The Simple Life in Saugatuck

A serenely modern take on a traditional Cape Cod

Designer Stephen Knollenberg used 39-inch ceramic tiles on the kitchen backsplash to mimic a wood floor. Leaning against it, antique forged-iron peels (once used to pull loaves of bread from ovens) add a rustic touch. The FontanaArte chandelier is suspended some 18 feet from a beam on the double-height ceiling.   Photo: Nathan Kirkman; Styling: Diane Ewing

Michigan-based interior designer Stephen Knollenberg (who has a satellite office on the Gold Coast) has a decidedly pared-down aesthetic, but when a longtime family friend hired him to design a vacation home in Saugatuck, even he was challenged. “She pushed my proclivities further. She really wanted to come into a space that was uncluttered and open,” he says. “She wanted the lake to be the whole point of being there.” And thus began the process of creating the most inviting take on austerity you’ll ever be smitten by.

The project was a teardown of a 1960s ranch owned by his friend’s parents, directly across Lake Shore Drive from Lake Michigan. Architect Charles K. Carlson oriented the new, four-bedroom, four-bath, L-shaped house so the swimming pool is alongside it instead of behind, as it was formerly. The lake, now visible to emerging swimmers, is also in full view from the front porch and the enclosed side porch.

The living room is anchored by two sofas from A. Rudin and a leather ottoman from Holly Hunt. The large photograph by Sarah Trahan above the fireplace is of a vintage house key, invoking a cottage sensibility in a modern way. Photo Gallery »

The interior design is completely water-focused, as well. The main living space is essentially one big, multi-windowed room. Whether you are chopping veggies at the kitchen island, eating lunch at the dining table, or chilling out on a sofa, you’re pleasantly aware of the lake. Further making this point, Knollenberg uses only one accent color, a greenish-blue—on some throw pillows and in the upholstery on chairs flanking the fireplace—because “it pulls the lake in.”

Aside from coaxing a massive body of water indoors, Knollenberg’s biggest feat was creating a space that’s at once utterly minimalist and utterly cottagey, in the best sense of that word. He did it by taking familiar country forms—ladder-back and Windsor chairs, lanterns, rocking chairs—and presenting them in clean, contemporary versions. He accessorized with real-deal old rural and nautical objects, like the 19th-century wood horse-measuring stick standing in one corner of the living room and the folk-art carved-wood anchor on a chain that Knollenberg framed and hung between the two front windows.

What’s most striking about the interior is the crispness of the architecture and the decor. It’s a sea of white etched with straight black lines in the form of light fixtures, railings, picture frames, and floor lamps. Dark-stained wood floors and furniture add to this contrast; so do the many steel and iron accessories—no billowing curtains, decorative quilts, or colorful art here. This isn’t your grandma’s Michigan cottage.

“Saugatuck is an old place,” Knollenberg says. “There’s a lot of charm to the cottages here. We wanted to pay respect to that aesthetic, but modernize it. We didn’t want to bulldoze and ignore it.”

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