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Portland's newest boutique hotel brings high class to the hostel ethos, and to a growing corner of town

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - In the new KEX Hotel at MLK and Couch, a light from a royal palace in the Czech Republic. It shows how the KEX design team, which has roots in Hollywood as well as Iceland, values lighting as much as historical artefacts in creating a hygge sense of Scandinavian coziness.

A new hotel that captures the essence of 2020 Portland has opened up at the Burnside Bridgehead.

The KEX Hotel has it all: a formerly dead but well-connected location, behind the old Stark's Vacuum Cleaner store, just yards from the Burnside Bridge and the southbound streetcar line.

Weird food: the restaurant is Icelandic cuisine, think raw meat on seed bread, scallops and big blocks of braised cabbage.

And three extra rooms of hostel-style bunk beds — specifically to compete with the invisible Airbnb market which lurks wherever overdressed people trundle wheelie bags down the middle of the street.

Kex means 'cookie' in Icelandic. The other KEX, which is called KEX Hostel, is in an old biscuit factory in Reykjavik. It was there that the concept was born: a boutique hotel with a vintage feel, modest prices and above-average customer service. To decorate Iceland KEX Hotel, the interior designer Dáni Pedersen went on a buying tour of the rust belt in the United States. While factory lights and carousel horses from the Midwest seem cool over there, for the Portland outpost, Pedersen went shopping in Europe and brought home a strange haul of African and European fixtures and materials.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The exterior food service pick up area of Dottir at the new KEX Hotel at MLK and Couch. The wood and glass were salvaged from a 1950s bakery in Egypt.

Vacuum

For example, in the restaurant, Dottir (Icelandic for daughter), the place where servers pick up orders has a glass and wood entrance, which was once the storefront of a bakery in Cairo, Egypt. In a glass case, surrounded by succulent plants, there is a three-foot-long lantern from a royal palace in the Czech Republic, complete with an impressive filament light bulb. And the bamboo matting that runs under the banquettes and the front desk is taken from an old factory conveyor belt.

This adaptive reuse fits in well in Portland. The building itself was repurposed — not that there was much choice. The 1912 building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Every change had to be approved by the Parks Service, according to KEX General Manager and Partner Sean O'Connor, formerly of the premiere Portland eatery, Le Pigeon.

Leading a tour of the restaurant and hotel, O'Connor points out the 30-seater courtyard where a red neon sign flickers. It says "Music box," and it sat in Rejuvenation's warehouse for nearly a decade. The Music Box theater was downtown on Broadway until 1997.

The transformer for the sign was damaged in transit, so now it flickers menacingly.

"We've had a bunch of neon guys come out here trying to figure out how to turn it down again," O'Connor said.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Manager Sean O'Connor talks about the philosophy behind KEX Hotel. Note the Iceland-meets-Oregon custom wallpaper design.

Wallpaper

The courtyard, and the soon-to-open rooftop bar, are attempts to bring some fresh air to a quarter block that was once apartments and then the storage space for Stark's Vacuums. They had it stripped to the studs and did what is common in Portland remodels: built a concrete shaft to house the new elevator and stabilize the masonry building in case of earthquakes. They also added steel braces that cut across the windows facing Couch Street and Martin Luth King Jr. Boulevard. They chose to keep the mismatched glass in the clerestory, and they turned an old apartment lobby into a back-of-house space.

The hotel has 29 rooms, but in a bid to beat Airbnb at its own game, there are 15 shared hostel rooms with bunk beds that sleep between four and 16 guests.

These beds are heavy steel and were made in Seattle by Black Mouth Design. They have thick mattresses, quality sheets and lockable storage trunks in their base. They even have canvas curtains, for privacy, made by Portland's Leland Duck.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - KEX Portland Hotel's lounge is welcoming to locals and paying guests alike, and the vintage furniture can be pushed aside for bands to play. Facing the camera is KEX founder Kristinn (Kiddi) Vilbergsson.

As at the Harlow Hotel in Old Town, management has embraced the hostel idea and plans to add bunk beds on its first floor. The idea is rife that Portland needs its low-budget travelers as well as its expense accounters.

O'Connor says he has seen groups of friends booking a whole hostel room so they can be together and not have to deal with strangers, poor man's suite-style.

The hallways are dark, the room numbers painted in black on yellow lights above the doors. O'Connor, who had a spell as a sign painter, did them himself because he wanted some artistic input. The dark wallpaper was designed by Lonesome Pictopia but sent to London for printing. "Our designer gave her just one brief: Whimsical and things that exist both in Oregon and in Iceland. So, we've got horses and volcanoes and salmon and puffins, and whatever that is — I don't know plants all that well.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Before: The exterior of the new KEX Hotel at MLK and Couch, housed in a former apartment building behind Stark's Vacuums.

"They did a really good job at the print quality, which was part of the reason that we ended up sourcing all the way over in London versus finding someone local."

The limits of locavore

For all this old analog-style, like any modern business, this hotel must have a digital heartbeat. O'Connor uses a property management system called Mews.

"It has every conceivable integrated analytic in it to tell me when somebody comes to the website, how long they spent on the website and what they looked at before they hit their room, and where they're from."

However, he says, "We don't yet have something that integrates the restaurant sales channel to the hotel sales channel. We're working on it with our accounting people."

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - After: The exterior of the new KEX Hotel at MLK and Couch, housed in a former apartment building behind Stark's Vacuums. The 29-room hostel/hotel aims to lure budget travelers and locals to its shared dorms and stylish Icelandic bar/restaurant.

While in Belgium, designer Dáni Pedersen bought five pallets of used tile from 1950s Egypt without knowing how he was going to use them. He hired a Portland teenager to spend two weeks chipping the plaster off the tile backs. The rutted and pock-marked wooden floor is from beams from the decommissioned train depot at Fort Vancouver in Washington. It was milled and laid in a herringbone pattern. The marks don't connect, but they still tell a sort-of story. O'Connor says there is still half a warehouseful of unused fittings a block away.

Nordic business

In the basement, there's a minimal communal kitchen for the backpackers (microwave, toaster oven, glass-fronted fridge) and a 12-person sauna built by Finlandia of Tigard. There's a hygge vibe to the place, which is the Danish concept of well-being through a slowed-down, cozy lifestyle. The meeting room for hire is decorated with several pairs of boxing gloves, a vintage vaulting horse and a punching bag. Just as books that no one will ever read line the dark shelves of the restaurant, every object must tell some story.

As KEX founder Kristinn (Kiddi) Vilbergsson explained to the Business Tribune, designer Pedersen was a set designer in Hollywood, so he staged the hotel almost like a movie set, and it shows in his attention to detail in the lighting. There are all different kinds of lights, from spotlights to warm Edison bulbs to recessed lights and the soft number lamps of the hallways.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - At KEX the courtyard has a giant neon sign salvaged from the Music Box theater downtown.

Vilbergsson said, "I think the design is built on the idea that it should feel very welcoming and cozy. The best compliment we had was when people came in and said that it feels like this place has been here for many years."

He added, "It's well received by the locals. We have a lot of people from the neighborhood come to sit at the bar and eat and drink. Then the travelers will feel that they are actually rubbing shoulders with the locals rather than staying in a hotel that doesn't have any connections with the neighborhood or the city of Portland."

Vilbergsson has the air of a classic European entrepreneur, with his long hair and stylish clothes, pacing around Dottir, talking on his white AirPods. To him, the KEX brand isn't dependent on expansion and replication, like the Ace Hotels.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - KEX Portland Hotels lounge is welcoming to locals and paying guests alike, and the vintage furniture can be pushed aside for bands to play.

"We'll see if this goes well," Vilbergsson said. "That we have maybe potential for bringing this to another city in the States, especially in this area of the U.S., in a mid-sized city."

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The face of a gorilla sits on a wall at KEX Hotel Portland.

Complicated and unconventional

Apparently, the KEX concept isn't well-known in the United States.

"You don't have many of these places that have high-end design, high-quality food and high-quality staff. And then you can stay upstairs for $35. So, I think that's a new thing. And the shared rooms is also a pretty new concept here."

His team first looked at Portland six and a half years ago at a location in Chinatown called The Grove, which is now the Hoxton. They also looked at the Schleifer Furniture building, which also is going to be a hotel. Boutiques are popping up all over.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Original artwork in the basement common area at the KEX Hotel.

Asked how it feels doing business in America, compared to Iceland and Europe, Vilbergsson said: "I would say it's more complicated, in a good way and in a bad way. Just to do this older, historical building was very challenging. Working here was a pretty good experience for us. We are used to having a laid-back and different kind of mentality for how we approach things in Iceland."

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The sauna at the KEX Hotel.

He was impressed by the local Oregon team.

"It's very progressive. I'm very impressed with how the work ethic is, and how well people are organized and how professional they approach the job. For me, it was the financing that was difficult."

Unable to find institutional investors, KEX owners used crowdfunding (through CrowdStreet of Portland) and found more than 120 investors to fund it to around 70%, each putting in $25,000 to $50,000.

"This was difficult because we are an unconventional concept."

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - One of the dorm rooms at KEX Hotel. Some groups rent the whole thing so as not to have to share with strangers.


Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
971-204-7874
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