Design & DIY

This multi-generational new build is inspired by Finnish traditions

Forest, ferns, and lots of bugs. Mike Kelar’s first memories of his family cottage on Otter Lake, Ont., are of a rugged wildness. There was nothing else there in 1978. Mike was five years old, and his sister, Karen, was eight, when his parents, Stan and Raija, purchased an empty, three-acre lot near Parry Sound. 

In the following years, the Kelars built a series of small structures on the property—a sauna first (a necessity—Raija is Finnish), then a small cabin and an outhouse. There was no running water or heat, but the family made it a happy summer home for decades. “It was great for my imagination,” says Mike, a graphic designer and the co-founder of Jacknife, a creative branding agency. “There was so much space and time for my mind to wander.”  

As Stan and Raija got older, they no longer wanted to make late-night trips to the loo on uneven ground with little to no light. “You always hear things in the brush too,” says Mike. “Even a little chipmunk sounds like a bear in the woods.” Space was also an issue. Raija is the oldest of 14 children, most of whom moved to Canada from Finland over the years. Mike met and married Sarah, and they had three kids—Cash, Ruby, and Olive. At any one time, five to 12 people could be at the cabin, which was hard to accommodate with only two bedrooms. 

In 2014, Mike designed a new cottage that would sit alongside the existing buildings and that would house the growing group. “More common space was important,” he says. “At the end of the day, we wanted to hang out together under one roof. And on one deck.”

Mike is not kidding. At 1, 400 sq. ft., the adjoining deck is larger than the new cottage. Calling it a deck, singular, might undermine its sweep, though. It’s more like conjoining outdoor rooms. On one side, there’s an alfresco living and dining area covered by a tall roof and surrounded by hulking beams and posts. It’s a lively social space, whereas the part of the deck facing the water, all dotted with plants, is lined with side-by-side loungers, which are great for solo chill time while catching some sun. Just off the deck, heading to the sauna, there’s a two-person bench and a fire pit to stay warm as the weather cools. 

For the interiors, “I looked to my heritage,” says Mike, referring specifically to Finnish modern design. Modern design is often associated with hard edges and a certain starkness. While Finnish style adheres to clean lines and open spaces, it also prioritizes a sense of warmth. In keeping, the walls are bright white, which, while minimal, is offset by woodsy touches and colourful, soulful decorating. “The chair and the ottoman in the living room are upholstered in a Finnish, Marimekko fabric,” says Karen. “They are from my mother’s family home in Lahti, Finland, and were shipped over by my grandmother when the family moved to Canada.” A paddle that Mike painted adorns one wall, adding another meaningful touch. “The abstracted blue Finnish flag is for my mother. The red Polish flag is for my father,” she says.  

The beating pulse of the home is the kitchen. Family members often crowd around the huge island, laughing and chatting while making food (Täytekakku, a Finnish cake that looks like a palace of whipped cream, is a Kelar favourite). The space is open to an eating area and is kitty-corner to the living room for easy conversations with guests at the dining table or relaxing by the fire. 

With two bedrooms and two bathrooms, the new cottage overachieves on space for the Kelars to congregate. It more than doubles the capacity of the original, adjacent cabin. It’s also winterized and has indoor plumbing, but the family still answers the call of nature outdoors occasionally, using the original outhouse from time to time. At 1,300 sq. ft., the new place is still modest. 

Part of the reason Mike wanted to maintain the simple life with the new cottage is to give his kids the same experience that he grew up with. It’s a bit hard to achieve these days, with the proliferation of smartphones and high-speed internet. But Mike credits much of his imagination, including his career in graphic design, to idle hours wandering the woods at the cottage, with the freedom to think about anything and everything.“Sometimes I would spend the whole day fishing,” says Mike. “I wouldn’t always catch anything, but that wasn’t the point.” 

Matthew Hague wrote about cottage chairs in our Winter ’21 issue.

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