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Dale Mulfinger: The people's architect

  • Article by: LYNN UNDERWOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 23, 2013 - 4:39 PM

He's called a "cabinologist." But Dale Mulfinger has played many other roles during his long career, including mentor to many and a “father of residential architecture.”

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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.”

Farm boy

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.

‘Silver-tongued’

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.”

  • related content

  • Architect and "cabinologist" Dale Mulfinger at an urban cabin he designed in an Edina back yard.

  • Architect and "cabinologist" Dale Mulfinger at an urban cabin he designed in an Edina backyard.

  • more on mulfinger

    How he got the moniker “cabinologist”: “I just had written a ‘Cabin Fever’ article, and I was to be interviewed on the radio show ‘Garage Logic,’ ” said Mulfinger. “Joe Soucheray introduced me as a cabinologist.”

    Prolific author: Mulfinger has written five books, including one on the architecture of Edwin Lundie. “My high school English teacher would be surprised that I’m a writer,” he said.

    Jack of all styles: He’s designed everything from rustic one-bedroom cabins Up North to an Italian courtyard villa in the suburbs. “I’m kind of all over the board, but I’m fascinated with a variety of architectural styles. My clients take me places I would have never gone myself.”

    What makes his day: “When I hear from homeowners after they live in one of my creations that they love the way the sun comes into a breakfast room.”

    Strengths as an architect: “I’m a good listener,” he said. “I first have to see the piece of land and then the design jumps out — Edwin Lundie did that, too.”

    Going green: “We’ve been energy hogs,” he said. “Energy consumption is the No. 1 thing that will affect residential design far into the future.”

    book signings

    Architect Dale Mulfinger will sign copies of “Back to the Cabin: More Inspiration for the Classic American Getaway.”

    When: 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Nov. 30, Book World, 10553 Main St., Hayward, Wis., and 4 to 5:30 p.m. Nov. 30, Valley Book Seller, 217 Main St., Stillwater. Also 2 to 3:30 p.m. Dec. 7, Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.

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