Max Humphrey’s first career didn’t exactly lend itself to well-designed spaces. As a musician in a touring band, he spent most of his time traveling the country, crashing on couches and staying in dingy motels. When he finally settled down in his first solo apartment in Los Angeles, the bare walls staring back at him led to a creative firestorm.
“I was job-hunting and soul-searching, and meanwhile, decorating my [first one-bedroom] apartment,” Humphrey tells host Kaitlin Petersen on the latest episode of Business of Home’s new podcast, Trade Tales. “Months in, there was a literal lightbulb moment—that’s when I got into it.”
A self-taught student of design, Humphrey educated himself by camping out and reading design books at his local Barnes & Noble. He followed the nontraditional route when searching for his first design gig, too—trolling Craigslist and sending out emails to prospective employers, detailing both his lack of experience and his newly well-informed interest in design. Finally, he scored a position with a design firm, staying for seven years before moving to Portland five years ago to start his own firm.
Since then, Humphrey has stuck pretty closely to the formula that got him where he is today—he works independently and forges his own path with an approach that is both unique and unapologetic. Most recently, he has decided to return to his roots by writing a design book, much like the ones that helped him launch his career, but with a tone he hopes is more accessible to everyday readers and designers—like those who live on his street.
“I live in the suburbs outside of Portland in a modest neighborhood, and everybody’s out in their yard doing their own yardwork and fixing up their houses themselves,” he says. “Aspirational is not how I would put it—there’s a lot of DIY, a lot of you can do this yourself. So, hopefully [this book is] accessible to everybody.”
What’s in a name?
In Humphrey’s band days, being pigeonholed into a certain music genre was a constant source of annoyance. He faced a similar problem in his design career—but he came up with a solution the second time around: When asked to describe his design style in a 2018 interview, Humphrey spontaneously coined the term “Modern Americana.” After spitting out the new phrase, the designer realized it was perfect, and he has since found that its originality in the design world works in his favor. It helps him distinguish his work in branding and product development and allows for unconstrained creativity—he doesn’t have to adhere to a strict aesthetic since he’s the one who created it. “It was freeing in a way that then I could interpret that however I wanted, and I could operate outside of it comfortably, too,” says Humphrey.
As the sole member of his design firm, Humphrey needs a helping hand at times. For both small tasks and general consultation along the way, he recruits the main stakeholders in every project—his clients. Whether it’s picking up materials or assembling a furniture item shipped to their home, he finds that the clients he works well with aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. This mindset is a central part of the Portland ethos, he says, where DIY is encouraged and the no-frills approach is highly favored. Plus, the end result looks lived-in and specific to each client since they contributed along the way. “My best projects are when the client has the interest and the time to do everything with me. We go shopping together, we go to the tile showroom together, we go to the cabinet hardware place together, the plumbing showroom together,” says Humphrey. “That way we’re picking stuff out together. It’s their house—it ends up looking more organic in terms of, this wasn’t something an interior designer swooped in and installed in a day.”
Humphrey is upfront about his design process: You won’t see flat lays, mood boards, 2D renderings or any kind of formal presentation. Instead, he prefers to tackle one item at a time—for example, focusing on the sofa one week, chairs the next, rugs after that—to accumulate a design scheme that emerges naturally. He also charges for each item along the way, rather than conducting a marathon audit at the end of a project. The goal of this method, he says, is to keep his business small—he doesn’t need to maintain an office space or take on additional employees. As a result, clients receive design expertise straight from the source, and Humphrey has more time to do the things that inspired him to get into the industry in the first place. “As much as interior design is a service industry, the little slice of the pie that’s artistic is what fuels me,” he says. “Creating things that didn’t exist before—whether it’s products or custom stuff or photographs or relationships—that’s what’s exciting. The more I can do of that, the better.”
Homepage image: Max Humphrey | Courtesy of Max Humphrey