Joe Mansfield and Raechel Frogner
Product design and material explorations meet contemporary architecture in SE Portland, OR. Add a dash of traditional processes and do-it-yourself mentality, and it's a potent and beautiful combination.
Life was simple before I met Joe. I was a solo furniture maker, content with making art for a limited audience with Portland as my sphere of influence. By pure happenstance in 2005 Joe and I became neighbors and things changed immediately.

I had an unusual quiver of extreme building experiences, and I naively believed that I could make anything… but Joe… he believed he could do anything. He was already thinking globally and was a bit of a pioneer in E-commerce—he was running a laser engraving business out of his bedroom and it wasn’t even a big deal. His Shopify store is the first one ever created in Oregon. Of course, totally normal!

We were a dangerous combination. Instead of doing actual work we started spending a lot of time jamming. We would toss the football back and forth in the street rambling on about our ideas on design, making, business, you name it.
One day in the summer of 2009 Joe tossed out an idea to make a laser engraved bamboo iPhone case and sell it online. No one remembers the details because we really didn’t think too much about it—a partnership was created and we went for it. There was no business plan or vision of what the company would become besides making cool stuff and having fun doing it.

After a great long run together, in early 2016 we decided to part ways. I would continue with Grovemade, and Joe would move on from the company and return to solo projects, where he’d thrived before.
To learn more about Joe’s current projects, check out his notebook company, Pacific & West.
He revived his leather notebook business and expanded his product lineup. He launched a kickstarter series of wood notebooks. And he got married to Raechel, whom you will soon meet. They bought a project home together and remodeled it as a reflection of their appreciation of design. And recently they completed a multi-year project to build a killer AirBNB studio in their backyard which is what this story is about.

When Joe and I were business partners we ironically didn’t see each other or hang out as much as we used to. We were too busy heads down trying to keep the company going. But since we parted ways, we’ve started falling back into the old habits, randomly jamming on anything and everything creative. Right back to where we started, tossing ideas back and forth.

I believe life is unpredictable and sometimes just plain luck creates turns in your life that take you in directions you may have never imagined. I’m extremely grateful that meeting Joe opened up my world.

Thanks Joe. Cheers to friendship!

- Ken Tomita CEO and Co-founder
Joe: I guess the first time [we met] was probably the summer of 2006. It was our senior year of college and Raechel was roommates with one of my best friends from high school...but I had a girlfriend at the time, so, yeah...

Raechel: He was off limits in my mind. It was the first encounter. [After moving to Spain to teach English] I came back to Portland, my friend invited me to a house party and it was at Joe's house, so then we met again.

Ken: Raechel, what did you think of his living situation and how adult he was?

Raechel: I just have to throw it out there: it was brown shag carpet with five dudes living in a five-bedroom house. And girlfriends. One bathroom. So, it's like...

Joe: Well, there's a laser in one of the bedrooms.

Ken: Is that just me that calls it the Fight Club house … or does everyone call it that?

Raechel: Everybody does … what does it for me is that it's like the only residential house, within like a block radius.

Joe: So, you can get away with anything at the house, basically. House parties, murder.

Ken: And it was cheap.

Joe: Super cheap. Just cramming people in there.
First Remodel
After living in various parts of Portland, Joe and Raechel decided to get into the hot Portland market. They found a spot they liked in SE Portland in 2012.
Ken: I've seen the house, when you guys first bought it, there wasn't much to it. What did you see in it that other people didn't see?

Joe: I really liked the position on the lot itself and how it's on a slope. And I remember standing up on this old asbestos-covered shed roof and looking out to the south and just seeing all the trees and the wide open space.

Ken: What was the idea, the vision, for the remodel?
Joe: So, I guess the grand vision was to really capitalize on this south facing view and eventually have an epic deck that went off our kitchen. And we met an architect, through George actually, who Grovemade used to share a shop with and we ended up really hitting it off with him and he helped us envision a way to open up the living space so that it wasn't so many separate tiny rooms.

Raechel: I think it was like an energy-savings thing. Like, if you were in only one room, you could close the door and it would like heat that room, versus like having to heat multiple rooms.

Joe: Yeah, so we said, "Fuck energy savings." And we knocked down all the walls, what, what.
“I remember standing up on this old asbestos-covered shed roof and looking out to the south and just seeing all the trees and the wide open space.”
Ken: How did the whole process go? How long did it take?

Raechel: We were living like moles in the basement. I just remember I thought it would be done before I went back to school. The target was four or five months. But we started right before summer break, and didn't finish until November.

Joe: We were lucky enough to be working with some of our friends on the remodel. George did the kitchen cabinets and Don was our general contractor (GC), and so it gave us sort of an insider's look at the whole process and it allowed us to contribute in ways that probably you wouldn't have if you didn't know the GC well. And so I was able to do custom drawer pulls and custom lighting fixtures and kinda collaborate with the process a little bit more.
Ken: Let's talk about that a little bit. Like, what do you mean custom? You made them?

Joe: Yeah, so the drawer pulls, they're inspired by a Grovemade product that I designed, the faceted laptop and iPad sleeves, and so the leather pull on that product is wrapped around a solid brass rod and so I basically enlarged that and turned it into drawer pulls. Yeah, and they turned out really great. And I ended up selling the design to Rejuvenation in the process, so kinda random.

Ken: Cool. And then the pendant lights...

Joe: Yeah, the pendant lights were basically scrap from the Grovemade desk lamp and so we figured out how to attach a threaded brass tube which hid the chord and basically suspended three of them over the kitchen sink.
Shō sugi ban
Joe: In 2013 you and I went to Japan and saw shō sugi ban (yakisugi) in person for the first time. And we were just like super blown away by it—it's just like this really genius technique that the Japanese have been using for centuries to preserve wood. They burn it and the leftover carbon is inert. Bugs don't eat it and it's also super UV resistant, so the sun doesn't affect it and it's also fire resistant because it's already been on fire.
Ken: How’d you figure out how to do it?

Joe: I basically just watched some YouTube videos.

Raechel: That's how Joe does work.

Joe: Yeah, thank God for YouTube. There was just like a few Japanese videos that I found of them doing it the traditional way, which is strapping three boards in a triangle and holding it over a bonfire, essentially. And you make this giant fire tube. We got several different species of wood and we went out to the Willamette River and we actually tested it. We tried cypress, we tried cedar, we tried fir, we tried juniper. And we ended up liking the effect that we got on the Doug fir the best. It gave the coolest alligator texture and so we went ahead and ordered a shit ton of Doug fir. And because we were right in the middle of fire season, we went out to the coast with three tanks of propane and a couple weed burners, and we just started burning.
Raechel: We switched from the traditional technique to the weed burner technique because the traditional technique brought fire right up to your eyebrows as you were holding this tunnel of fire. We were like, this is not safe.

Ken: I don't even know what a weed burner is. Is it like a flame thrower?

Raechel: Pretty much. You have a tank and you just...

Ken: That sounds awesome.

Joe: Yeah, it was super fun. It was like a 100 degrees in Portland, so we had to go out to the coast, which was just the best backdrop ever for just burning wood for eight hours a day.

Raechel: And the sheriff was cruising the beach. He stopped and he was like, "What are you guys doing?" We're like, "We're burning cypress." He's like, "You're burning perfectly good lumber?"

Ken: So, Raechel has a torch, you have a torch and you're like pointing them at each other?

Raechel: We have like four boards on the ground, we're both torching from opposite sides.

Ken: It's like a trust fall, kind of.

Raechel: And we'd walk it down together, the length of the boards.

Ken: How romantic.

Joe: So, after torching it we decided to oil the back side, because that wasn't burnt at all, so we wanted to protect that ….The oil definitely prevents [the char] from rubbing off. So, it's kinda nice. But we didn't brush it off like most Americans do. In Japan they just burn it and they leave the alligator texture, and when Sugi-ban got big in America, like five years ago, people thought they should brush off the char. And it's just a totally different effect. It looks more like a sandblasted wood.
Conceptualizing the ADU
Ken: All right, so, the remodel was a few years ago, and it looks awesome, and then you guys started this other project at the ADU (accessory dwelling unit). What's happening in between?
ADU: Accessory Dwelling Unit (also called a mother-in-law apartment): a second complete dwellings (including kitchen, bathroom, living space, and separate entrance) that shares a lot with an existing single family residence.
Joe: We basically did it in the wrong order. We actually had a … permit ready plan set for just a deck off of the kitchen.

Raechel: That was part of the initial remodel. It was like, "Oh, okay, off the kitchen, we're gonna build this deck” … like a rough enclosure for garden tools and Joe's motorcycle at the time and bikes maybe.
Joe: Yeah, but we were like why do we need 300 square feet just for garden tools? Like, this is a really nice space under here. And so we thought why don't we build an ADU?

Raechel: And we were like, "Well, if we dig out a few more feet, we can get even more height [because of the slope], and then what does that look like? Maybe we should think about enclosing this for a living space. So, what does that look like?"

Joe: Yeah, so I guess the process started out with… investigating various pre-fab options. But because of our unique situation where we're on a slope, and we wanted a rooftop deck, basically there weren't any options.

Joe: And then we bit the bullet and then we were like, "Okay, if we wanna do this right, we need to custom build it." And so we reached out to the architect we worked with previously, Marty Buckenmeyer,
He was just stoked about the project. He saw a lot of potential and we started talking about green walls, and he was like, "Hell, yes." So we just started going through the ideation phase, which took a lot of time, and he really challenged us to use this structure as a way to delineate spaces and so by using that design, we were able to create three separate really great spaces. They're not as big as your traditional yard, but by being a little smaller, you can actually make the spaces a little nicer because you can afford to use the right materials.
Ken: So, you had a huge yard, and now you've chopped it up into little things. That's kind of un-American, you know.

Joe: We definitely got a lot of pushback from people on that.
Raechel: "You're giving up your backyard? What, your garden space?"

Joe: Yeah, people thought we were crazy but honestly, we're a block from one of the nicest… dog parks in the city, as far as I'm concerned, and they mow the lawn for you, you know, so...
ADU Process
Joe: I guess to start out with, we took an ADU class, which was kinda helpful. It definitely got us ready for the permitting process and made us aware of the incentives the city provides to build ADUs in Portland. The city at the time basically wrote off the system development charge. It was around $12,000.

We were last talking about the design process with Marty and just how it was like this real collaborative process, where we would just meet for beers and sketch and he would present plans, and we probably did like four or five rounds of that which was like kinda not normal for a project like this, where it's that collaborative. And so that really helped us feel like we were part of the [design] process, it was super inclusive.

Ken: Both of you were involved with the design, so how did that work?

Joe: Do you wanna tell him?

Raechel: Well, I'm sure you know, Joe has like the ideas and it's like...

Ken: [laughing] Oh, he never has any ideas…
Raechel: He has the grand vision. He's like, "Maybe we should use this material, in this way." It sounds great and it looks great on paper with lines, but then I come along and I’m like, "Well, how easy is it gonna be to clean? And how long is it really going to last? Will it always look like that or is it going to wear in a way that we don't like." So then I have the more everyday use kind of perspective. And then we talk about it and then we fall somewhere probably closer to Joe's side than my side.
Joe: Practical? What's practical, come on.

Raechel: I joke that I feel like my one contribution was the garbage area. It was a practicality thing. Like, we need to get all of this garbage and recycling and compost bins out of eyesight, so why don't we build a little place for it to go and it can go underneath the deck.
Joe: The ADU is 440 square feet, it's super small.

Ken: That's pretty small. So how did you figure out a way to fit everything in there? What's the thought behind making that a cool space? How does the size change things?

Joe: We noticed with small spaces was that the ceiling height had a big influence on your perception of the size. And so we wanted to do tall ceilings to make it feel bigger and so that meant excavating an extra 2 feet of soil across like 40-feet wide. I think we took away at least 10 full-size dump trucks.

Ken: Oh, my God. It doesn't look like it when we're sitting back here.

Joe: That really helped make the space live larger because you have the higher ceiling height. But the biggest thing was the 16-foot-wide operable glass wall which really kind of like deletes that wall. You know, it're looking out into this patio space and it just makes it feel a lot larger than it is.
Build it Yourself
Joe: Originally we planned on hiring out the construction of the ADU and after getting back a couple of bids from general contractors … one of them we actually laughed out loud when we heard the price, it was just so inflated. They're so high because everyone's building in Portland right now and there's just a shortage of talented builders and so people can charge whatever they want. After getting those quotes, I decided that we had to build it ourselves in order to actually build to the quality that we wanted, and to be able to use the materials we wanted.
Ken: Let's talk about how your experience on the first house led you to build this one yourself.

Joe: Yeah, so because we worked with a good friend to remodel our house previous to this project, we saw behind the scenes. And before we took on the ADU, we met with Don and he basically was like, "Yeah, I think you guys can do this." And he was there for us and so that gave us the extra confidence we needed, and so, yeah. We decided to go for it. [And if we would’ve hired it out,] it would've either cost twice as much or it would've cost like 20% more and we would've had to make tons of compromises.

Ken: Like what?

Raechel: We wanted to design for longevity, like for instance, we chose ipe as a material for the decking and a lot of the siding as well. I had a custom shiplap Ipe profile made and so that'll last probably 70 to 100 years without oiling it or doing anything like that. And so the cheap quote wanted to use cedar which would require constant maintenance and would only last about 20 years.
Details, Details
Ken: Can you talk about some of the details you made yourself that are maybe not what you see in a typical development? Like the copper backsplash in the kitchen.

Raechel: I just remember the struggle of putting it up.
Joe: It's so hard to put up, oh, my God. Because there's no trim, and it's this super heavy, wobbly sheet of copper. It's like the thickest gauge roofing copper you can find. We attached it with Liquid Nails and so we'd have to basically use a trowel to spread the Liquid Nails and get the copper on the wall before it dried, so it was a race against time. It was really stressful. The sheets are ... usually about 8-feet tall by 4 feet and they weighed probably 150 pounds.
Raechel: Do you know the sound like a saw makes? It would make that sound as we were trying to like fit it through the door.

Joe: Yeah, so we installed all that stuff, so it's over the kitchen backsplash, there's two walls in that bathroom that are solid copper.
“We’re considering it all an experiment, like it's an experiment of time. How are these materials gonna wear and look with use and time?”
Ken: Why'd you use an unusual backsplash instead of like tile or whatever?

Raechel: No idea.

Joe: Well, I was just...I really wanted to see how it would wear over time, and I think it's getting really interesting and it's only gonna get better. For instance, the shower wall started out reflective like a mirror, like a super warm rose gold mirror, but it's already darkening, and you know, eventually it's gonna go green and then blue in spots, and so it's really dynamic.

Raechel: And I think that's something, like with our entire project, with the house and the ADU, we’re considering it all an experiment, like it's an experiment of time. How are these materials gonna wear and look with use and time?
Smaller is Harder
Ken: What about the bathroom? I know that was kind of a tight space.

Joe: Yeah, so the bathroom is basically as small as you can make it legally. We actually had to use a thinner tile material to get it to pass code. And the copper actually helped us get the tolerances we needed because the copper's super thin. It's hilariously tight.

Raechel: Millimeters and millimeters.
Ken: You don't hear about it on the architectural scale.

Joe: Typically [when] people when they hear like ADU, they're like, "Oh, that's like pretty easy to build." But, experienced builders I've talked to, they recognize how much harder it is to build small, because you have less wiggle room for materials in a bathroom or fitting mechanical elements into the space, and so we had a lot of challenges just getting all the mechanicals to fit. That was a big deal.
Ken: What are your thoughts on the small size and how it elevates the space, or how does it make people feel, depending where they're coming from?
Joe: Yeah, so my experience of going to Japan and experiencing how efficient and how well considered those small living spaces were, that really changed my perspective and influenced this space a lot.
Ken: I didn't even realize that, Joe, that our trip influenced you like that. That place you stayed in, my mom's friend's architect -

Joe: Tiny but amazing.

Ken: It was made by a furniture maker, you could tell. That's what this place kinda reminds me of. It's not like construction. To me it's more like furniture at a bigger scale.
Meaningful Materials and Objects
Ken: Let's talk about the stuff in there, the furniture and the art that you have in there.
Joe: Yeah, sure. There's a lot of custom furniture in the space because it's so small you need very specific pieces to actually function. For instance, the dinette table had to be a specific shape, which is, it flares out towards the wall and it's more narrow where you have to squeeze past it, and I just happen to have a neighbor who milled a diseased tree that fell down in their yard, a chestnut tree. And so I built a custom dinette table out of that material and that worked out really well. And then...I guess, I should probably back up and talk about the Richlite in the bathroom. That's kind of an interesting story.
Joe: Richlite is a paper composite which we used for the iPhone cases for the iPhone 5. And so it's super durable, they use it for rain screens on commercial buildings and skate parks, originally.
And so I figured, "Hey, why not just use it for tiles in a bathroom?" And we had a ton of waste material left over from making iPhone cases that were the perfect size, and so I just decided to go for it. And I forgot that it required a specific epoxy to adhere it to the wall. And so I started out just using tile mortar, and I came back the next day and the tiles were just falling off the wall. It was the saddest moment.

Ken: Oh, no. So what'd you have to do?

Joe: So, I just pulled off all the tiles from the wall, and instead of scrapping that idea, for some reason I still persisted, and I used an angle grinder to grind off all the high spots, so I was just like in this tiny room full of dust, angle grinding for hours so it'd be flat again. And then I got the right adhesive and I had to figure out how to clamp the tiles in space while the adhesive dried. And so I used a system of boards and clamps and screws. They're vertical, and they're pretty heavy, they're a half inch thick and they're super dense and heavy and the epoxy is pretty fluid, so it wants to run down the wall … there was a lot of nightmarish moments with tiles covered with epoxy, falling off the wall in there. But, you know, I persisted, and it turned out great.

Raechel: They're still there, they're still there.

Ken: So, let's talk about the elephant painting, that's gonna come up for sure.

Joe: Yeah, so the elephant is … by Jacob Escobedo. He's an artist we collaborated with in the early days, actually before Grovemade.
Ken: And of course, the Chaboo.

Joe: Oh, yeah, and the Chaboo. So, that was one of the first collaborations we did, before Grovemade, it was a collaborative furniture show with 50 different artists. Yeah, Ken helped me router basically like the topography of a river, into this bench and then I laser engraved a topper pattern into it, and inset a compass.
New Perspectives
Joe: I guess like approaching designing an ADU from the point of view of a product designer, brought a different perspective to it and it really allowed me to focus more on like the minute details. I think more than a typical architect or builder would, and so it's very materials focused and just like, every detail is thought out.
Ken: What was the surprise for you at the end, once you were done?

Joe: The surprise? It was just the feeling, what's the word for it? It's a...

Raechel: It's like, "Wait, we did this?" Wasn't it? For me, it was like, this is kind of...this came out of our hard work and our thinking and this was the result, and it's pretty cool.

Joe: It makes you appreciate it more, yeah.

Ken: And you guys have done these projects together, and usually you don't work together in your day jobs, but these were massive endeavors. How has that changed your relationship?
Joe: It was great, I mean we just...we drink a lot of beer and we're like, we're behind the chop saw a lot.

Raechel: Yeah, it's kinda fun because you learn a new skill that you never thought you were ever going to have to learn. You know, like, "Well, if we learn how to put up siding we save, I don't know, $8,000, so let's do it ourselves."
The Future
Ken: So, how did this project inspire you for your next move?

Joe: I think we're not alone in this but in Portland and especially on the Oregon coast and outside of the city, there's a real lack of inspiring weekend places to rent and so we've been just dreaming of creating a space that we would want to actually go to. That would involve probably six to eight separate cabins with like a shared common space. Building this project got me pretty fired up to take that on one day.

Raechel: There might be some baby steps between now and then, but that'd be the ultimate goal.

Ken: Is there gonna be a friend discount?

Joe: Oh, yeah, you know it, dude.
Stay in Joe and Raechel’s new guesthouse on AirBNB.


Featured in This Story

Further Reading