Northern Michigan Living: Spider Lake’s puzzle of a shoreline hides a collection of captivating cottages among its enigmatic array of peninsulas, bays and islands. Even accessing Spider can be mystifying, a perplexing crisscross of dirt roads and dead ends, but the labyrinth only adds to the lake’s allure, creating both confusion for visitors and privacy for property owners.

One extended family has spent 50-some summers at what is now a cottage compound tucked away on a little bay. Over the decades, the homestead that began with one diminutive log cabin has grown with the family. Family members purchased three more neighbors’ cottages as they came up for sale and now enjoy gathering 20 to 30 people at the lake in their four adjacent cabins.

The most recent acquisition was, in the words of interior designer Scott Lankford, “the ugliest structure in Michigan … a 70s relic with Chewbacca carpeting and neo-castle details.” But location is everything, and this purchase created a continuous band of shoreline for the family, who dubbed the place “Howie’s Cottage” after its previous owner.

For the renovation, Lankford teamed up with Jay Merchant Builders to make the most of a tight budget and code limitations that prevented any change to the 1,800-square-foot cottage footprint. The clients, who were scattered around the country, managed to stay involved with a process that they hoped ultimately would improve the home’s function and seriously up its sense of cabin-country authenticity. Success in the end, according to Lankford, was due largely to his synergistic relationship with Jay Merchant and his team.

Today, a first-time visitor to Howie’s would assume its modern updates had simply been added to a graceful aging cottage. There’s no hint of the dated eyesore that once was. The team created the rustic appeal with honest material selections, a no-nonsense vibe and a touch of trickery where time and budget required it.

The exterior, for example, is clad with half-log siding instead of full logs. Modest livestock fencing artfully rims the deck. New pine paneling is finished with a custom-tinted clear coat for that honeyed hue that usually takes decades to develop. But the change that added the most old-fashioned charm happened when Jay Merchant suggested cutting back the second story to raise the shallow roof to a 12/12 pitch. Now, with board-and-batten siding and shed dormers, the second story makes the cottage look like it belongs.

Inside, Lankford played up the cottage’s quirks and imperfections by using multidirectional paneling and plenty of log and twig detailing. “The idea was to create texture and avoid a formulaic look,” he says.

Lankford also channeled his penchant for rethinking ordinary spaces into the makeover. “I like designing spaces that create opportunities for life experiences,” says Lankford as he points out a reading nook with a pullout step for kids. The designer even turned the upstairs bath into an experience, designing it to function as a locker room, thus allowing multiple people to use it at one time, while maintaining their privacy.

But the home’s pièce de résistance is an outdoor kitchen, concepted as a shrine to this family’s devotion to cooking and eating together. The deluxe lakefront kitchen is set between Howie’s and the family’s original cabin. Fully outfitted for gourmet meal prep, the stainless-and-granite alcove is connected to a stone patio with a tall Rumford fireplace.

The entire enclave—Howie’s, the outdoor kitchen, the other three cottages—is designed to make this scattered family’s summers together fun and memorable. You’ll find this collection of buildings on their own little lane deep in the Spider Lake maze. Or, depending on your sense of direction, maybe you won’t.

This article was first featured in the June 2012 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. Click here to order your copy today!

Photo(s) by Jacqueline Southby