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TILE WILD

Color, critters and whimsical touches rule the roost in a Northeast Portland bungalow

Intricate tile work has turned a 1914 King neighborhood bungalow into a showplace. At 1,200 square feet, the residence certainly isn't grand in size, but it has an abundance of style, courtesy of owners Geoff Martin and Lars Jensen.

Martin says the Northeast Portland home had 'a pretty scrappy' cement porch when he and Jensen bought the place five years ago. Today, slate-covered steps with colorful geometric tile insets invite visitors to a homey front porch.

Once inside, a one-of-a-kind fireplace is the visual focus in the front room. Not too long ago, 'this was one homely fireplace,' Martin says, producing pictures to illustrate his point. The 'before' shots show a drab, brick fireplace with zero personality. Today, the transformed home-warmer is aglow with vibrant yellow, green and brown mottled tile covering much of its face.

Lustrous to the point of looking liquid, the 'Victorian' glaze covering the colorful tile was developed with the help of Jensen, a design artist for Pratt & Larson Ceramics, a longtime Mecca for Portland tile lovers.

While the vibrant tile is enough to lend distinction, it's the custom tiles that set the fireplace apart. Three-dimensional owls and pine cones pop out from the surface, and the mantel is bordered by rounded tile resembling hewn branches, right down to realistic wood grain.

Oversized custom art tiles create a trio of forest scenes. One vignette shows a cub clambering up a trunk with swarming bees streaming from a hive. Despite the angry insects, 'the little fella is going to go up to get (the honey),' Martin says.

Another scene shows the cub dangling playfully, and perhaps a bit perilously, from a branch while an adult bear looks on.

Centered above the firebox is an oversized tile showing the cub traversing a fallen tree, with the big bear keeping a watchful eye.

The forest scenes are part of the LJ Animal Series, developed by Jensen.

Before setting the tiles in a rosy brick mortar, Martin and Jensen did a storyboard of sorts. However, Jensen doesn't always work with a master plan in mind.

'I'm not very good with the long-term plan that has to be followed. I like the opportunity to swerve once in awhile,' the artist says. 'I get an idea and start building and see how it goes. So far, I've been lucky.'

Fit to be tiled

The bathroom on the main floor is an example of how custom tile can create a large impact on any scale. 'Working on weekends and such, it took nine months to finish this thing,' Martin says.

To gain more room when remodeling the bathroom, Martin and Jensen removed a claw-foot tub and encroached into closet space in an adjacent room. They constructed a shower stall and built an Asian-style soaking tub. 'I've coveted them since I read about them,' Martin says of the tub that's narrow, but nearly twice as deep as a traditional tub. 'You can actually soak in it, without your knees or torso sticking out of the water.'

The bathroom's floors and walls are entirely tiled. Exquisitely detailed, hand-painted art tiles include coral, hermit crabs, sand dollars, starfish, eels, sea turtles and jellyfish. A pattern depicting the ocean bottom runs along the juncture of the wall and floor.

The room is done in soothing colors such as mossy green and pale yellow. Wood cabinets are finished in a soft, sea-foam green with a wash of cobalt blue to complement the tile work.

The bathroom was featured in the January-February issue of Better Homes & Gardens Kitchen and Bath Ideas.

Though it looks picture perfect, Martin said there is at least one thing he'd do differently next time. 'Don't ever get crackle glaze for a basin,' he cautions. The look is lovely, but dirt and other particles from the water tend to collect in the cracks, making for a high maintenance finish.

'These things you just don't know until it's up and running.'

But wait, there's more

Relatively dark and largely unfinished, Jensen and Martin's basement is ordinary. Ducts run along the low ceilings, and much of the space is consumed by the bulky tools of Jensen's trade. However, there is an oasis amidst it all.

'He carved it out of nothing,' Martin says of the new bathroom constructed and tiled by Jensen. Custom tile covers the floors and walls and, once again, wildlife figures largely into the look.

'There's a little bit of everything,' says Martin, surveying art tile featuring creatures ranging from a heron to a buffalo, a frog to a rhinoceros.

Digs is an occasional series about places Portlanders live. Do you have an interesting home? Tell us about it. Contact Portland Life Editor David Kern at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .