airy. Daylight, which penetrates through expansive glass, reflects from the white walls and surfaces—so much so that on a typically gray Portland day the interior can actually feel brighter than the outdoors. After dark, track lighting is filtered through rows of wood dowels that span the ceiling, emanating a warm, orange glow. Shadows along the walls resemble dappled sunlight.
The front dining room is bordered by a series of screens with patterned cutouts that correspond to the shape of the ceiling dowels, creating shadows in the daytime. These deliberate silhouettes were also the lone interior-design nod to the restaurant’s North African and Middle Eastern influences. “When you look at Moroccan design, you see a lot of intricately cut screens that allow light to filter through,” Dirks explains.
While Tusk balances a variety of influences, the space feels less themed and more like the home of an artistically minded, world-traveled chef. “It’s just a few key moves,” Helgerson says of the design. “But I think it works particularly well in our rainy Portland climate. It feels like a mini vacation!”
who Interior designer: Jessica Helgerson Interior Design. Project team: Jessica Helgerson; Em Shephard; Jaime Merrill. Contractor: Siteworks Design Build. Kitchen: Bargreen Ellingson. Landscape: Hyland’s Nursery.
what Paint: Benjamin Moore. Restroom wall tile: Cle Tile. Custom ceiling panels: Siteworks Design Build. Recessed lighting: Halo. Track lighting: Juno. Pendants/chandeliers: Schoolhouse Electric; Lambert et Fils. Sconces: Schoolhouse Electric. Hardware: Krownlab. Seating: Industry West; MAKR; CB2; Superfab. Upholstery: Beaverton Auto Upholstery. Tables: Master Furniture Makers; Barter Design; Master Furniture Makers. Shelving: Superfab. Drawers/casegoods: Planes of Reference. Architectural/custom woodworking: Planes of Reference; Superfab; Siteworks. Planters/accessories: Barter Design. Plumbing fixtures/ fittings: Duravit; Hansgrohe.