There’s a 100-plus-year-old Chickering & Sons upright piano in the living room of Mike and Robin Clark’s house. It belonged to Robin’s grandmother, and she learned to play it herself. Sitting on top of it is a Liz Phair album. The CD cover is signed, in reference to Robin, “To Mike, Keep Her Satisfied —Liz Phair.”
Robin, a designer, surprised Mike with both the piano and the signed album when he returned from tour in 2003—he’s the longtime keyboardist and guitarist for Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, as well as an accountant. While he’d been away, Robin had met Phair when she opened for the Flaming Lips on the band’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots tour at the Crystal Ballroom. That’s also where Mike and Robin were married in 2002, nearly a decade after they both graduated from Reed College.
Yes, Mike and Robin are serious about music.
The piano is now, without a doubt, the oldest-looking thing in their 1899 North Portland bungalow, where they’ve lived for nearly 20 years. Their home is an amalgam of tinted plexiglass, shiny black tile, some metallic paint, and a healthy dose of glam-rock-to-pop design features that conjure up some of the coolest boutique hotels on the planet. Modern art and design infuse every last detail.
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1980s, the house underwent a funky remodel that resulted in things like an awkwardly designed bathroom and a decommissioned wood stove chimney and fireplace chimney, encased floor-to-ceiling in a six-foot square of brick, smack-dab in the middle of the first floor. The latter made everything feel compartmentalized and cramped. And so, they worked around these and other design flaws—assembling cheap Ikea and Fred Meyer shelving that overstayed its welcome, throwing on another layer of paint—and thought, “One day, we’ll make it right.”
In 2007, Robin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. For several months, while undergoing intensive rounds of chemotherapy, she spent a good amount of time at home in a hospital bed. By 2009, she had beaten the cancer, and gained a certain clarity around her home and lifestyle: “I really had time to look around and think, ‘Who lives here? What am I doing here? This could be so much better.’”
That near-death experience propelled the eventual remodel, which fully got underway in 2015 when they finally had the funds to do it. At that point, the house also had enough serious maintenance issues that they decided they needed to either sell it and move or majorly renovate. They chose the latter, and they’re so glad they did.
Over the course of four years, Robin designed, Steve Ewoldt of Artifekt Architecture drew up, and contractor Todd Larios completely gutted and rebuilt everything—adding an upstairs bathroom and first-floor addition of about 250 square feet to the home. As far as the overall design concept, “I came up with ‘dark glam bananas.’ It’s the atmosphere I was going for, as opposed to French Country or Swedish Minimalism,” Robin explains. “Dark glam bananas is sort of blingy, but it’s also fun and funny, future present, and moody and grown.”
Where Robin’s hospital bed once sat is now the full-of-shine kitchen with luxe black penny-tile and sparkly gold grout, and a custom “soul love” mosaic Robin dreamed up and set. Beyond that is a wide-open space, full of contrasting color, spliced with a zigzagging carpet custom-cut by Flor and placed by Robin.
The beating heart of the home is the mobile DJ station with vibration-proof casters. Mike wanted Beck’s “two turntables and a microphone,” so Robin designed it for him. Modular wall-mounted record cubbies line the walls (for their nearly 3,000 records), showing off some of their favorite album art. Two other striking design elements include a sculptural, space age-looking, tweed gray Tufty Time couch by designer Patricia Urquiola, and a larger-than-life wall mural of David Bowie posing in that iconic, vertical-stripe Freddie Burretti suit. And that’s just the first floor. Upstairs is their super chill, seafoam palette, skylit, chrome-beaded-curtained bedroom and what they refer to as their “disco powder room” with its mirrored-tile ceiling.
While pre-2020 Robin and Mike lived for live shows and music in cool clubs in Portland and around the world, they didn’t go out every night. Robin was determined, “Let’s make our house the destination we want to go to.” And so they did, with unthinkable foresight. Throughout the past year-plus, while many of us have felt the very real boundaries of our homes, stretched to capacity as we work from home, school from home, do just about everything at home—Mike and Robin have had an even deeper appreciation of their North Gay Avenue digs.
According to Mike, “Since we can’t go anywhere, it’s like, ‘Let’s get an espresso at the Gay Avenue Coffee House. Let’s see a film at the Gay Avenue Cinemas.’” One of their favorite at-home venues has been the Gay Avenue Dance Club. Mike regularly grabs a couple dozen records from their collection and spins dance music until the wee hours. The sound system is both analog and digital thanks to a Sonos + Ikea collaboration called Symfonisk.
They’ve also been regularly streaming DJs from around the world and pumping that sound throughout the house’s 10-plus speakers. Music actually follows you upstairs as it often does in hotels. They’ve tapped into some of their favorite live sets during the pandemic via United We Stream, which launched as a COVID-times fundraising campaign for Berlin clubs and is now a global platform. They’ve also really enjoyed watching and listening to Beck’s 2019 Hyperspace album paired with NASA visuals.
These days the Clarks can pretend they’re checking out the DJ from a music fest catering tent or an Airbnb in Europe. “We’ll be like, ‘Maybe we should get another night at this place? Can we get a late check-out?’” says Robin. “We seriously talk like that. It’s a really nice suspension of reality.”
Like many of us, Mike and Robin have been working from home during the pandemic. They often stream Seattle’s indie, listener-supported station KEXP during the week. When a particularly good song comes through, like “Music Makes Me High” by the Avalanches or “Free” by Sault, they’ll stop when one of them says, “Meet you on the dance floor!” And then they do just that—take a quick dance break.
It’s testament to the strength of their relationship that Mike and Robin lived in the house during the entire remodel, a project they had to press pause on several times due to insufficient funds. They’ll be the first to tell you that it wasn’t all sunshine and roses, and that chaos fatigue is real when it comes to a major remodel. Years spent living life within zipper walls, with all sorts of random holes in the few walls still standing, constant dust raining down, equipment strewn about everywhere, and living out of those five boxes not in storage is taxing, to put it lightly.
One early-on design boon that softened some of those sanity-degrading edges was their complete disregard for resale value. “People would say, ‘You need to put a railing here,’ and I would say, ‘No, I don’t,’” says Robin. “There are no dogs, no children. Why shouldn’t we have an entire room that’s only for music, that has no furniture, that’s just for dancing?”
When asked if either has any regrets after their painstakingly long three-year home renovation, the answer is a resounding no. “It is challenging to live in the moment when you’ve blown up your home for a future oasis that almost nobody can see,” says Robin. “But worthy things take time, patience, and relentless Scorpio-rising power which I have. Beyond that, it’s all about embracing change.”
Find more details at hellorobinclark.com, where Robin blogged the entire home renovation process from start to finish.