"Log cabins are a dime a dozen,” said Richard Olson, lighting up yet another Marlboro. “We looked at some of those. They were junk. They were put together by amateurs. Some of the logs had separated; you could see right through them. All these trees here, tip some of them on the side, and you’ve got a log home … logs, logs, logs.” A suggestion is put forth: Is a log home in the woods, well, redundant? “Yeah,” he agreed, clanking his spoon around in his coffee cup, “something like that.”
Richard was sitting with his wife Debbie on the patio of their cabin in the woods, a couple of miles from Ely. This is certainly no nostalgic log structure, but rather a striking example of modernist simplicity and Scandinavian restraint. It’s actually a one-level ensemble of buildings: a garage and a two-part cabin, composed of a square and a rectangular form, all dressed in a very un-cabin-like blue-black stain. Situated across the patio from one side of the living-room end of the cabin is a white brick “unchimney,” or flueless outdoor fireplace—a design signature of the home’s architect, David Salmela.
When the Olsons bought the cabin, on a wintry St. Patrick’s Day six months ago, they had never heard of Salmela, despite his international reputation and local celebrity. They certainly would not have considered themselves design aficionados. Nor were they necessarily the kind of buyers that Salmela and developer Brad Holmes, from Gilbert, Minnesota, had in mind. (Holmes has built sixteen of Salmela’s residential designs over the years, including Ravenwood, photographer Jim Brandenburg’s compound at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.) Yet Richard and Debbie Olson’s immediate attraction to the cabin speaks to the broad appeal and understated artistry of this simple, small, and modestly priced project.
The Fergus Falls couple discovered the cabin while searching the Internet for a vacation home; it was the first of five to be completed in a development owned and planned by Holmes. Richard Olson drove over, had a look, and purchased it immediately. “I didn’t analyze it when I bought it. I just liked it,” he said. “When you drive up to this place, it says, ‘I’m separate and distinct from the surroundings.’ I like that it’s different. It’s not something everyone has.”
Lake access is not something every cabin has, but it’s an amenity many second homeowners in Minnesota automatically associate with “cabin.” The Olsons, however, prefer their wooded seclusion. “We can drive out of here in any direction and be on the water. There’s water all over here,” Richard pointed out. “But if you’re on the water, you’re next to someone. It’s like living in an apartment. There’s no privacy.”
Unlike the other cabins he looked at, Richard continued, this one is “solid, well-built. You could tell that the minute you walked in. The place is super insulated, with all the latest technology. Everything is done correctly, the way houses used to be built.” He also enjoys the novelty factor of Salmela’s architecture. “Everybody that comes in here says, ‘Wow.’ An old guy picked up my lawn mower the other day and said, ‘I had no idea this was down here. What is this?’ I had to explain it all to him. He just shook his head. He’d never seen anything like it. That’s what I like about it.” Built in 1995, Ravenwood is a cluster of living, working, and studio structures, which Salmela designed to accommodate the needs and desires of Brandenburg, arguably the country’s foremost living nature photographer. In the book Salmela Architect, published earlier this year, author Thomas Fisher describes this six-thousand-plus square-foot complex as “an ancient Scandinavian village, forgotten deep in Minnesota’s northwoods, as if the past had taken a quantum leap forward into the present.” After building Ravenwood, Holmes was inspired to take a somewhat entrepreneurial approach to residential development. He wanted to undertake a project in the Ely area that involved smaller, year-round homes—homes that would be designed by Salmela without input (or interference) from clients.
“I wanted to enjoy building something with just me and David,” said Holmes. “The way he uses light with all of the windows, you feel like you’re outside among all those beautiful trees when you’re inside. David knows how to do that in every project.” Holmes purchased a wooded property outside of Ely and divided it into five seven- to nine-acre lots. He then planned to build the cabins one by one, in his spare time. He asked Salmela to design a low-profile dwelling that “looks like it’s been there in the woods for a hundred years,” he said. “Everybody wants those huge log cabins. I told him, ‘Let’s try something different.’” Salmela agreed. The architect drew up the cabin design, which totals fewer than a thousand square feet, and in exchange, Holmes built wardrobes and cabinetry for Salmela’s own home that are similar to those in the Ely cabins. The Olsons bought the prototype cabin for $195,000; a month later, a younger couple bought the second for $185,000 (it’s the same plan as the first, but flipped, and it has no built-in furniture or exterior stain).
With its lap siding and a wood truss projecting from beneath the slightly peaked metal roof, the Olsons’ cabin recalls houses lined up along a picturesque seacoast in Norwegian travel brochures. The trio of structures—the garage and the two cabin components—were all built using fourteen-foot trusses. The garage is large enough to accommodate racks of canoes or a sauna, while the main living/dining/kitchen space is a modest fourteen by twenty-four feet. A wood-plank walkway connects the garage to the living space. Visible outside the floor-to-ceiling windows is the patio, with its pergola and unchimney. The other “wing” of the cabin is situated off the kitchen, where a long corridor links a series of simple, square rooms—sleeping quarters, bathroom, and laundry room.
This compound-like arrangement is found in much grander manifestations throughout Salmela’s work, from Ravenwood to the planned community of Jackson Meadow, outside Marine on St. Croix (which Salmela designed in collaboration with the Minneapolis landscape architecture firm Coen & Partners). In his book, Fisher describes the arrangement of homes, garages, fences, and walkways in Jackson Meadow as “recalling the small yards of historic towns”—an effect present in his Ely cabin design, albeit on a much smaller scale.
The cabin has other Salmela markers, as well, such as a string of square windows marching along the exterior of a long, narrow form, which is also found in the Jackson Meadow homes, the Wild Rice Restaurant near Bayport, Wisconsin, and at the Jones Farmstead near Nerstrand. Another characteristic is the blurred distinction between inside and out. The feeling of being outdoors while inside the home is such that the Olsons can watch fires in the unchimney from inside the cabin, as well as from the patio.
While Salmela’s work has a distinctly modern feel, it’s far too traditional, despite being occasionally whimsical, to fall into the modernist camp. “This is what I perceive modernism to be today,” said Salmela, sitting in the office he keeps in his 1920s home on a hill in Duluth, surrounded by awards, publications, models, and drawings. “It’s the warmth of things you’re familiar with, like forms and materials, and the planning and efficient way a structure goes together. It doesn’t have to look super modern, like the minimalist things done to prove they’re really modern. I’m trying to use common sense about how something goes together. These cabins are so easy to build, so simple when you look at them on paper, that you can’t perceive there’s anything really unique about them.”
The architect tore a length of tracing paper from a roll and started sketching squares and rectangles. “See, it doesn’t look spectacular,” he said, “and the chimney isn’t very high.” At twelve feet, unchimneys at the Ely cabins are shorter than the monumental versions at the Wild Rice Restaurant or the Golob-Freeman cabin, also known as “Two Black Sheds,” on Madeline Island. “But when you start to build, this becomes quite dynamic.” The forms, windows, and walls are both functional and visual devices, he adds. The metal roof, wood siding, and outdoor fireplace recall the vernacular of the northwoods. Salmela alludes to his own heritage in suggesting that the cabin “looks like 1960s Finland. It’s really a very pure, straightforward, mid-modernist era structure, with no pretension.”
For Salmela and Holmes, the cabin is also an experiment in creating ready-made architecture. All a buyer needs to bring are the essentials of daily living: bedding and towels, groceries, kitchenware, clothes, sports gear. Included with the cabins are appliances and cabinets, a built-in couch (whose angled cushions, when flipped, make a guest bed), a wood dining table (the Olsons bought their own chairs), slate floors, and built-in beds and wardrobes. “Traditionally, cabins are a lot of work,” Salmela said. “Here, everything is already done for you, and in a more sophisticated way.” Of course, there’s also the added cachet of purchasing a cabin designed by a noted architect, one whose star continues to rise, without paying an architectural fee.
And the wooded, lakeless setting? “Canoers don’t need to be on a lake, because if you’ve got your canoe, you can go anywhere you want,” Holmes says. “We figured not being on a lake wouldn’t be a problem.” Buyers of the cabins, Holmes and Salmela concur, would get out their boats every day, venture to a different lake to paddle, then return home to read, relax, work, and have a fire. These expectations imply a certain type of buyer, as well. “The concept, from my standpoint as a designer, was to create an affordable, environmentally sensitive, development, with a simple, modernist set of structures that satisfy the needs of people living outside the area, within a natural setting of woods—versus being on a lake—that becomes a statement in itself,” said Salmela.
However, the five-cabin development, as originally envisioned, may not become fully realized. A few months ago, a man from the Twin Cities called Holmes about purchasing one of the lots. “I told him I’m not selling, because I’m doing five cabins in there,” Holmes says. But the caller was persistent. “So I threw out a ridiculous price and he didn’t blink an eye. I didn’t know what to do. I guess in the long run, money talks.” The lot’s buyer hasn’t decided whether or not he’ll construct a Salmela cabin. “It’s the lot on the far end,” says Holmes, implying that he minimized the potential for the development’s disruption. “The other four are still grouped together.” Nevertheless, the sale threatens the pair’s architectural experiment.
“It’s a neat idea,” Salmela said of the Ely cabin development, “but the odds of it succeeding are a long shot. It’s necessary to have a continuity to complete these things. If you break it, you can’t repair it. That’s the experiment. Brad knows he needs to keep an integrity to the project. But does he have the perseverance? If we can’t get beyond the two cabins, then we say the notion was good, but it was a concept that failed.”
Then there are the Olsons, who don’t fit the yuppie environmentalist type of buyer that Salmela and Holmes had in mind. Richard is a gruff, gravel-voiced, chain-smoking retired business representative for the Machinists Union. Debbie works as a bookkeeper in a plumbing store. They don’t own a canoe or kayak. They’re not likely to bring laptops or copies of Dwell (which recently put a Salmela home on its cover) along on weekend visits. And in an artful pile of rocks behind the unchimney, Richard has “planted” bouquets of silk flowers, a decorative statement that Salmela calls a “major violation.”
Richard was quick to justify his décor. “My wife hates them. But I’m colorblind, so to me it’s colorful.” Besides, he added, the floral facsimiles won’t be there forever. “We’ve got stuff planted,” he said with a huff and a sigh. It’s entirely possible that the fake flowers are a sign of Olson reveling in his own irreverence, making use of his relentlessly wicked sense of humor in a place he was immediately attracted to but had never imagined living in before—a place he now appreciates on a deeper level, especially after reading up on architecture (including Fisher’s book on Salmela) and spending the summer there.
The Olsons clearly are enamored with their cabin, which is otherwise free of decoration inside and out. Debbie tells of waking up to deer peering through the floor-to-ceiling bedroom window and her delight in low kitchen cabinets that don’t intrude on outdoor views while preparing meals. They keep their eyes peeled for foxes and chipmunks. And they love firing up the unchimney; Richard especially enjoys the reactions from visitors who’ve never seen the cabin. “Strangers came in one day to buy something I was selling and thought the unchimney was a giant refrigerator!” he says. “People don’t believe it will work. But it does work. It works beautifully.”