Cabin Culture

Those having a taste for the rustic, can learn at the knee of 'cabinologist', Dale Mulfinger.

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Dale Mulfinger has lots of titles. He's the principal of SALA Architects in Minneapolis. He's an adjunct professor in the University of Minnesota's architecture department. And he's a "cabinologist."

He earned the appellation a few years ago when a radio personality asked Mulfinger to appear on his show. "He saw that I was at the university and that I had studied cabins, so he introduced me as a cabinologist," said Mulfinger. "That moniker stuck."

It fits. Mulfinger has researched cabins, going cabin-door-to-cabin-door across the Midwest. He's designed dozens of cabins around the country. And he's written extensively about cabins in his seasonal Cabin Fever column for Mpls-St.Paul magazine and his book The Cabin: Inspiration for the Classic American Getaway, (Taunton, $35), which was co-authored by Susan E. Davis (

Mulfinger took time out to talk about the allure of cabins, cabin culture and the future of these much-loved spaces.

Question: When did you first get interested in cabins?

Answer: When I wrote my first book The Architecture of Edwin Lundie (, I showed a cabin on the cover. After that, I was asked to design some cabins. Because I didn't grow up going to the cabin, I felt that I'd better figure out what cabins are all about.

Q: How did you do that? Wrangle an invitation to a friend's cabin?

A: I was teaching an architecture class at the university, so I decided to make it a little research project. I got a bunch of students and we went in search of the quintessential cabin.

Q: Did you find it?

A: We found about a dozen: They were modestly sized, woody, at a particular place, a lake, a stream, the river, the woods. And we decided that it felt more like a cabin if you could wake up and smell the coffee because it was brewing about 10 feet from your nose.

Q: Couldn't that also describe a home?

A: A cabin is different. A cabin is about storytelling. If you don't have an old cabin that has a history, you import a history. You design a cabin just like Grandpa's--you use recycled materials and found parts. If it's new, you have to design it with story, you design it to look like it's been there forever.

And with a cabin, there are no pretensions. It's about function, not formality. In a cabin, everyone enters through the mudroom, because you're not looking to make a grand entrance, you've got to schlep stuff in and out.

Q: What's your favorite thing about going to your Lake Vermillion cabin?

A: Zoning out. At a cabin, you don't have to read a book or trek in the woods. You can just sit there and stare.

Q: Are getaway homes replacing cabins?

A: In general, cabins are getting larger and being outfitted with more amenities, in part because people are planning to use them for retirement homes. That's when people start talking about master bedroom suites with walk-in closets and attached garages.

Another factor is the rising costs of land and construction. You're not going to spend $200,000 on a piece of land and wrap a $50,000 structure around it. And if you make a big investment in a structure, people want to be able to use that structure year-round.

Q: Does that mean older, smaller, simpler cabins are on their way out?

A: Not necessarily. If a cabin has been passed down in a family, they'll do all sorts of things to maintain it because there's an emotional attachment. Some people even fight bringing in electricity and telephone. But once a cabin is handed off to a new family and there's no lore, it's just a piece of real estate.

Q: Do those cabins get torn down?

A: Some cabins defy modernization. They simply can't be adapted for year-round use or become second homes. So, yes, some get torn down. That's one of the reasons I got interested in writing about cabins. I'm trying to tell the stories of these structures that may not be around long.

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