At Home With an Expert

Inside the compact (yet visually stacked) apartment of a Portland design writer

Antique Hitchcock chairs surround the Swiss table in the eat-in kitchen, behind which is a distressed breakfront picked up at a country auction as well as artworks by (from left to right) Maine-based Tim Beavis and Charlie Hewitt.
Design writer Jorge Arango's Portland living room sports a Baker sofa, Chinese nesting tables, and an antique Chinese armoire.
At the desk are works that include a photo by Horst P. Horst, a cut-paper work by Biddeford artist Isaac Jaegerman, and a colorful collage by Jaap Helder of Damariscotta.
An Indonesian puppet and work by friend Sydney Cash hang above the living room couch.
The coffee table sits atop a Karastan rug and Barcelona chairs that came from Arango’s parents.
Atop the kitchen’s breakfront is an eclectic arrangement of objects that include tea lights from a German friend along with a mirror, tole tray, pottery, and candles from various flea markets.
A riot of pattern in the bedroom includes identically framed Thai silks, an Indian Krishna, a quilt of sari fabrics, pillows of embroidered silk, and Turkish kilims.
Another work by friend Kei Andersen graces the bedroom.

Jorge Arango is in the kitchen, stirring a pot of richly scented soup, when I arrive at his Portland apartment. This in itself is unusual. Homeowners don’t often feed me when I come for tours, but Arango is different from most magazine subjects. He’s a design writer, too. He knows the routine we’re about to undergo because he’s done it hundreds of times himself. He knows the questions I’m going to ask about styling a home, because he wrote the book on it. “I’ve published 13 books,” he tells me as I examine his bookshelf, plus he’s had bylines everywhere one could imagine, from Elle Decor to House Beautiful. “I’ve been doing this a long time.”

And yet, despite his years of experience in our shared arena, Arango isn’t intimidating in person, nor does he boast of his accomplishments. He states them quickly during our walk around his home before directing me to sit at an old, uneven dining table covered in scratches, where he’s placed a vase of yellow tulips that are lolling appealingly about in their vase. “I know Portland has a lot of great restaurants, but I hardly go to them because I love to cook,” he says. “I really love to host and feed people.” Tonight he’s throwing a dinner party for a group of his closest friends or, as he calls it, “members of my pod.”

I imagine it will be an intimate event, that all gatherings at his place must be. The kitchen is also the dining room, which is open to the living room and the “disaster zone” of a mudroom, as he calls it. (I peeked inside; it’s not that bad.) His bedroom opens into the living area and the hallway, and across from it lies the apartment’s sole bathroom. “It’s the biggest bathroom I’ve had in any apartment,” he says. “I just love it. It’s enormous and has this exposed brick wall. And of course, it was brand, spanking new when I moved in.” It’s why he chose this place—the bathroom, the newness, the blank slate of a new home for a new life.

Arango moved to Portland in 2019 after a divorce from his longtime partner. While he has always loved old buildings and old things, he didn’t want to buy another fixer-upper. This Munjoy Hill apartment fits both his needs and his aesthetic sensibilities. The exterior of the building dates back to the early 1900s, but in 2017 a fire tore through the center of the structure. The damage was considerable. Then-owner Kate Anker oversaw renovations. “She’s the one who designed the interior,” explains Arango. “Since it’s a rental, I can’t change a lot.” This doesn’t appear to be a problem: “Kate made some bold moves, like painting the wall in the kitchen black. It really works. And it came with beautiful hardwood floors and built-ins, which are something I have loved since I was a child.” The fire spared the cabinets on the walls and did no lasting damage to the lovely exposed brick. Anker’s redesign relied largely on neutral colors: black, white, and touches of gray-blond wood. “She made some really thoughtful choices, like the light fixtures,” Arango adds. “They’re all different, but you can tell they were designed by the same person.”

It’s a bachelor pad, but unlike the ugly, faux-industrial-chic ones you’ve seen on television, this small home is full of warmth, color, and texture. “I could tell you a story about every object in here,” he says, before opening a drawer to reveal a collection of vintage flatware. “Everything in this space means something to me. Even the sofa, which I bought at Baker Furniture, was something I chose knowing that it would last me decades. I want to have it for years; I want it to last.” Arango’s never been one to worship the new. He believes in the power of antiques and sees the layered, complex beauty of a dinged-up cabinet, a worn leather chair, an almost-grungy patina on a basic wood table. He also knows that, with some effort, many thrift store finds can be transformed, reborn through a baptism of paint stripper and furniture wax. He’s a frequent patron of the Flea for All and the Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

On a slightly more highbrow level, he’s also become a repeat customer at Greenhut Galleries. Over the past few years, Arango has formed a close friendship with founder Peggy Greenhut Golden. Through his work writing art reviews at the Portland Press Herald, Arango has come to know many members of the local arts community, and he particularly likes supporting contemporary artists. “Jorge has a wide appreciation for all genres,” says Golden. “I don’t know what pieces he will find attractive—he surprises me! But I do know that he can decipher a well-made painting and takes pleasure in acknowledging good craft.” Studio visits “inform and delight Jorge,” and Golden believes his conversations with artists have resulted in a rich appreciation for their works. It makes sense, then, that Jorge chose to hang many of his pieces in a salon style, “coating the walls top to bottom like the Barnes [Foundation] collection in Philadelphia,” explains Golden. “It maximizes the art you can exhibit.”

This is a tricky look to pull off, since every piece needs to make sense in its own context. There needs to be visual harmony in how the works are hung; one must pay close attention to framing and spacing; every element in the grouping must speak to the others. Eclecticism is the goal, while chaos is the pitfall. Arango’s collection is wide-ranging and features landscape paintings, folk art sculptures, collages, photographs, and textile arts. While he has art in every room, usually arranged in groupings, the white living room wall is where he’s created a salon-style experience using miniature American landscapes in gold frames, intricate vintage East Asian and Indian paintings and drawings, a tiny, collaged painter’s rag work by Damariscotta artist Jaap Helder, and two Indonesian wooden puppets that lean out above the matching lamps with nickel bases. While there are many different styles and techniques on display, the art is held together by the overall warmth of the collection, with its tones of gold, rosewood, scarlet, and brown, and by the Lilliputian sense of scale. Even the bigger works ask viewers to look closer at their careful details. “I’m drawn to artists who are obsessive about their work,” he explains. “And obviously, I love Asian antiques and art.”

This appreciation for craftsmanship is on display in his bedroom, where Arango has hung seven framed textiles in a closely spaced arrangement above his pillow-stacked bed. They were a gift from friends Margaret Minister and Stephen Peck, he explains. “They both had been lugging around these scraps of fabric for years because they were so beautiful, and intended to make them into cushions but never got around to it,” he says. Arango knew what to do with them; he took them to Greenhut Galleries and got them precisely framed in rosewood with beige mats. They tone down the busyness of the bedroom with all its various patterns and give a sense of order, as do the matching side tables topped with almost-matching ceramic lamps (one is white, the other seafoam). On the floor, a simple navy blue rug grounds the space. “I got this for a song at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Kennebunk,” he says. “They have the best stuff.”

In fact, there are only a few pieces that Arango didn’t get secondhand, including the living room sofa and coffee table (both from Baker Furniture) and a floor lamp from All Modern. He says he expects the sofa to become worn and show signs of age, because that’s what functional objects do. It’s part of why he has dedicated his career to the world of things. After we tour his apartment, and after we’ve finished eating soup and salad, our discussion turns briefly toward the personal. We talk about the importance of having a spiritual life, the impact friendships can have on us, and our shared interest in making meaning out of everyday objects. I tell him why I like his home, and he calls my attention to the wobbly table, then to a Hitchcock chair. “Isn’t this special?” he asks. It is.

Later, after I’ve returned home, I open my computer and find an email from Arango. He had been thinking about things after I left, he said, and he wanted to expand on our conversation. I can’t think of any better way to conclude than by sharing what he wrote:

“At some dimension of reality, all mystical traditions acknowledge there is no fundamental difference between the table, the fork, the painting, and us. All of reality is made of the same thing. We could debate what that thing is. But from this perspective, it’s easy to see that if everything is one, then the things we love and own speak some aspect of ourselves back to us. They are, literally, part of us. We don’t have to carry all those things through our entire life. There’s a lot of unnecessary stuff we can certainly shed, about our things as well as ourselves. And as we grow and change, some things lose meaning, so we let them go. But it boils down, at some level, to ‘my cherished possessions, myself.’”