Nordic meets Northwest: Kex debuts in the U.S.

PORTLAND, OR—Arctic destinations are heating up, and now, U.S. travelers won’t have to venture halfway across the globe to get a taste of the trend. 

Born in Reykjavik, Iceland, Kex has made its U.S. debut with Kex Portland, bringing Nordic design and flavor to the country’s Northwest. 

“We are a concept born in Iceland, but we are very much a local hotel,” said Kristinn (Kiddi) Vilbergsson, founder of Kex. “Our roots, culture and ethos are Nordic, but with Kex Portland, we’re creating a space and an experience where locals feel like travelers and travelers feel like locals. Kex Iceland has a strong following, and we look forward to seeing many of those guests here in Portland.”

A venture from Kex Iceland, ChefStable and Green Light Development restored the 1912 building into a hotel fit for 152 guestrooms, complete with modern amenities and both private and shared accommodations in Portland’s Central Eastside.

“The essence of the Kex brand is local. Even though it started in Reykjavik, Kex Portland was built with local design and talent, and is operated by local people,” Vilbergsson said.

The seed was planted about 10 years ago when the team from KEXP—a public radio station based in Seattle—came to Reykjavik to livestream its broadcast for Iceland Airwaves. 

“They fell in love with Kex and have been broadcasting every year with us since then,” Vilbergsson recalled.

It wasn’t unrequited love, either. The founder returned the visit, not only falling for the Emerald City but the Pacific Northwest as a whole.

“Everyone told me to check out Portland, and when I did, I was so taken by the city, its character, all the people I met,” Vilbergsson said.

He found parallels between the two cities, including their sizes, but also, their draw for open-minded travelers, as epicenters for nature lovers and their strong food and beverage cultures.

“People are healthy and love the outdoors, they have awareness about the environment and there is a creative energy of makers in Portland and Reykjavik that was very appealing for an independent hotel,” he said, and just like that, Kex Portland was a reality.

Halfdan Pedersen—who also designed Kex’s first location in Iceland—brought Kex’s design mission to the States. Known for repurposing old items, Vilbergsson said that Pedersen went on buying trips in Europe, purchasing two shipping containers’ worth of objects from the 1920s to the 1970s.

“These items—like milking stools from Hungary, the old facade of a storefront in Egypt, stone shelving from Holland and fencing masks from Italy—were restored at a workshop near the hotel site,” Vilbergsson said. “We also saved as much as we could from the 1912 building, including all of the doors that will be given a second life as wainscoting panels.”

The restoration and upgrade included adding an elevator and creating an open floor plan, while also preserving features of the original building.

“During the process of renovation, it was important for us to preserve the character of the building, so we kept as much as we could. Sometimes, we uncovered different, older versions of the building, like when we pulled up old carpet to find beautiful mosaic tiling in what is now the guest entrance, for example,” he said.

Preservation and repurposing materials are at the core of Kex’s brand, which also extend to its sustainability efforts. 

“We restored a historic 1912 building and repurposed materials every step of the way,” Vilbergsson said. “With our food, we source everything locally and the concept of our F&B program is built with a no-waste mentality. We will serve more than 10 local wines in kegs instead of bottles, and most of our beers are made locally as well.”

Its amenities are eco-friendly, too, with mattresses made with organic cotton and toiletries made with organic ingredients. 

“Our guests are aware that traveling sustainably is possible and they can now choose a hotel that shares those values,” he added.

Kex Portland’s food and beverage programming will not only highlight local sources but will also honor the brand’s Icelandic roots.

“Portland is an open-minded city and we already feel very welcome here,” Vilbergsson said. “The techniques we use in Nordic cuisine, like smoking, pickling and fermenting are already quite known here, and we’re applying those to local ingredients, which is a concept that people here know well.”

Kex has also moved its brewing operation to Portland, allowing the hotel to serve a variety of Kex Brewing beers as well as select beers from its partners at Mikkeller.

“We’ve even brewed an exclusive Kex Launch beer with them and the Portland Pop-Up called Gretta that [was] bottled in early November. It’s a kettle sour,” he said.

Seamlessly joining two locations and cultures takes a certain passion, and one that Kex plans to grow here.

Vilbergsson said that the company is looking to expand, especially in cities of similar size and that have a similar character, with strong creative communities and an appreciation for food and drink.

“More broadly speaking, we are blending Nordic and Northwest in the ideas and common values of both locations,” Vilbergsson said. “From a design standpoint, we have overlap in the color palettes and materials. The food will be a great blending of Nordic and Northwest, with Nordic technique applied to Northwest ingredients, using what’s around us. The layout of the open ground floor is very much in line with the welcoming nature of Iceland, and I think will translate very well here.” HB