written by Melissa Dalton
The Airbnb reviews of The Farmhouse@Tabula Rasa Farms are effusive. “This home was beyond amazing,” reads one. “If you appreciate design, this is your spot,” goes another. One really makes their case: “Every single light has a dimmer in the entire house.” After all, when the farmhouse’s owner, Brenda Smola-Foti designed the farmhouse more than a decade ago, she paid careful attention to the details, especially lighting. “I did a lot of things to get north light, because that’s the steady light that a painter likes,” said Smola-Foti, who grew up working on her father’s cattle ranch in Oklahoma, and now describes herself as “an artist who made the jump to farmer.”
In 2008, Smola-Foti bought twenty-three acres of farmland near Carlton. The land was “really raw,” with no electricity, infrastructure—and she soon learned— not much water. Four attempts to drill brought nothing, and she was getting discouraged. “My now husband really talked me into keeping going and moving forward,” said Smola-Foti. “And that’s when I started designing the house.” Smola-Foti wanted the farmhouse to be her home and painting studio, and planning it was an “act of faith” that the land would provide. It did. The fifth attempt at a well struck.
Now, Smola-Foti runs Tabula Rasa Farms, a regenerative agriculture practice that raises pork and grass-fed beef on the site. The farmhouse is positioned on a rise, with an oak savannah grove behind it and pastures spread below. The home’s basic shape was influenced by a log cabin Smola-Foti once rented. “It started out as 35 by 40 feet with a loft,” said Smoli-Foti of the early design. A later remodel with architect David Horning added a mud room, expansive porch, and second bedroom suite.
Natural light is prioritized via oversized windows in the shared living spaces. Clean lines and warm woods are a nod to Smola-Foti’s affection for Scandinavian decor, gained from having lived in Norway between high school and college. Wood floors and an exposed loft built from salvaged beams from her partner’s shipyard anchor the open plan. Custom shelves hold favorite books and a Morso woodstove cozies a corner. An Ikea kitchen tucked under the loft is a workhorse ready for big meal prep, and the two upstairs bedrooms are wrapped in shiplap wood for a snugger feel.
The porch is a vacationer’s dream, with a protected area nestled in the trees, a sunny deck for enjoying the vista and an outdoor shower. Smola-Foti also made the home as energy efficient as possible, and installed rainwater collection tanks with a filtration system to supply primary water, with the well for backup. In this way, the house “mirrors a lot of the things that we do on the farm,” said Smola-Foti.
Artwork is peppered throughout, created by the artist-owner and pulled from her personal collection. “One of the things reflected in the Airbnb is that it was my workplace and home,” said Smola-Foti, who has since moved to another spot on the property. “I put all of my journey into that house.” And if the five-star reviews are any indication, the guests certainly appreciate it.
Karie Higgins and Lee Gibson know a thing or two about running a successful Airbnb. On the Instagram channel for the @rivercabaan, the moniker for their midcentury Wilson River retreat followed by more than 17,000 people, the couple post about their chic cabin, garnering hundreds of likes. The home has been used for multiple photoshoots by brands such as Floyd, a furniture company in Detroit, and Parachute linens, as well as design-minded entities. There’s a waitlist to book, and when upcoming available dates are announced, the calendar fills up four months of reservations in ten minutes.
So, what’s the secret? “Obviously, the location can’t be beat,” said Higgins, who works as a brand director for a New York City jewelry line. The cabin sits on 328 feet of private frontage on the Wilson River, with a wall of windows and a big deck overlooking the water. It’s an ideal spot for summer hangs around the campfire and finding secret swimming holes, yet also fun for winter, when people can curl up in front of the fireplace and enjoy the views from the couch.
As the name River Cabaan might suggest, Higgins and Gibson, who’s a footwear designer at Nike, have created an experience that turns common expectations of cabin decor on its head. “Ours is a little bit different than a classic Pacific Northwest cabin,” said Higgins. “It’s lighter and brighter, so with the combination of the river, the interior is very relaxing and tranquil.”
It’s true that cabins can run dark, and this one was no different. Built in 1963, it was likely a fishing haunt, and had dark wood floors, wood-paneled walls and an orange brick fireplace. A healthy dose of white paint transformed it. “It was a lot of painting—that was the main thing that we worked on to just lighten and brighten it up,” said Higgins.
Stylish curation comes naturally to the creative couple, so they mixed vintage designer finds, as with the ’70s-era cane chairs found on Craigslist, and design store picks, such as the Deep Thoughts Chaise from Blu-dot, with the occasional IKEA piece for balance. “I think some people, because it’s a rental, don’t want to put anything special in the space,” said Higgins. “But I think what makes an Airbnb feel great is knowing that there’s some lovingly curated touches and design elements throughout.”
At the River Cabaan, the thoughtful details are many. There’s the living room’s record player and vinyl collection, “a really eclectic mix of records,” noted Higgins, for any mood. Rumpled linen sheets suggest an afternoon nap, while in the bathroom, a face mask by Portland-brand Wild Care is waiting. Then there’s the handmade ceramics and glassware on the kitchen shelves, with pretty cookbooks to inspire the discovery of new recipe. The goal, said Higgins, is that once guests check in, they feel pleasantly pampered until it’s time to head home. “It’s those little luxuries,” said Higgins, that make all the difference.