A Tiny Cabin in North Carolina Is an Enchanting Mix of Japanese and Scandinavian Style

A Tiny Cabin in North Carolina Is an Enchanting Mix of Japanese and Scandinavian Style

Inspired by a homesteading commune he documented in Western North Carolina, photographer Mike Belleme builds a minimalist retreat in the woods.

At just 400 square feet, The Nook in Swannanoa, North Carolina, manages to meld Japanese tranquility, Scandinavian simplicity, and a handmade, Appalachian sensibility. Owner Mike Belleme, a documentary photographer whose images have appeared in National Geographic, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times, imagined the cabin as "an experiment in storytelling." 

The Nook features an entranceway of oak blackened in the traditional Japanese method known as shou sugi ban.

The story behind The Nook originates with Mike’s five-year documentary project Wild Roots, which focuses on a 30-acre "earthskills homestead" by the same name in the North Carolina wilderness. His enchantment with the simple, nature-oriented lifestyle motivated a lengthy stint in an isolated tree house, an experience he describes as "magical and transformative." 

The tree house was only accessible via a hike through the woods; Mike found that coming home at night, he and his then-girlfriend, now-wife Kristen had to feel their way through the leaves, roots, and branches in the total darkness. "We knew those woods," says Mike—and they also knew that they wanted to share this unique intimacy with the natural world through a medium more immersive than photography. 

Mike Belleme built the steps on the path using the primitive building skills he’d learned at the Wild Roots community, hand-splitting logs with a mallet and froe (an L-shaped tool used for cleaving wood). To meet code, the house itself relies on more modern building methods. 

Having a pathway to The Nook was of "utmost importance" as a "significant part of the mental shift" Mike envisioned for guests. 

The black walnut coffee table slides under the couch for additional floor space. 

A self-proclaimed tree nerd, Mike has kept a mental inventory of the dead and fallen trees in Western North Carolina over the years. It was important to him to use local wood—white oak, red oak, black walnut, black locust—so that the bones of the house mirrored the trees outside. Much of The Nook was built from pieces he foraged. "Every kind of wood has a certain mood and personality," he says.

The swing in the living room is ash wood, and the floor is ambrosia maple. 

Essentially one open space, the tiny cabin relies on various levels, inviting nooks, and differences in wood tone to differentiate between areas. In the breakfast nook near the kitchen and front door, where the lowered ceiling creates an intimate atmosphere, the team used black walnut. The living area with its lofty roofline and enormous windows uses cherry wood which, Mike says, "has a lot of color to it and felt light and airy." The cozier, darker side of the home has a Japanese-inspired aesthetic whereas the taller, brighter side skews more Scandinavian: "Both styles are minimalist and work really well together."  

The media loft features soft goods made locally by The Oriole Mill, Sew Co., and Echo View Mill. The ironwork for the lofts and the side porch railings was done by Iron Maiden Studios in Asheville.

Building The Nook for short-term, vacation living allowed the team certain freedoms. Instead of worrying about storage—there are two drawers under the bed and a single shelf by the entryway for food items that don’t fit in the fridge—they kept the space open; and instead of making either of the lofts a second sleeping area, they were able to indulge in some whimsical concepts that make the space special. 

Architect Rob Maddox and Designer Karie Reinertson of Shelter Design Studio enjoy tea in the tea loft. The tea caddy features an extra long handle, so that when it’s placed on a special shelf in the kitchen below, it can be lifted easily into the loft.

"The tea loft is not practical by any means," says Mike of the loft above the kitchen. But, having a designated space to sit and enjoy a steaming mug enhances The Nook’s sanctuary atmosphere, and was a meaningful addition for Mike, whose parents lived in Japan before moving to the North Carolina mountains to start one of America’s first miso companies. 

He notes that the cabin draws heavily from what he calls a "Jappalachian" style—the marriage of Japanese and Appalachian art, both of which emphasize nature, minimalism, and serenity. He ebonized a solid block of oak to use as the tea table, and acquired two exquisite ceramic tea cups by renowned Japanese-Appalachian potter Akira Satake. 

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The bedroom nook features a hand-loomed tapestry by Jessica Sanchez, owner of Rusted Earth, a design studio and farm which produces sustainable, handcrafted home decor "from the soil up."

Satake is not the only local artist whose work appears in The Nook. Mike is lucky enough to be part of a very talented artistic community, and he acquired the decorative pieces in retreat by trading with 22 local artists and artisans. Mike loves using these pieces to create a layered, storied experience: A visitor can admire the hand-loomed, Cherokee woven mat dyed with black walnut, not far from the window revealing the black walnut tree just outside, while sipping the locally brewed, black walnut liqueur Mike keeps on a black walnut shelf. "Having guests stay here is an act of faith. Much of the art is one-of-a-kind and irreplaceable," he says.   

The Shelter Design Studio team enjoy the breakfast nook, just down the steps from the stocked kitchen. The door on the right leads to the bathroom. 

Mike and Kristen were able to rely heavily on their friends, architect Rob Maddox and designer Karie Reinertson of Shelter Interior & Architectural Design Studio. The design for the house constantly shifted over the course of building, always dependent on the resources. When Mike found an enormous arched window by chance, he called Maddox, who reworked the house plans right then over the phone. 

The striking windows at back of The Nook were found on Craigslist. Mike was determined to disturb the surrounding trees and landscape as little as possible during construction.

Even now, as The Nook rents out week after week, the design process is ongoing, especially with respect to the environment surrounding the house. "The goal with the landscaping is to make it look like the forest it was, like nothing was ever done to the property," says Mike. "And that takes a lot of effort. We are re-planting native grasses and wildflowers. We want it to feel like a beautiful, native Appalachian forest."

The deck overlooking the surrounding forest is made of locally milled black locust. The custom iron railing was done by Iron Maiden Studios, a metalshop in Asheville. 

The Nook is minutes away from the trails Mike loves, and 15 minutes by car from downtown Asheville. Guests can rent it on Airbnb for $158/night

Related Reading: An Adventurous Couple Build an A-Frame Cabin in the Mountains of Quebec

Project Credits:

Architect of Record:  Rob Maddox / Shelter Design Studio/ @shelterprotectsyou

Interior Design:  Karie Reinerts0n /Shelter Design Studio/ @shelterprotectsyou

Photography: Mike Belleme / @mikebelleme

Specialty Wood Work:   Andy McFate / McFate Furniture@mcfate_furniture

Iron Work:  Iron Maiden Studios 

Pottery: Akira Sitake Ceramics, Seung Jun Seo, East Fork

Woven Art:  Jessica Sanchez / Rusted Earth

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