At some point along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, the long tentacles of Chicago’s influence begin to lose their grip. It becomes a challenge to track down an espresso. The Cubbie-blue ball caps on tourist heads grow outnumbered by the Tigers’ Old English "D" on the navy ones worn by locals. European luxury cars with Illinois plates become a rare exception. Along that stretch, where cell service grows spotty and a true escape from the City of Big Shoulders is still possible, Keith and Mary Campbell turned a homely 1970s lakefront ranch into a relaxing modern getaway.
Along the route to northern Michigan, US 31 passes through the heart of furniture country. Though Michigan is better known for auto manufacturing, the western part of the state was once home to more than 800 furniture makers, including some of the firms at the forefront of mid-century design: Widdicomb, Calvin, Baker, Steelcase, and Haworth. Today, Herman Miller and Knoll still manufacture in Michigan, creating iconic pieces from designers who converged at Cranbrook Academy near Detroit during World War II. The names of those two companies appear regularly on factories and semitrucks on the drive up to the Campbells’ cottage.
While they’ve called Chicago home for more than 30 years, both Keith and Mary grew up in Michigan and have been vacationing in the gorgeous northern part of the state since childhood. Keith’s siblings all have cottages on a lake just north of the old lumber town of Manistee, where the stately old cedars and pines that fueled the Michigan furniture industry once covered the hills. During a summer visit in 2007, the couple saw potential in a simple ranch home on a wooded acre of secluded lakefront just across the water from their relatives. "It was a very humble single-family home," says Mary. "But the proportions and scale seemed right."
The Campbells bought the house and set to renovating it over the course of the following winter with the help of a local contractor. In the interest of keeping the project as green and economical as possible, they left much of the existing structure intact, including the roof, siding, and most of the interior walls and windows. Their long history of visiting and renting northern Michigan cottages informed their decision making throughout the renovation: Keith chose the deep chocolate brown and red paints because he had seen that combination on many local buildings over the years. Inside, they covered the drywall with locally lumbered knotty pine on
the ceilings and walls—another nod to vernacular cabin culture, though the horizontal layout and irregular plank widths add a sophisticated twist to the traditional pine cabin wall.
The cottage is set deep on a long lawn that stretches to the pebbly shore of an inland lake connected to Lake Michigan by a navigable river. Keith and Mary spend much of their time outdoors, swimming, kayaking, and making the 20-minute bike trip to the deserted and pristine beaches of the big lake, which is cradled by towering sand dunes and bluffs. Because they enjoy visiting year-round, the Campbells converted an uninsulated bedroom into a three-season screened porch that leads to a new deck built around the twin trunks of a mature maple tree. The original lakeside wall of the cottage had small, mismatched windows and a sliding door that led nowhere, so the windows were removed and a wall of orderly glass was added to provide views of the water as well as the abundant wildlife that passes by the living room and combined kitchen-dining area. "We’ve seen deer, foxes, wild turkeys, and even a bald eagle who lives on the lake," Keith says. The landscaping also incorporates locally sourced stone and native flora in a series of terraced steps that lead to the backyard. Keith, an architect, ordinarily works on large-scale residential and retail developments with a focus on urban design. Though this was a small-scale project, he relished the opportunity to be his own client "for once in his life."
Despite the Campbells’ decision to stick with the same general floor plan, Keith took creative license in turning the attached one-car garage into a dream bedroom. He added a new slanted roof and a platform bed that faces a huge bay window. The bright orange Unison bedding and orange accents glow among all the light pine to give the room a sense of layered warmth. Keith and Mary were browsing at Atomic Interiors in Madison, Wisconsin (where their younger son was attending college), and noticed the mid-century low table with drawers that seemed destined to rest under the bay window. The bedroom is also furnished with an original 1955 Yngve Ekström Arka chair, Noguchi and Nelson lamps, and a Nelson stool that once belonged to Keith’s mother, reupholstered in Eames dot fabric. The most innovative feature of the bedroom is the closet hidden in the wall at the head of the bed.
"We wanted this pure, simple wood box with a giant window to be unblemished with extraneous stuff like closet doors," says Keith. "So we created a little alcove and dressing area with closet doors not visible from the bedroom space." The closet nook seems particularly well suited for a beach house, where you can slip into a swimsuit in a hurry without leaving a pile of clothing to disrupt the serenity of the room.
Behind the bedroom is a windowless study for which Keith engineered a sliding panel of pine and reeded glass hung on simple Michigan barn-door hardware. The panel provides privacy and natural light when closed, but retracts into a concealed pocket when open. Inside the study, Keith placed his father’s original Jens Risom desk and credenza (complete with crayon scribbles Keith remembers making as a boy), a vintage Eames shell chair, and the original architect’s drawings of his parents’ house. Keith’s mother is Danish and his father had a near-perfect mid-century Danish modern house built for the family in Ann Arbor in 1955. The evocative drawings show a sleek, horizontal home decorated with bright BKF Tripolina chairs and populated by a family of Miróesque amoebas. "I used to stare at those for hours and wonder which one was supposed to be me," Keith laughs.
The living room boasts more mid-century furniture from Keith’s childhood: a rare 1950s Eames plywood coffee table with metal legs and two even rarer original Noguchi walnut rocking stools purchased by Keith’s parents a year after they were first introduced. "I still have the original sales receipt," he says (the cost in 1955: $43.50 each). The decor is lightly punctuated with other artifacts once produced just down the road: a Nelson bench and clock and a Saarinen side table.
After every sunlit weekend at their cottage, the Campbells return to their traditional two-story brick home in Chicago with its ornate oak woodwork, moldings, trim, hutches, and columns, but without a lot of light. The difference between their life in Chicago and at the cottage goes beyond the typical urban-rural or work-vacation dichotomy: The contrast is spatial. In Chicago they live vertically, but in Michigan they relax within the existing horizontal silhouette of their second home, the lake and its shore, the long drives under canopies of trees, and the pine-lined horizon itself. The simplicity of their weekends in Michigan has led to discussions of simplifying their life in Chicago and possibly moving from their traditional home into a full-windowed Mies van der Rohe condominium. "Staying here has made us realize how much we really don’t need," Mary chuckles.
Though the renovated cottage exudes modernist sensibilities, it’s clear that the design maintains a sincere respect for the original home, the surrounding environment, and even the regional culture. "Michigan is overlooked in so many ways," Keith muses. "As a fountain of mid-century design, especially. But the natural beauty of northern Michigan often gets overlooked too." More than anything, the house respects Keith’s own past—his boyhood home and its furnishings—which inspired a lifetime commitment to design and architecture. Whether this was intentional nostalgia or the subconscious influence of the past, the inviting modern cottage shows that even when you set out to make a new home for yourself, sometimes you return to the ones that were made for you.
To see more images of the project, please visit the slideshow.
Three years ago, writer James Griffioen quite his job as a corporate lawyer in San Francisco and moved his kids to Detroit. When not with his kids, he wanders around the city's abandoned factories, skyscrapers, schools, zoos, and churches and writes about them on his blog, sweetjuniper.