When Max and Johnna Holmgren decided to sell their small house on a busy street corner in Stillwater in 2016, they had one priority for their next home: that it bring them closer to nature.
They found what they sought in a rustic A-frame house tucked among sugar maples, white pines and oak trees at the end of a long dirt driveway in Washington County.
"It was this huge, emotional thing," Johnna recalled of the first time she saw the private, woodsy surroundings. "I was bawling. I felt like it was meant to be."
The couple, who met while students at private Christian school New Life Academy in Woodbury, were married in 2010 and have three daughters ages 6, 2 and 7 months. On moving day, the 6-year-old asked if she could run around outside naked. "We were like, 'Go for it!' It was this big moment because she always wanted to do that," Johnna said.
Johnna, a petite 30-year-old with white-blond hair and blue eyes, is known for her award-winning blog Fox Meets Bear. Lanky, bearded Max, 31, is the creative force behind illustration and design company Bear Fox Chalk. Both have massive Instagram followings, where they post her idyllic pics of life in the wilderness and his quirky art. Max always wanted less division between home, work, school and nature; the family has all that blended together in this home, which serves as his studio, Johnna's blogging headquarters, the girls' home-schooling space, and their cozy refuge. "Everything is intertwined and connected," Johnna said.
Nature is not just a pastime for this family; it's an ethos that shapes their lives. The family forages for edible violets, stinging nettle, mushrooms and eucalyptus, among other items. They tap maple syrup and raise chickens and ducks. Max and Johnna's brother built a greenhouse on the property, where they've placed a dining-room table and a set of chairs for eating or working alfresco. A propane tank provides gas for the home. The family enjoys bonfires in the yard and eats outdoors at a picnic table. Two cats and two dogs freely wander around the property; deer, wild turkeys, possums and even coyotes appear intermittently, as well.
When it came to renovating and decorating the interior of the home, Johnna aspired to bring the wide-open, awe-inspiring feeling of being outdoors inside. One way she does that is through displays of leaves, twigs and other forestry finds in box frames. Like nature time capsules, most of the collections have themes, from a hike just before baby Juniper's birth to the first day of spring. Johnna writes letters to her daughters on the back of the frames or scrawls funny familial quotes on the front.
The Holmgrens' design style is akin to a patchwork quilt; nothing is matchy-matchy but somehow it all works together. Johnna leans toward natural fabrics and earth-based materials, while Max brings a bohemian vibe to the decor. They painted the exterior of the home dark gray, installed white pine floors throughout and modernized the kitchen — but not too much. Fancy appliances weren't in the budget, so Johnna added copper accents to an otherwise unremarkable white range, and brass knobs to an Army green vintage fridge she picked up at an estate sale. The apron farmhouse kitchen sink is made of brushed brass. A well-worn wood-topped island from Hunt & Gather moved with the family from their Stillwater home. Copper cookware and baskets occupy doorless cupboards. ("You can never have too many baskets," Johnna said.) Quaint crocheted curtains allow plenty of light to enter through the oversized windows. The most modern piece in the kitchen is the oval light fixture.
"Johnna's little touches on everything kind of makes the space," said Mercedes Austin, owner and founder of Mercury Mosaics, Minneapolis, who worked with the Holmgrens on their blue tile backsplash that adds a pop of color to the kitchen. "Her passion is really about being in the outdoors and embracing nature so she wanted a color to really connect her to the outdoors while she's inside."
The kitchen is where Johnna makes jams, jellies and pickles, and preserves roots and garlic. It was also the testing grounds for the recipes in her new book, "Tales From a Forager's Kitchen" (available on Amazon, $15.99 for e-book; $24.93 for hardcover). Local photographer Matt Lien captured her sweet and savory creations, as well as pics of the family, right on the property. Max did the illustrations. Just as Johnna's home is refreshingly humble, so is her cooking philosophy. "Everything that I made, anyone can make," she said. "It doesn't take insanely special or expensive tools."
In the blush pink dining room, a white branch chandelier, a souvenir from the Holmgrens' wedding tent, is decorated with seasonal foliage. A pair of mushroom-hued linen sofas occupy the living room opposite, and the floor is covered with gray carpet squares. "It's debatable if carpet squares are in or not but they're really great for kids and family," Johnna said. Indeed, the kids have plenty to entertain themselves with here: children's books, a mini-piano, a wooden kitchen with rotary phone and a table and chairs.
Down the hall is the master bedroom, a high-ceilinged space with a fireplace and verdant forest green walls. The room was intended to be more of a great room than a bedroom, but Johnna and Max converted the space to fit their needs. The room has an elegant and masculine feel, lent in part by an ornate headboard.
Johnna hung the bright floral wallpaper that dons the walls of her daughters' room. "I feel like I've always preferred neutrals," she said, "but as the girls have gotten older, I'm loving their love for color and wanting to really embrace that and bring that into our home and life more." Green and black checkered curtains cover the windows across from a large brass-framed bed.
The family shares the one full bathroom in the home, which boasts stained-glass windows.
Climb a tight, spiral staircase to the second floor, and you'll find Max's studio, a majestic window-walled space furnished simply with a desk table and chair. It's adjacent to the "school room," adorned with a taxidermy goose in flight and a squirrel holding a pine cone. A third upstairs room awaits a purpose.
The Holmgrens' home is not as carefully curated as you'd expect given their Instagram celebrity; rather, it's lived in and unassuming. The family maintains a simple and low-key existence. Johnna grocery shops only once per week and makes the occasional trip to the library or the park, but otherwise they hunker down together. They know their neighbors, but mostly keep to themselves. Does that ever feel isolating? Not really, they say. They're not so far from civilization that they can't visit her family in Woodbury or drive into the Twin Cities. The main drawback, really, is that long driveway, especially when the snow falls. Max, who does the shoveling, said, "I think we'll get a plow for next winter."
Erica Rivera is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.