When Bellevue-based designer Michelle Dahl was tasked with decorating a recently renovated cabin in the San Juan Islands, she quickly realized that one of the most challenging things about the project would be the commute to the job site—a nearly three-hour journey one way that includes a ferry ride. “To be honest, logistically, it was a little tough,” Dahl says, “but once you get up there, it’s so beautiful that everything else kind of melts away.”
The owners of the home shared the same feeling of reverie when they first visited their 2-acre property on picturesque Mitchell Bay in Friday Harbor. “The San Juan Islands are so majestic,” says the husband. since buying the land in the early 2000s, he and his family have spent many weekends on the bay, sometimes traveling there by a float plane. “We fly low over the water and are up in the islands in 45 minutes,” he continues, noting that they enjoy whale watching, boating and hiking while there. “We’re very outdoorsy.”
Until recently, the main house on the site was a 1,000-square-foot cabin that the husband built with the help of his brother. When a change to the rules regarding water setbacks was proposed, the family decided to expand the house while they would still be allowed to do so. they ultimately hired Douglas Obie of Obie Design, who conceived the architecture of the original cabin, to design the new and much larger home. “Renovating something so personal was a big decision,” the husband says—a decision that he carried out as owner-builder with the help of Kent Ducote of KDL Builders, who aided with the foundation, framing, carpentry and other coordination points. “We basically dismantled it and recycled the materials.”
Like the original structure, the exterior of the renovated home is clad with cedar shingles and board-and-batten siding. “The aesthetic is very similar, and the front looks virtually the same,” the husband says. Outside, the deck along the water was expanded to make room for an outdoor living area with a large stone fireplace. The changes become even more apparent inside, where they created a larger kitchen with an island and a separate bar area. “We love entertaining and wanted more space,” the husband explains. “This is a wonderful meeting place for our extended family, which includes people from Vermont, New York and California.” And, in keeping with the spirit of reclamation and reuse, wood that was salvaged from boathouses along Lake Washington now climb the treads of a spiral staircase.
To create a more comfortable retreat for the family and their visitors, Dahl incorporated contemporary pieces that the wife envisioned alongside the rustic elements that appeal to the husband. “He wanted a traditional cabin, but she is very fashion-forward and wanted to do something a little more current,” Dahl says. “so i brought those elements together.”
In the living room, Dahl balanced the traditional woodsy materials, such as the knotty alder-wood ceiling and a stone fireplace, with an oversize sofa and a contemporary shag rug with a diamond pattern. Behind the sofa, Dahl created a second seating area with four leather club chairs around a table made from an antique wine barrel. A rustic red sofa table creates a sense of separation while uniting the room’s disparate details. “The owners like pushing the envelope a little bit, so their aesthetic was fun to work with,” Dahl says.
In the front entry, the designer repurposed an antique rusted-metal filing cabinet as a chest. “It’s unexpected, but the color and texture look great there,” Dahl says. For added character and another example of life renewed, an old whiskey barrel was retrofitted with a sink for a bar in the kitchen. It’s one of the husband’s favorite pieces. “You wouldn’t believe the smoky whiskey aroma that was released in the home when we cut the hole for the sink,” he says. “If you’re a bourbon lover, it was fantastic.”
The sink’s rustic sensibility coexists peacefully with the kitchen cabinetry, which has a custom gray finish that Dahl repeated throughout the home. The wall behind the headboard in the master bedroom, for instance, is covered with reclaimed wood that has weathered to a grayish patina. It provides a dynamic contrast to the more refined linens and a bench with Lucite legs at the foot of the bed. “This house is rustic, but it also feels new and fresh, and they love it,” Dahl says. “When the wife walked in, she had tears in her eyes. I do this to help people create a home that they’ll love, so that meant a lot to me.”
Indeed, the weekend after they moved into their new home, the husband and son participated in an inaugural father-son fishing derby. After spending all day on the bay, the fishermen convened back at the house, where they were joined by their wives and other children for an awards ceremony, barbecue and games. “The kids love our place because we have a trampoline, a pool table and a zip line down by the water,” the husband says. “It’s an absolute blast and has exceeded our expectations in so many ways. We are in love with our new place.”