Modern Americana showcases the work and style of designer Max Humphrey.
By Rachel Gallaher
Photographed by Christopher Dibble
According to Portland designer Max Humphrey, none of us should follow the rules—when it comes to design, that is.
In fact, the intro of his new book, Modern Americana (released last month through Gibbs Smith), ends with the succinct directive: “Don’t follow my rules—or anyone else’s!” It’s advice that Humphrey, who is originally from New England, has taken to heart throughout his 15-year career as a self-taught designer. Carving a niche for himself through his work—his colorful, nostalgia-laced style is a bold and unexpected contrast to the neutral, minimalist-leaning interiors favored in the Northwest—Humphrey brought, and popularized, a refreshing new approach to the region.
“I’d describe my design style as Modern Americana,” Humphrey says, “but I’ve also been saying Cowboy High-Style lately. I’m not sure if my style has evolved over the years but one thing that happens as the projects come and go is you get more confident in presenting yourself exactly how you want instead of how you think people will react.”
Designer Max Humphrey at one of his projects.
Before turning to design, Humphrey had jobs in TV and film production, and for a while, he was the bass player in a punk band signed to a major US label. As he notes in the book, these various creative pursuits help set him up for all the work and dedication that went into launching his own design business—work that no one else will do for you.
For Humphrey, who designs both commercial and residential spaces, as well as décor (a 2019 collection of rugs was a collaboration with Thayer Design Studio), that work has paid off with a steady stream of clients, international coverage, and a new book that sold out its initial run within its first week on the market. Modern Americana is written by Humphrey (with Chase Reynolds Ewald) and shot by Portland photographer Christopher Dibble. (See GRAY’s In the Design Lounge episode featuring Dibble HERE). The volume is broken down into 11 sections that have specific sub-sections such as “Vintage Rugs,” “Subway Tile,” and “Painted Furniture” each with design tips, personal anecdotes (a dealer once tried to talk Humphrey out of purchasing a damaged vintage rug, but the designer admits that the damaged look was part of the appeal), and commentary on featured projects.
A residential project featured in 'Modern Americana.' The rug was designed by Humphrey in collaboration with Thayer Design Studio.
The designer and photographer have been working together for the past five years, a working relationship that started after GRAY’s former special projects director Stacy Kendall introduced the two via email.
“We’re both LA to Portland transplants and she thought we’d hit it off,” Humphrey explains. “We got coffee and talked shop and have been working together since 2016. We’ve shot projects all over Oregon and have been down to California and across the country to Boston for shoots. My interiors are meant to have a sense of humor about them, and Chris is able to capture that vibe. I don’t design overly serious, stuffy spaces, and I def[initely] don’t want to hang out with serious, stuffy photographers all day.”
Humphrey embraces traditional Americana motifs in his work—from quilts to bandanas.
“Working with Max is great,” Dibble says. “He has a strong point of view, he's collaborative and his attention to detail is always appreciated. Even if a shot takes extra time, it’s always worth it. There’s never a project that Max doesn’t go above and beyond for, and he has a knack for striking a balance between just enough and too much. As a designer, his aesthetic aligns with mine, which is one reason we work well together. There hasn’t been a space that Max designed that I didn’t really like.”
Flipping through Modern Americana, one gets the feeling that they are on a visual treasure hunt. Humphrey is a maximalist, and his spaces make a strong impact. But he doesn’t just fill a room for the sake of filling room—every piece of vintage furniture, every antique objet, is a component that comes together to tell a larger story.
"I love traditional tents made out of army duck canvas," Humphrey writes. "This one is from Denver Tent, which has been making tents in Colorado since 1890. The cot cushionsare all covered in fabrics inspired by Pendleton’s national park blanket stripes."
“With maximalist spaces, you have to take into consideration composition and story,” Dibble says of photographing Humphrey’s work. “You have to find a balance of what’s in the frame and what gets cuts off, keep in mind the shapes of objects and where those objects land in the frame, see how items interact and overlap, and keep an eye out for tangents that draw your eye away from the main focus of the image.”
The spaces that Humphrey puts together are fun and quirky, but Humphrey has a serious eye for antiques that brings a sense of sophistication that prevents them from veering into gaudy territory. Bandanas, plaid, and American flags come with their own sets of cultural and political associations and stereotypes, but this book shows that in the right hands, and with the right eye, they can become symbols of high design. If anything, Modern Americana makes you want to get out and go antiquing—a ‘side effect’ that Humphrey encourages.
“My hope with the book is that people read a few chapters and then put it down because they’re so inspired to go vintage shopping that they can’t wait another minute,” he says. “It’s meant to be accessible and fun—I don’t enjoy design books full of pictures of giant, fancy mansions.”
Modern Americana is available here.