A sleek house deep in the woods of Northern Michigan proves that modern can be irresistibly cozy.

Dennis and Sandra Norlin wanted a simple, quiet lifestyle after retiring from careers as librarians in Chicago. Dennis remembered how much he loved the Interlochen area when he was a camper at the Interlochen Arts Camp (then National Music Camp) in 1957–58, so the couple headed north to see how the area had changed over the years. They were pleasantly surprised to find that the natural beauty remained, and that property on small lakes was affordable. The couple liked the way Traverse City had developed into a small town with a cosmopolitan air, offering a vibrant arts scene uncommon in most towns of its size. Moreover, Turtle Lake drew them in with its quiet setting and remote feel.

The couple began forming ideas about their new home even before they bought the property. Sandra explained that they wanted something very different from the historic Craftsman they’d owned in Chicago—something with a modern look and low maintenance, comfortable spaces designed for a life filled with family, pets, outdoor recreation and music. And they wanted to live there all year long.

“The thought of owning two houses makes me cringe,” says Sandra. “I just want a simple life.”

To that end, the Norlins teamed with design-build firm Steinorth Fine Homes to develop a single-floor plan with distinct zones and a minimalistic form that fits snugly into its slope facing the lake. Two flat-roofed sections, joined by a broken gable, are outfitted with celestial windows that spill light into the central open kitchen/dining/living space. Guest quarters and a music room flank one side, with a master suite and mudroom on the other.

The essential quality the Norlins wanted was “horizontality”—as in the expansive South Dakota prairies where they both grew up. Various sources inspired the low-slung design, including Sarah Susanka’s Not-So-Big House concept, Dwell magazine, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Illinois, modern prefab houses, and the Smart Home at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. All these influences are subtly evident in the Norlins’ plan, but with the Steinorths’ help, the couple put their own stamp on their blueprint.

After the Steinorths sketched out a plan that balanced the Norlins’ desires and their budget, Sandra worked closely with Jennifer Steinorth to choose materials, fixtures and colors that conjure a woodsy but decidedly modern vibe. Oak and maple woodwork was site-milled, then stained a cool taupe shade to complement the overall color scheme. Pops of bright red and yellow add life, and iconic European light fixtures make a bold statement.

The Steinorth construction team built in a number of streamlined pieces that lend character and function to the house. In the kitchen, a large wooden range hood enclosure hovers over an island with a mobile snack bar. The bedroom centers on a sculptural bed with integrated floating bedside tables to give it a spare, simple feel.

Dennis and Sandra focused on every detail to create a personalized space. “They were very conscientious about the process and the people involved,” says Jennifer. “They saw this project as an opportunity to employ people at a time when that was especially important.”

The Norlins’ new home is certainly sleek and modern. But it is anything but cold. Watching the seasons shift from their glassy living room on mornings as they sip espresso in front of the bright yellow Czech woodstove, Dennis and Sandra know that their simple, modern house is the ideal backdrop for a very warm and colorful life.

This home is featured in the December 2012 issue of Northern Home & Cottage. The bi-monthly home publication is included in all subscriptions to Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. This is why you should subscribe. 

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Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski