Lakeside living is a distinct experience in the Midwest, particularly in Michigan. Sparkling views, rolled cuffs, loose dinner plans—it offers the freedom of mixing your own drink but not before earning it in the sun and splash. That character—open, relaxed and inherently rooted—feels different from other waterfront destinations.
Tom Stringer understands theses subtleties. The designer spent summers sailing nearby. His great-great grandfather built a family home not far from his clients’ property in Walloon Lake, a logging community settled in the late 1800s. Once the railway arrived, the area, which is lavished with natural beauty, became a fashionable escape for Midwestern industrialist families wilting from city life.
Stringer’s longtime clients are avid boaters who have generational history in the region. He deftly designed their main residence, a stately but comfortable family abode, when their kids were still anticipating the tooth fairy. This second dwelling they asked him to design would serve as a summer cottage for their three now-grown children to share with their partners, family and friends. The project was about relishing intangibles—taking in inspired views, crowning a new board game champion and connecting the family to a place that means something special. “I looked at the traditions from my childhood and my own residences in that area. That’s what I draw from—I get its DNA,” says Stringer. “It takes some discipline because a dwelling on an inland lake or on Lake Michigan is not a house on Cape Cod or a Southern home on the ocean—they’re all different versions of waterside.”
Inspired by the classic yacht club guest house aesthetic, Stringer steered the nautical design to a crisp, well-defined finish. The clients prefer bold, bright colors, which led to a primary palette of white, blue, red and yellow—all the hues found in maritime signal flags. Too much white, the designer notes, would have risked looking overly patriotic. But the balance is there, anchored by a tonal trio of blues that move throughout while inviting other shades into the mix, like the unexpected glossy black in the “hideout” room (as Stringer refers to it). These shifts sidestep being “relentlessly match-y,” he explains. “There’s a formula, but one that we’re trying to break just enough that it doesn’t feel formulaic.”
Nautical themes are not for the uninitiated. One shipwrecked trinket or overzealous fish motif can skid into gift shop territory. Stringer expertly bypassed the kitsch and coral prints (“It’s a Midwestern lake house; it’s not coastal,” he points out) with signature restraint. “We focused on a few things of real quality to carry the theme,” the designer says. He sourced antique pond yachts and encased them in glass for the dining area. A series of midcentury shipbuilder’s half-block models flank the fireplace in the family room. Even the custom semicircular sofa frame in the living room recalls the seat of a vintage sailboat.
Homes on the water tend to evoke the atmosphere of a long holiday weekend, and Stringer emphasized that with unscripted informality. The antique French farmhouse table, for example, feels lived in. “You want patina so the first nick doesn’t disqualify the piece,” he notes. “This is a summer house—you don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about caring for it.” The lower level serves as a comfortable lounge, and the bunk room—which sleeps six—brings to mind childhood summer nights. The dwelling also came with a working but unremarkable vintage piano. Following the summer cottage tradition of repurposing and reimagining furniture, Stringer had it painted to suit the relaxed mood. “It’s my first blue piano,” he admits. “I didn’t want it to take itself too seriously.” This lighthearted addition proved popular—the kids spent their first night in the new abode at the piano belting out tunes.
The primary bedroom overlooks the lake, so Stringer enhanced that sense of floating on the water with hues of blue and white. In the bathroom, he selected a wallcovering with a pattern “somewhere between nautical and quilt. It has a cozy innocence to it,” he says—a descriptor that can be applied to the residence as a whole. “For me, it was about honoring the past,” explains the designer. “This is a new version of an old family home, and someday it will be an old family home.”