Tahoe Cabin Renovation

Van Norden: A Colorful Summer Camp Meets Mountain Chalet


Donner Summit, Calif.

About the project

When we found this rundown, unloved A-frame cabin nestled in a small community near Lake Tahoe, it hadn't been updated in decades, so it was very dark and fairly unfunctional in its original state. Yet, it had many of the key ingredients we look for with a remodel project: great bones but in need of some serious vision! It was a total eyesore but in a gem of a location. In other words, it had tons of potential and a challenge we couldn’t pass up.

In doing research - typically our first step in the design process - we dug deep for historical, cultural and arhitectural references. We discovered that back in the 1970’s, there was a nearby reservoir called Van Norden, which was a central gathering spot just down the road regularly packed with water skiers, sunbathers and beachgoers. We learned that after a much politicized movement, the reservoir was shut down and the area’s economic growth seriously suffered. We wanted to bring back that feeling of a more bustling time, when people came to the area to relax with family and friends and build lasting memories. Hence, the new name of our cabin: Van Norden.

We wanted the cabin to feel equal parts campy Americana and old school mountain chalet, so that it would easily span both summer and winter seasonal vibes. Therefore, we derived our design ideas from vintage ski gear and 1970's camping thermoses, where duotone and geotmetric patterns were prominent. The cabin’s color palette and material choices are intentionally comfortable and casual, with lots of punchy color throughout for a playful tone.  Our goal was for friends and guests to feel “at home” from the first moment they walked through the front door.  

Here is a breakdown of the spaces we transformed:

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Upstairs: Two Ensuites and a Bunk Room

  • We fully overhauled the upper floor, which started out as a massive great room with zero bathrooms. We reworked the layout to include two large ensuites with attached bathrooms and an adjacent bunk room with a half bath.
  • We gave each ensuite its own identity, one having more of a mountain-esque tone with a black, white and wood palette, the other being more midcentury and bright with saturated blues throughout. The duotone backsplash tile in the blue ensuite bathroom was inspired by an old 1970’s ski glove, and is the pattern that scored us our HGTV series! 
  • The bunk room was built with four bunk beds, a space perfectly equipped for fort-making and loading up with lots of kiddos. We custom built the bunks, and based the design around an old staircase we found at Habitat for Humanity (as we’re always looking for ways to incorporate repurposed goods)! We painted all the bunks, including the staircase, a mossy green color and even added a little loft on top of the bunk area for an extra kid hang-out spot.
  • The pine ceilings throughout the entire cabin were original, albeit tired and in needed a refresh, so we sanded them all down by hand then applied a clear polyurethane to let the natural pine shine through. We wanted to make sure to feature enough wood throughout the space to keep it feeling distinctively cabin-esque, yet ensure it felt balanced for a modern twist.

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Main Living Space + Kitchen

  • On the main floor, the original living room featured a massive rock fireplace that took up at least a ⅓ of this room, so we tore it out to make room for a smaller, updated version. Once we reframed it, we added vertical wood paneling to the top half of the fireplace in a campy green tone, then applied venetian plaster in a concrete color to the bottom half to create a modern lower face.
  • We kept the same pine ceilings on this floor too, painted all the walls white, then loaded the living room with an eclectic mix of vintage and colorful furnishings. We added a fun card table in the corner, which has been the backdrop to many a weekend puzzling and backgammon sessions.
  • The nearby kitchen was completely re-designed, since it was very closed off and not an efficient use of space in its original form. We added a walk-in pantry to the back (by borrowing a few feet from the bathroom behind it) and then rotated the layout so that we could make room for a peninsula with bar seating. We used super durable materials, including concrete colored quartz countertops, then added a bold Cle tile backsplash for a little funk.
  • For the dining nook, we built in a storage bench that sits evenly under the two front windows, added upholstered cushions and loaded the whole bench with an eclectic mix of throw pillows. To finish off the space, we found and hung a vintage chandelier from the Alameda Antique Faire that we paired with a mid century dining table.

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Guest Room + Guest Bathroom + Staircase

  • The staircase just off the main living space needed to be reworked, so we opened up the area and added dowels as a railing, serving both a design detail and a safety feature. It also created the perfect alcove beneath the staircase for a sitting and reading nook.
  • Tucked back in the corner of the main living space was a small room that made sense to turn into a quaint guest room. We squeezed in a queen size bed, added two skinny side tables, then went heavy on the campy vibes. We added a Pendelton throw, plaid bedding, lots of Etsy camp-themed chotchkies and two little forest green canvas luggage racks.
  • Adjacent to this bedroom, we created a guest bathroom. It actually was double the size in its original state, but we felt like some of the space was better allocated to the kitchen for a walk in pantry. By re-working the layout, we were still able to fit in a double vanity and a shower / tub combo. We elongated the room by adding two large mirrors over each vanity, then framed boy scout badges as kitchy art.

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Exterior Upgrades

  • I’m convinced one of the main reasons this cabin sat on the market for a while was it’s unfortunate brown facade and it’s front deck railing that was falling apart. It was a sight for sore eyes and was in need of some TLC.
  • We started by painting the whole facade a deep blue. We added a new (but actually old) door with three diamond windows to bring in more sunlight and character. Then we refinished it to and stained it a rich walnut brown color.
  • We did have to make a big investment in upgrading the outdoor deck railing system. We moved from wood to powder coated steel for durability reasons. This area of Tahoe gets a TON of snow, so it needed to withhold major snow loads during storms. We went with black so it could be as minimal as possible, in an attempt to have your eye skim past the railing and land on the front door.