By Nancy Tannler
A hundred years ago, Walter and Arnold Kuhnhausen opened their first appliance business with locations in both Portland and Seattle. They figured that since half of all Americas had electricity, people could afford the modern appliances this technology supported. They sold vacuum cleaners and washing machines; every housewives’ dream.
Eventually they decided on just one location here in Portland at 617 SW 3rd between Morrison and Alder. By the time World War II broke out, they knew that the rationing of metals would be hard on their business, so they added furniture to the mix.
When they first started carrying furniture, it was all mid-century modern or colonial. Heywood Wakefield was a popular mid-century modern brand at the time, and is still sold today.
Being entrepreneurs as they were, Walter, his son Ross and Arnold looked to purchase a bigger location and that space is where Kuhnhausen’s is in operation today at 2640 E. Burnside.
Kuhnhausen’s sells mostly furniture and lamps, but also eclectic wall and decorative art, and pillows.
One of the business’ present day owners, Shelley Howard (Kuhnhausen), recalls coming to the store as a child with her dad Ross to watch The Wizard of Oz on a color TV, in the home appliance section.
“We didn’t have a color TV yet, so we got to watch it here.”
All four of Ross’s kids spent time at the store and were “hired” to do the dusting.
His son Neal was the first offspring to take to the business, coming to work in 1968. Neal especially liked hanging out in the back room with a guy named Leo who taught him how to fix broken appliances and everything else that needed fixing.
After Leo retired, Kuhnhausen’s stopped carrying appliances and became primarily a furniture store. Around the late 80s, Jan Stewart (Kuhnhausen) came to work, and often had her two young daughters, Allison and Claire, in tow.
By the time Shelley came to work there in the 90s, the furniture line had become more traditional and gone were the colonial and mid-century modern, until recently that is. Those classic pieces still adorn many homes today.
When Ross retired, his three oldest children didn’t miss a beat and took on management of the store. Sadly, Neal passed away in 2017, leaving the three-legged stool wobbly until Claire, Jan’s daughter stepped in to help.
Claire was employed for awhile after college, but found a teaching position she was educated to do. She eventually realized that selecting and selling furniture was more to her liking – it’s in her bloodline.
She has the perspective of her generation to share in choosing furniture to sell along with the impeccable taste her aunt and mother already possess.
One of Kuhnhausen’s mantras is to offer “furniture that fits.” They aren’t only referring to available space, but making sure a person is comfortable and that furniture is what they really want.
“What I learned from my grandpa Walter was to give people the most information they need to be comfortable about making a decision,” Shelley said.
“My generation is shifting away from easily obtained and disposable furniture to quality, long-lasting and locally-made things,” Claire said.
Biltwell is one of their most popular sofa manufacturers, made here in Portland. Whittier is another brand of furniture made locally.
The showroom display vignettes are filled with sleek, chic, mid-century modern and transitional furnishing and other accessories. The clean lines and fascinating designs are like a modern incarnation of the Art Nouveau era.
Claire’s favorite pieces are of mixed material like the metal and leather end-table/magazine holder she was purchasing for herself. “I live in a small space and pieces like this really do fit.” Kuhnhausen’s has a large selection of creative, beautiful and practical pieces – a reflection of abiding good taste.
Nowadays, Kuhnhausen’s is owned by women. It’s a business; one Jan, Shelley and Claire know well. They can offer knowledge, advice and years of cumulative expertise in helping you find the right furniture for your home and life.
2640 E. Burnside St.