Designed to Flow

A couple’s shared aesthetic shines at home and work.

Mimi and Barak Olins stand in the kitchen of the house they built in Portland’s West End. On the counter, Mimi’s ceramic bowls and pieces from the Softset catalog hold fruit and various kitchen utensils.

When Zu Bakery in Portland’s West End opens at 9 a.m., it’s the pastries, warm from the oven, that are laid out first. By 11, says baker and owner Barak Olins, the pastries should be sold out, and in their place will be warm breads, which are replaced by pizza in the afternoon. As each new item comes out, the goods on the counter shift down toward the register. By the end of a day, 5 p.m., all that’s left are the wines that compose the wine station and the empty Softset Ceramics serving trays, made by Barak’s wife, Mimi.

The bakery, like the home that the Olinses built, is open, airy, and bathed in natural light. It’s “sparse, not minimalist,” says Mimi. The floors are all that remain of the previous tenant; everything else is new. New but also old. Salvaged wood-framed windows divide the bakery counter from the workstations; wooden dough troughs let off a stringent, heady funk of yeast; and a shiny metal grain mill sits in a closet-sized room. A reclaimed marble and soapstone counter, sourced by Alice Dunn at Portland Architectural Salvage, abuts the sideboard. Two transoms let light pass through interior walls, and old wooden peels—used to slide bread into and out of an oven—are mounted over the wall of windows. At the back of the bakery’s central room are the oven and oven loader. It’s a space built to serve the movement of the people using it, and an aesthetic that reflects a respect for site-specific use of space. In this case, the use is making and selling traditional French-style pastries and breads, as well as Irish scones and Italian biscotti, to the community. The fine instruments and the product are decoration enough.

You can see the same concept at work in Mimi’s ceramics: plates, bowls, cups, and trays that look a little like heavy canvas. Also like fabric, most pieces are joined by a seam. Some are softly stippled to give the surface a polka-dot relief. All bear the mark of the hands that made them. The work projects a distinct voice, though it’s a voice that also yields to function. Alone, the Softset serving tray is elegant; staged with tangerines, it’s a white frame for the fruit’s form.

Function informed the design of the house that the Olinses built, too. The three-story just a few streets away from the bakery has a modern exterior. It’s square and tall, with a sloping roof. The inside is spacious, with high ceilings and wide windows. They wanted “clean, cleanable, and uncluttered,” says Mimi. The ground floor is an open blend of kitchen, mudroom, and sitting room that, in the warmer months, extends into the backyard through a wall of triple-pane sliders connected at the corner by one nearly floor-to-ceiling window. The wall of glass was a splurge. Otherwise, their choices were economical, energy efficient, and adherent to the requirements of LEED certification (without going for the actual certification, which is expensive and would matter more to them if they were hoping to sell).

On the second floor is the “catch-all” room: it’s Barak’s office, but it’s also where the grandparents and guests stay; there is exercise equipment in the corner, and two walnut bookshelves made by Barak are weighted by an array of books (Living Bread, The Village Baker, Six Thousand Years of Bread, etc.). Across the hall are the kids’ rooms—they have two teenagers: a daughter, Talia, 15, and son, Emile, who’s 13.

The kids’ rooms are on the second floor across from the “catch-all” room.

On the third floor is Mimi’s studio, where light pours in through a picture window and a sliding glass door leads to a deck. After a sabbatical from Waynflete in 2019, where she taught art with an emphasis on pottery, Mimi began building a body of work that would become Softset. In 2020 she chose not to return to teaching and to remain in the studio in order to focus on ceramics full-time. Recently she was commissioned by the owners of one of Portland’s newest and most talked-about restaurants, Twelve, to create a line of dish ware—over 400 pieces. The shelves of her third-floor studio are stacked with ceramics. A kiln rests in the corner. Three tables fill the center of the room, where Mimi works slabs into vases, bowls, cups, and trays.

Mimi in her studio on the third floor of her and Barak’s home, backdropped by the works that compose the Softset catalog. Light pours in from the rooftop deck
Mimi’s ceramic cups line shelves in the first-floor kitchen. She says you can see the evolution of her aesthetic by looking at the different pieces scattered throughout the house. 

Their bedroom, just off the studio, features 14-foot-tall ceilings that seem to expand the footprint of the relatively modest space, and a long slender window pulls in more light. From the exterior, the window aligns with the front door. That was Chris, the architect, says Mimi, who used the windows as a way of “developing a form.” Christopher Briley, a founding partner of Briburn architecture firm and a passive house consultant, worked from a design initially conceived by Mimi and Barak (the latter studied architecture as an undergrad). Briley also guided the couple through the choices necessary to build a house that uses electricity only. Beyond what’s pulled in by the city grid, the house doesn’t use fossil fuels. It’s heated by mini-splits and a wood pellet stove. The double-framed walls are filled with blown-in cellulose—old newspaper treated and compacted so no “critters” can get in, says Barak. The extra-thick walls increase the R-value: in the summer, the interior stays cooler, and in winter, it’s warmer.

This isn’t the first house the couple built together. When Zu Bakery was based in South Freeport, which is where it was for the 22 years preceding the opening of the Clark Street location early last November, Barak lived in a cabin built on his brother’s land. Barak and Mimi met through mutual friends. She invited him to a potluck because that’s what you do when you have a potluck, she says: you invite everyone, even people you just met. (She was just really nice, clarifies Barak.) He was in graduate school at MECA at the time. She was living in the East End, teaching art at a school in southern Maine. Together they built a house onto Barak’s cabin, which became the guest quarters. The experience taught them a lot about house building, and what they would and wouldn’t do again. Two decades later, it was time to move back to town. “Let’s pivot our center,” Mimi said, who was by then working at Waynflete. They started looking for places in Portland and had seen only one when a friend and developer told them he’d purchased a lot in the West End. They bought it from him that same day. The house took three years to build. In 2012 they moved in.

The downstairs living room features poured concrete floors and walls painted by Mimi; the couple recently purchased the large, rounded-top bookshelf.

“We didn’t bring a designer in to fill it with fashionable furniture,” says Mimi. They wanted to see what the space needed. Ten years later, the tone they’ve set is comfortable and livable, clean but engaged—there’s evidence that a family lives here. The dogs, Clover and Kipper, sleep in woven baskets near the ground-floor sliders. Sheepskin rugs hang from chair backs and rest on the couches (“I have a sheepie problem,” says Mimi). Over the couch, two prints show the accoutrements of Le Cafe and Le Pain, respectively. Mimi’s ceramics from various eras line the kitchen counter. Recently, the couple purchased a large, dark-wood bookcase for the living room. It’s an evolving space, and the house, like the bakery and even the short walk between the two, reflects the couple’s consideration of how lives are more about movement and process than they are about the containers necessary for the things we collect while living them.

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