The Quill List! Featuring: The Nook in Swannanoa, North CarolinaSep 01, 2023
Welcome back to another Quill List property feature!
Today's feature takes us to a gorgeous and unique retreat in Swannanoa North Carolina, situated in the mountains very close to Asheville. Come along as owner Mike Belleme tells us about his special and inspiring cabin in the woods.
Mike, tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in Western North Carolina. I grew up about 30 minutes from Asheville and Kit, my wife and collaborator on the cabins, moved to the area as a teenager, so we both have deep roots in the region. I have spent my entire career (about 17 years) as a photographer. I do documentary work, portraiture, and editorial photography for personal long-term projects as well as on assignment for publications. I travel mostly around the Southeastern US for work.
Kit works for a local non-profit organization called The Racial Justice Coalition. They do local advocacy work specifically focused on the black community and local efforts toward reparations. We live in a rural area east of Asheville where we garden, forage, make jams, teas, and tinctures, and all the other fun homesteading activities. Kit is very active in the Latin dance scene here in town.
You guys sound like the most fun and fascinating couple ever! How did your short-term rental journey begin?
We ended up buying a house around 2015, and it just happened to have a little extra cabin on the property. We didn't think a whole lot of it but figured it would be fun to have a little extra space for our out-of-town guests to stay.
After a while, we decided to fix it up and start renting it out on Airbnb. That was going pretty well and I always wanted to build a small structure because I'm into building and woodworking in particular, so we decided to put another tiny cabin on the lower part of our property which became 'The Nook'.
Our ideas for The Nook were heavily influenced by our time living in a tree house for the three years before buying our house as well as my time as a photographer documenting a primitivist community living in the woods in Western NC. These experiences shifted my values significantly and steered my lifestyle into something more connected with the natural world in all facets of life. The tree house was way back in the woods, so we actually had to hike a bit to get to it each day. That shift in mindset that comes from that short walk through the woods inspired a lot of the decisions in making the Nook and keeping the area fully wooded with a short trail up to the house.
Wow, this all makes me want to go straight to the woods for the rest of this interview. What was your design process for The Nook?
We started by reaching out to our friends, Rob Maddox and Karie Reinertson of Shelter Collective. Kit and I are very immersed in the arts community here in the region, so we really leaned into those relationships at every stage and allowed our creative community to take our vision and put their own spin on it.
Rob and Karie were our main collaborators in the design, but the process was very amorphous from beginning to end. We sourced wood by finding dead logs (black walnut, cherry, ash, mulberry, oak, and others) and milling them up. As I found materials, the plans adapted to those materials. We also worked with dozens of other artists who were able to add their own creativity to the space, like our primary builders, Alex Henderson and Columbia Bullion, and woodworker, Andy McFate, who helped me design most of the built-in furniture on the fly.
The outdoor bathtub was finished about a year after the rest of the cabin and was designed by Alex Henderson, whom we collaborated with to build and engineer. That was my favorite part of the whole process.
We knew that we wanted the design to be much more than just functional. I started to realize partway through that there were themes and concepts emerging that were the same themes that I work with in photography. That's when I really leaned into the storytelling aspect of the structure and began to see it more as a conceptual art piece and an extension of my photography practice.
Are there any fun stories that happened along the way of the design-build journey you can share with us?
There are two stories in particular that are some of my favorite memories! We were able to immortalize them in an art piece by Haley Nocik, an Asheville-based artist whose whimsical yet lifelike felted wool animal sculptures and fantastical characters from her own imagination are delightful and an absolute pinnacle of craftsmanship. The diorama that she made for us is her interpretation of these two stories from the building process.
As we were preparing to add insulation to the walls, I came across a bird’s nest inside the wall right about at the spot where we put the diorama. Though sad to evict the bird, I removed its nest. To my delight, I found that the bird had used some of our building materials to make its own home inside our home – curly wood shavings mixed in with leaves, a piece of snake skin, and bits of dried moss. This bird had made its own Nook inside ours, and like ours had used materials tying together the inside and outside space. As an homage to this bird, Haley featured a tufted titmouse gathering material on the forest floor. The material that makes up the nest seen in the upper right corner of the diorama and on the forest floor of the scene came from the original bird’s nest.
The bunny family, curled up in the burrow below, have their own story. Friend and builder Jesse Barber and I were carrying some wood down the hill to the Nook when we heard a high-pitched squealing sound. Curious, we paused for a moment to listen to where the sound was coming from. Soon we saw a bunny rabbit hopping away out of the nearby brush, then a baby bunny flopping along behind, but the squealing sound persisted. Following the sound, I peered through the thicket of honeysuckle to see a little bunny burrow with a black snake coiled inside. A second baby bunny was in the snake’s mouth, just the legs sticking out, the squeal increasingly muddled, but still fighting for its life. The true naturalist thing to do would have been to leave the scene undisturbed, but even though I’m a snake lover, the adorable bunny’s squeals were too much to bear. So I picked up both the snake and the bunny and removed the bunny from the snake’s firm grip. I relocated the snake and let the bunny hop along.
Bunny dens are shallow little dugouts bedded with the down fur from the mother bunny. Since the babies had clearly flown the coop, I came back a few days later and took some of the bunny fur, and gave it to Haley to use as the bedding in the bunny den in the diorama. The Nook is part of a neighborhood, but most of our neighbors crawl, slither, or fly. The diorama invites you to get to know your neighbors of all kinds.
Do you feel having a well-designed rental property affects your overall business positively?
It's been exciting to see how the storytelling aspect has really taken hold and has allowed the story to have some bigger platforms that get the word out much more broadly than we would if we hadn't put so much attention into this aspect of the design and presentation. We started getting written up in some local, national, and international publications like Dwell, Financial Times, and others as well as the TV series, Cabin Chronicles, which made a whole Nook episode. This has helped make bookings solid even as Airbnb bookings have dropped significantly in the last year or so in our region.
It's obvious that your cabin is a special place with lots of love and care poured into its creation. What do you think makes it stand apart the most in the short-term rental marketplace?
The house is an act of rebellion. I think most dwellings are vessels of disconnection. Connection is something that is earned through a combination of knowledge about where things come from and effort of any kind. Almost everything that you will see when you walk inside only exists in this house, you can't even order it on Etsy. Almost everything is one of a kind and was conceived of in a thoughtful way considering how it contributes to the overall experience and story of the structure.
Every board in the whole house was sanded and edges were shaped by hand tools. It's a bit of madness, and if you are thinking in terms of cost-benefit analysis and bottom lines, it doesn't make any sense.
We also found ways of forcing the guests to interact with the space with intentionality in order to foster connection. The short trail through the woods up to the house sets the tone. The tea loft, which requires a sequence of steps in order to prepare the tea, place it in the tea catty and lift it up into the loft, creating an unwitting act of ceremony. The outdoor bath involves a similar sequence of actions intended to take some amount of effort and make guests feel closer to the natural surroundings while encouraging a slowing down of the pace of life.
Wow. I am in awe. What a special, one-of-a-kind experience you've created for your guests. Do you have any favorite resources for furniture and decor?
Our creative community. There is an incredible legacy of craft here in Western North Carolina. It starts with the incredible Cherokee crafts, which we highlight in the Nook, but there is also a long history in the region for ceramics, textiles, and furniture. We worked with local makers and materials to highlight this incredible legacy. We did not buy any furniture for the cabin, this helped create the 'nook' effect of everything tucking into everything else and creating distinctive little spaces.
What's next for The Nook?
We are currently in the design phase for a book that tells the story of The Nook, illustrated by images of all of the artists working on the different pieces and making the cabin into what it is. Also, we have another listing on the same property called Kapwa Cabin. It is also conceptual but tells a different story, which was more Kit's direction.
Here is a glimpse of Kapwa Cabin:
Mike, I can't thank you enough for taking a little time to share this beautiful space with us. It is truly an inspiration, and now if you'll excuse me, I feel the need to go sink my feet into some moss next to a stream under a large canopy of trees. 🌲
Until next time, happy hosting to you, my reader!