The wooden cabin, traditionally one of the simplest buildings, is being reinterpreted in ever more imaginative ways. On New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula, for instance, architects Crosson Clarke Carnachan designed a mobile, two-storey cabin for a family of five. The home, which sits within a designated erosion zone that requires all houses to be portable, is built on top of sleds and can be towed to safer ground.
Wooden cabins have even been transported to the city; artist Mark A Reigelman and architect Jenny Chapman installed a cabin last year on the side of a building in downtown San Francisco, while American architecture collaborative Katz Chiao recently built one inside a Brooklyn loft.
The latest projects show a new direction in cabin building – bold designs and interiors that are strikingly contemporary but at the same time pay homage to the functionality of these traditional dwellings.
This summer, in the remote mountainous area of Al in central Norway, architects Fantastic Norway will finish work on a wood cabin that will serve as a family ski lodge. The weekend home has no mains electricity and the owners will have to ski there from the nearest town – a journey of more than an hour on a sledge. But the building’s resemblance to traditional log structures ends there. This sleek, triangular, timber-framed cabin has a vast sloping roof, designed to be skied over in winter and sunbathed upon in summer. Its gables jut out at contrasting angles, almost mirroring the mountain range beyond. The 700 sq ft interior enhances the view of the environment, with one window positioned to take in views of the night sky. Furniture will be kept simple and is likely to include a Jøtul wood stove, contemporary design from Anderssen & Voll, and vintage pieces from Fuglen, a store in Oslo.
At the Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo, visitors will find a cabin dating from the Middle Ages, built from large round logs with complicated corner notching. In the 17th century, Finnish and Swedish settlers arrived on the mid-Atlantic coast and set up a colony, Nya Sverige, along the Delaware river. These basic houses were erected in just a couple of weeks by laying logs on top of each other, interlocking the ends, and using mud to fill the gaps. They had few, if any, windows and floors of beaten earth. As the population pushed west, often to heavily wooded areas, log house communities started to appear and the cabin became a symbol of the hardworking pioneer.
In the 1900s, the cabin was reinvented as a chic vacation retreat for wealthy families who spent summers at the “Great Camps” in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Later, cowboy ranches in the west opened their doors to paying guests, who came to stay in comfortable log houses. Cabin architecture was also used in national park lodges, the most famous being Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, which was built in 1904 and still epitomises rustic glamour with its huge stone fireplace and heavy Adirondack chairs.
Today, many architects and designers are moving away from a clichéd approach to decoration (think horns, horseshoes and brightly woven textiles – all commonly seen in cowboy ranches) and are, instead, creating more contemporary spaces. Lewis Butler, president at San Francisco architecture firm Butler Armsden, recently designed a wood cabin for his family in the Sacramento Valley that is inspired by the Victorian water towers typical of the area. The 1,200 sq ft building, which cost around $275 per sq ft, comprises a tower with a simple lean-to (holding the main living space) attached to the side. The master bedroom is situated on the ground floor and from there a spiral staircase leads to a terrace with 360-degree views. Despite its clean-lined design, the cabin is semi-obscured by a grove of trees.
Butler took a minimalistic approach to the interior, using cork tiles on the floor and fir plywood treated with linseed oil on the walls. He selected mid-century furniture, including a Noguchi coffee table, Harry Bertoia’s Diamond chair and a George Nelson bench. “We wanted a very sleek, smooth interior shell with ceilings that match the walls and no open beams or knick-knacks or too much detail,” says Butler. The walls surrounding the spiral staircase are decorated with old topographic maps of the area. Otherwise, the colour palette is neutral with occasional splashes of green, in the Diamond chair, for instance. Butler says most of the colour comes from outdoors, especially when the neighbouring sunflower field is in bloom.
In a forest in Victoria, Australia, architect Paul Morgan also worked from the outside in when building a weekend escape. Inspired by the bleached bones of kangaroos and sheep found in the wild, Morgan used “tree forks” – split trees, usually discarded in commercial tree logging – to build the cabin, a 21st-century take on a traditional Aboriginal hut. The result is an exposed structure of zigzagging wood columns with a large overhanging roof and big expanses of glass.
The built-in living room seating is made from spotted gum veneer and covered with leather cushions, and Morgan also designed the wooden dining table, a simple elongated hexagon. The tree forks that support the cabin were crafted by a furniture maker, and Morgan says the 65 sq metre hut, which cost A$400,000-A$430,000 (£264,000-£284,000), “can almost be viewed as a piece of joinery as much as a piece of architecture”.
There are “futuristic touches”, such as light boxes in the kitchen cabinets, but wood is the dominant material; even the carved timber trunks that hold up the structure are clearly visible from the inside of the cabin. “I was attempting to create an almost transparent relationship between the interior and exterior,” says Morgan. “In fact it is difficult to distinguish between foreground, middle ground and background.”
Design: The Bubble chair
Like many creations, the Bubble chair came about by accident, writes Kate Watson-Smyth. When its Finnish designer Eero Aarnio (b 1932) was unable to make a clear pedestal to match the seat, he decided to hang it from the ceiling instead.
During the 1960s, furniture designers were keen to work with plastic as it enabled them to make more abstract shapes. Aarnio was at the forefront of this movement and, at the age of 80, is still working today, but the Bubble chair remains his signature piece. “I wanted to have light inside it,” says Aarnio. “I had the idea of a transparent ball where light comes from all directions. The only suitable material is acrylic, which is heated and blown into shape like a soap bubble. Although the Ball chair is the best known of all my designs, the Bubble is my favourite and I have two in my home.”
The Ball, made in 1966, was his first success. “The idea was very obvious,” he says. “We had moved to our first home and we had no proper big chair, so I decided to make one ... After some drawing I noticed that the shape of the chair had become so simple that it was merely a ball.”
Both the Ball and the Bubble came to be seen as symbols of the space age in 1960s but Aarnio plays down the link. “Sputnik had just been launched but it had nothing to do with that. The idea came from me thinking what is the best shape for fibreglass and plastic products. That is a round shape. You get maximum strength with little material.”
The Adelta Bubble Chair is available from www.nest.co.uk for £4,320