The cabin retreat of Jim Olson on Puget Sound honors his family's history, his own architectural evolution, and the joys of living in nature.
Some people have trouble staying the course. Architect Jim Olson, FAIA is not one of those people. As one of the founding partners and current principals at Seattle, Washington-based architectural firm Olson Kundig, he has spent the more than 57 years designing projects that combine his passion for art and nature and explore the relationship between light and space. His work has been studied internationally as the subject of four monographs and appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Architectural Digest, and Dwell. Under Olson's leadership, the firm had received countless accolades including a National Architecture Firm Award from the American Institute of Architects, a spot on the AD100 list 13 times, and cited as one of the Top Ten Most Innovative Companies in Architecture by Fast Company on four occasions.
While Olson's professional success is admirable, it's his steadfast dedication to a very personal project — a lakeside retreat in Longbranch, located about an hour south of Seattle — that is especially moving. "My family connection to Longbranch started in 1912, when my grandparents bought the property and built their summer cottage. After the cottage burned down in the early 1960s, the bunkhouse was the only structure left standing," Olson says. "The cabin has been a work in progress [ever since]. What began as a 200-square-foot bunkhouse in 1959 has morphed through a series of remodels in 1981, 1997, 2003, and 2014. Each transformation acknowledges our changing priorities: first a bunkhouse for teenagers, then an experimental weekend retreat for a young couple and family, and now, a quiet place for contemplation and creative work."
Back in the 1960s, when Olson and his friends and, later his wife, Katherine, began heading to the 7-acre property on weekends, the accommodations were far from luxurious. The bunkhouse was a 14-foot-by-14-foot structure nestled in the forest, built on posts that rested on concrete blocks. "There was no kitchen or running water — just a simple pavilion with a deck on the east and south sides, from which you could look into the trees, and down the slope toward the water," he says. "The 'bathroom' was a toilet seat on chrome legs, toilet paper, and a shovel."
But what the site lacked in indoor plumbing, it more than made up for in unlimited inspirational views. "The connection to nature makes you feel alive and encourages you to notice and feel the world around us. On this land I experienced the weaving together of natural and man-made, and the understanding, intuitively, that nature is our home," Olson explains. "That was the start of my philosophy as an architect in doing things that ... are about creating an experience for the people inhabiting them."
While many lake houses are sited facing the water, Olson remained focused on the earth. "I love the woods, the trees, the birds, the squirrels — and I wanted the house to hide among the forest and be a place from which I could observe nature," he says. "When I started designing the most recent addition in 2012, I tried various schemes that jutted out into the field to face the water and the mountains, but I realized that staying back and celebrating the trees made the house more interesting."
The property has grown to encompass 2,400 square feet, and now includes a library, three bedrooms, and three bathrooms. Even so, it was important to Olson that the architecture showcase — rather than conceal — the gradual evolution. "You can see and feel all those layers of history," he says. "Each expansion has reused and integrated the previous structure rather than erasing it — there's a composition of elements from each iteration, layering on in front of the other."
While there are also some outdoor rooms that aren't literally connected to the cabin, Olson says he considers the entire property one single house, "The real living room is the field down by the water," he says. "I wanted the house itself to feel like it is floating above the forest undergrowth. The deck off the master bedroom helps you feel as though you are sitting in the trees with the birds and squirrels at eye level. While the bedroom sits 10 feet above grade, the guest rooms below are at-grade on one side, while buried into the earth on the other. The contrast of the two extremes is what I like most: from treehouse to cave."
Olson's dedication to using the same simple materials — things like concrete, plywood, and recycled boards — for all the structures throughout the years also contributes to the seamless connect between rooms and helps keep the focus on the views. He also gives a nod to the "magic window," which goes a long way toward bringing the outside in. "A magic window is one where the edges of the glass are hidden from view, thus rendering the whole window basically unseen — like magic," Olson says. "It blurs the boundaries between nature and the build environment to connect you to the larger landscape. At the end of the bedroom hallway, for example, the glass disappears through a vista looking out into the woods, giving the illusion that you are outside in nature. It's the perfect actualization of prospect-refuge."
The "prospect-refuge" theory is the idea is that people derive feelings of safety and pleasure from inhabiting environments that offer both views and a sense of enclosure. That sense is reinforced by keeping interiors to a calming minimum. The architect says the cabin is intentionally subdued in color and texture, and that extends to the furnishings inside the home. "The furniture and rugs recall the natural materials outside — driftwood, sand, rocks, tree bark, dirt," he says. "In just about all of my work, the materials are inspired by those that would be natural to the site."
Today, Olson maintains that the cabin is a chronicle of the development of residential architecture in the Northwest, from simple post-and-bean construction to airy geometries that expand to capture light and space. "Each iteration of the cabin marks a point of evolution, not only in my personal life, but in my architectural career. My frame of reference continued to expand and refine throughout every addition; moments from Longbranch directly influenced my work for clients, and lessons from those projects informed how I approached designing for myself."
Au Naturel: Cabin Retreat Style
Nothing says serenity quite like keeping things simple. Follow architect Jim Olson's lead by allowing nature to set the tone, and let the relaxation begin.
Click on the image slider to see each piece of decor.
 Iana Wood Table Lamp (thearrangement.com)  Salish Lidded Trunk (ciscosgallery.com)  Woven Basket with Rattle Lid by artist Lisa Telford (Salish) (stoningtongallery.com)  AA Tlein TLAA — "Big Grandma" Basket by artist Deborah Head (Tlingit-Haida) (stoningtongallery.com)  O-Ring Dining Table by Jason Scott (brumbaughs.com)  Debra Sparrow Takaya Wolf Tapestry (kanatablanket.com)  Transition Basket by artist Deborah Head (Tlingit-Haida) (stoningtongallery.com)  Takara Coffee Table (lorecranch.com)  Western Sling Chair (runyonsfinefurniture.com)  Greco Leather Sling Chair (adobeinteriors.com)  Cabin Creek Square Pillow in Marshmellow (pendleton.com)  River Driftwood Table Lamp (thearrangement.com)
Pacific Northwest Good Times Alfresco
Enjoy the delights of cabin living whether you're on the water or in the woods — or both.
Lake living in Washington's Puget Sound area — or anywhere near the water or in the woods — calls for lots of time in the great outdoors. And what better to bring the good vibes than a little wine, a lot of nibbles, and a fire to gather around on crisp evenings. We've tot the basics right here for enjoying the pleasures of being au naturel.
Fit for outdoor get-togethers all year long, Cowboy Cauldrons come in four sizes, and the indestructible material makes them impervious to the whims of wind, weather, and wild festivities. Add fuel, adjust coals or grates, and start cooking or simply use it as a super-duper fire pit. (cowboycauldron.com)
The Pacific Northwest is practically synonymous with smoked salmon, which is the specialty of SeaBear. They've been making authentic smoked salmon and other artisanal seafood products in their own smokehouse since 1957 in Anacortes, Washington, on Fidalgo Island. Choices range from traditional to wine-and-beer-basted, garlic-laden, and bourbon and brown-sugared — with party packs, entertaining collections, and appetizer samplers. (seabear.com)
Champagne and sparkling wine are the classic pairing with smoked salmon. The luxurious items complement each other, balancing the fat of the fish and the bubbles of the bubbly. We like Walla Wall, Washington's award-winning Yellowhawk sparklers. Winemaker George-Anne Robertson suggests the Sparking Rose with more robust dishes and the Sparkling White with lighter fare. Join Yellowhawk's wine club and/or visit the Yellowhawk Resort and hit the tasting room, where they might pair the Vineyard Select Blanc, vintage 2021, a white made with estate grapes, with smoked-salmon schmear. (yellowhawkresort.com)
When you break out the wine, can cheese and crackers be far behind? Get things rolling with a wheel of Flagship, Seattle-based Beecher's signature cheese. Aged for 15 months, the semihard cow-milk cheese is noted for its complex, robust, nutty flavor. Swing by Seattle's historic Pike Place Market and grab some along with Beecher's other handcrafted award winners and Original or Flagship crackers. (beechershandmadecheese.com)
Every casual alfresco afternoon or evening calls for the proper blanket. Give a nod to Washington's Olympic National Park with this colorful cotton-wool blend throw that comes complete with a carrier. And pat yourself on the back: You're doing a little good by toting it since Pendleton has donated more than $1.3 million of its proceeds to national parks. (pendleton.com)
Photography: Kevin Scott, Olsok Kundig
Architecture: Jim Olson, FAIA, Olson Kundig
This article appeared in our May/June 2023 issue, which can be found on newsstands or through our C&I Shop.