Dale Mulfinger stepped inside the one-room cabin with pine-paneled walls and a wood-burning stove. The feeling is North Woods, but the setting is Edina. Mulfinger’s design for the back-yard “man cave” is also a bit unconventional.
“The cabin has a simple gabled shape,” explained Mulfinger, wearing his signature round spectacles. “But we blew out a wall and made it all glass to surprise you when you come in.” That’s the hallmark of a Mulfinger creation — it meets your basic needs with charm, a little whimsy and some surprises.
The Edina hideaway is one of seven Mulfinger-designed cabins featured in his new book “Back to the Cabin: More Inspiration for the Classic American Getaway” (Taunton Press, $34.95), a sequel to his best-selling “The Cabin.” But it’s more personal than the first book because it reveals the quirky, tree-trunk-columned cabin that Mulfinger and his wife, Jan, share with another couple on Lake Vermilion.
His books illustrate not just cabin design but also the allure of the simple life. “At the cabin, you can smell the coffee brewing, because it’s 10 feet from your head,” he said.
Mulfinger, one of Minnesota’s best known architects, is the founding partner of SALA Architects, the largest local firm specializing in single-family homes. Over the years, he’s been a teacher and mentor for many young architects, and has played a pivotal role in making good design accessible to everyone.
“Dale is so open and inclusive, and now more people know what architects do,” said Geoff Warner, principal at Alchemy Architects in Minneapolis. “He’s worked hard promoting the value of architectural design of individual homes for regular people.”
Mulfinger, who grew up on a dairy farm near Stillwater, never aspired to become an architect. “But when my blue-ribbon yearling died, I knew I didn’t want to be a farmer,’ he said.
A social teenager, he was more eager to pursue fun than a career. The one subject he really excelled at was drafting. Just to get out of class, he took an entrance test to the Institute of Technology at the University of Minnesota, scoring well enough to be admitted. “It opened my eyes to the possibilities, and I decided to major in architecture,” he said. “I had low expectations on my grades. But I found out I could cut it.”
After graduating in 1967, he worked in Boston as an urban planner, eventually moving back to Minneapolis to work for local architecture firms on residential projects. “I liked the immediacy of it,” he said. “Things got built quickly.”
Mulfinger became an adjunct professor at the U’s school of architecture in 1976 and designed projects from his basement office. A shared love for residential architecture and the design principles of Christopher Alexander brought Mulfinger and a young Sarah Susanka together in the early 1980s, long before she found fame as the author of the “Not So Big House” books. Mulfinger was impressed by the graduate student’s talent and enthusiasm, and asked her to help him design a modest house in White Bear Lake.
“I overheard Dale tell someone that his partner had backed out of the firm he was starting,” said Susanka, who now lives in Raleigh, N.C. “I chirped in, ‘I’ll go in business with you.’ ” That White Bear Lake home became the first project for Mulfinger/Susanka Architects, which was housed in a tiny office in Dinkytown.
“People were curious about me going out on my own with a woman,” Mulfinger recalled.
Susanka and Mulfinger decided to market directly to prospective clients who were considering remodeling or building, which was uncommon at the time, said Mulfinger. They taught community education classes on home design, wrote articles for local magazines and even set up a booth at the Home and Garden Show. “I credit Sarah for getting lots of press — in a positive way — when we did good work,” said Mulfinger.
As the work flowed in, the Mulfinger/Susanka firm added staff, including Michaela Mahady, one of Mulfinger’s students, who eventually became a partner in 1991. “We always called Dale ‘silver-tongued,’ ” said Mahady. “He’s a sincere man who is eloquent and can gain a client’s trust.”
Susanka’s first best-selling book in 1998 got the firm notice across the country and attracted even more clients who wanted to create their own “Not So Big House.”
“The book expressed something we’d long talked about at our firm,” said Mulfinger. “Sarah gave it a fun name and brought her own themes. It made this design philosophy mainstream.”
With Oprah and other media folks calling, Susanka left the firm in 1999, necessitating a name change.
“I always liked the acronym SALA, which stood for the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture,” said Mulfinger. “It also means a special room in Italian.”
SALA didn’t follow the traditional structure of founding partners at the top controlling the work. “The traditional way to run a firm was the genius person who started it, supported by worker bees,” said Duo Dickinson, a Connecticut architect. “Dale took that model and flipped it on its head.”
Instead, Mulfinger modeled his firm after a law firm. “Each of the architects have their own clients and their own projects,” he said. “What binds us together is the shared expenses, support and the camaraderie.”
Mulfinger encouraged architects to get out and connect with homeowners, and was a leader in developing the AIA Home of the Month program and the annual Homes by Architects tour.
“Sometimes I feel like the father of residential architecture in Minnesota,” he said. “SALA believed in sharing — that’s how we grew. We all win.”
Mulfinger also spent time nurturing young architects, connecting with them via his dry sense of humor. Bill Blanski, a former student, now an architect at HGA, remembers Mulfinger inviting the whole class to his Linden Hills home for dinner. “We all stared at an orange rectangle painted on the ceiling,” said Blanski. “He said ‘Don’t you get it? This defines the space.’ ”
Many SALA architects, such as Jean Rehkamp Larson, went on to start their own firms. “Dale taught me that residential architecture is a profession, not just something you do on the side,” she said.
Mulfinger is nationally known, said Tom Fisher, professor and dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. “He’s a great model for students by showing them that you can make good design affordable for everyone.”
Now 70, Mulfinger is shifting gears to travel and spend more time with his two grown daughters and four grandchildren. Last spring he taught his last semester on cabin design at the U. “It’s time to open a slot for younger professors and youthful ideas,” he said. He’s no longer an owner of SALA but continues to take on numerous projects, from consulting to designing a ski lodge in Montana. He has no plans to retire from architecture.
“God, is it fun,” he said.