The storefront is easily discernible, a peachy pink façade nestled among a grouping of several similar exteriors, a mixture of hues huddled together so as to create an aesthetic cohesion, each advertising a similar ethos: creativity lives here.
T Ngu is the designer behind the jewelry line Upper Metal Class and owner of Project Object, a concept store nestled in a grouping of shops and restaurants cropping up in one of Portland's northeast neighborhoods. Though the latter venture was something she always envisioned undertaking, it seemed a far-off endeavor, of which the details appeared unplaced. However, in conversation with T, I learn that, oftentimes, what you’re meant to do comes by way of shock, surprise, and luck. But despite this element of serendipity, the context retains an elemental truth: Good comes to those who emit a mutual kindness, who emanate a shared gift.
“I’ve always wanted a shop. I’ve always thought about having something of my own in that way, something concrete. I would look around every now and then, scoping out different spots, looking for something with potential. I’d call around, asking for prices. But it was always just a nice thought, and I wasn’t sure when it would actually happen.”
T looks up, making a gesture to the space, seeming to distance herself from the immediacy of our discussion. Before she vocalizes it, I know that in this silence, she’s meditating upon all that’s gone into the store, the risk and uncertainty given in starting something completely anew.
“I stayed in touch with the developer who worked on this building, and when the space came up, I looked at the plans, and I thought, you know, I’m into it.”
The developer she references has made a name for himself in discussions of Portland’s urban shifts. Well on his way to constructing Portland as his dream city, Kevin Cavenaugh conceives of buildings housing small businesses set on supporting the city’s intimate social fabric. With this goal, there’s an obvious benevolence in his work, an altruism and a generosity extending outward to everything his ethos impacts.
The greatest consistency taken from this breadth of work is that, rather than developing spaces that isolate businesses in constructions separate from one another, Cavenaugh creates developments fostering connectivity, placing shops in close proximity, and offering visibility to the philosophy of collaboration that emerges in authentic work. This all becomes palpable in the environments he constructs, environments supporting a collaborative outlook that’s always existed. But now there’s space for it.
The courtyard behind Project Object is a microcosm of this ideal. The effect is both physically known and something only felt. Turning into a passageway a few storefronts down, you come to an opening taking presence behind the space. It’s small, free from the boulevard’s buzzing backdrop of activity, a creative escape that remains open to public curiosity, to the interest and investigation of the city’s layering localities.
Kevin’s made his mark on the street before. The Zipper, a food court composed of several micro-restaurants, a coffee shop, a full bar and nail salon, boasts a communal seating area bringing diners together. He pairs this design with an exterior that holds artistic intrigue, with an installation calling “CHASE” in graphic lettering when drivers head north, switching then to “DREAMS” when returning in the opposite direction. It’s a mantra now familiar for the commuters taking this habitual route, something calling you in, or at least providing a gentle reminder of possibility.
T talks me through the process of coming to the space, of building it up, of making Project Object into the vibrant, colorful, inspiring shop it is today.
“Kevin and I stayed in contact about it for three years or so. At that time, so much of what’s here now didn’t exist. These were fenced-in areas, with just dirt and a sign promising that something was in the works. So I went with instinct, knowing that I liked this area. I’ve always wanted to be a part of a place that’s growing and changing. I want to be part of a community while bringing the community together as well. I wasn’t sure what was going in here, but I wanted to be a part of it. That’s the thing about Kevin, he creates community wherever he goes.”
I listen carefully, attentive to the singular mention of “community.” The detail is subtle, but telling. Portland’s said to be a city of neighborhoods, a metropolitan mass made smaller by its division into separate scopes, intimacy concentrated in the network of streets made familiar in your loyalty to its boundaries.
But what T’s wording suggests is that there’s something underlying, an all-encompassing ethos weaving its way into Portland’s collective psyche. It’s a city of individuals, sure, but all with this desire to create, sharing the product, and experiencing the process, with one another.
“Essentially, the deal was made on a handshake. I wasn’t used to it; he does things old-school and apparently did that with everyone here. He gave them handshakes, and he gave them his word. There was an element of trust to it.” A belief that what will come of this promise, whatever that is, will attach itself to some element of the beautiful, putting good out into the world.
Presented with such circumstance, T was allowed creative control and design authority extending beyond the context most shop owners are allowed. “We saw it go from nothing, to frames, to walls, to figuring out where to put the lighting. Where to put the outlets. Just the bare bones of it all. It was fascinating to see it move from large-scale to these almost insignificant details. But creating something for yourself, you learn too, how much all of these details matter.”
In discussing the store, I think about T's trajectory, the movement from jewelry designer to store owner, a transition from focusing entirely upon her own craft to displaying the craft of others. But it's not so much a shift entirely, instead a continuing, a developing of her aesthetic care and attention to design. Coupled with knowledge of the process of making, T's experience positions her as the perfect person for such evolution, her understanding of a creative lifestyle and focus applied to everything she does.
"With the store, I think I've found a new passion. When I wake up in the morning, it's exciting. I'm excited. And it's not that I wasn't excited before or that I didn't have that interest or passion before, but when you're doing the same thing for a long time, you begin to search for new outlets, new ways of exploring what builds up in your mind, what you want to create with your hands. At first, I didn't know what it would be, that new thing. But I quickly found that this, having a store, and hoping to empower people through what I do, that was it. That's what's making me excited every day."
I walk out from our interview, exiting the workspace behind the shop, a softly-lift studio where everything is done, where production is managed and plans worked out. The details of events, the relationships with vendors. It all happens here.
But moving into the store, I see T's jewelry line woven in among the assortment. Minimalism gains focus in the collection's hand-crafted design. Displayed at a central table, the faint, temperate glint of each design accented against the wooded surface. T makes a motion towards a small piece, the rounded exterior outlines the suggestion of two breasts, the shape an obvious ode to a fundamental female representation. "It all began with this little piece of jewelry."
And though I realize her words give direct reference to the line, they speak to the store as well, to everything T has built, to everything Project Object offers a visual and voice. The piece she picks up is appropriately named “The Girls,” fashioned into both a necklace and a ring. A portion of the sales supports Bradley Angle, the Portland-based initiative supporting victims of domestic violence, offering support in the challenging context of abuse.
I realize then, that in what T describes, in the mission her store and her line hold, that her work defines the role of design, a concept so ambiguous, so loosely-held, that it often falls lost in the more marked representations of culture, of politics, and of ideas. Design considers purpose, it considers planning and intention. It exists so to prove the existence of thought behind action and fact. Design is the outlining of a belief, its own quiet manifesto drawing across all elements of life, those beautiful, and those simply seeking visibility.
Design is a language, its own structure of communication the project, the undertaking, of the objects that mark and make our lives.