How a Midwest Artist Transformed Her Retreat Home | Midwest Living

How a Midwest Artist Transformed Her Retreat Home

Artist Kristi Kohut blurs the boundaries between land and water, work and home at her family’s colorful and airy lake retreat in Wisconsin.

Perched next to the wooden drafting table in her master bedroom, Kristi Kohut is in her happy place—making art in denim cutoffs with Delavan Lake lapping outside. The view, especially on a blue- sky summer day, is her primary creative inspiration. But that doesn’t mean she’s painting sentimental landscapes.

Kristi, who sells her fine art and textile products online ( and at a new Chicagoland brick-and-mortar gallery, translates the lake and the natural world around it into abstract mixed-media pieces. “I love the birds, butterfly wings and the sparkle on the water in the morning,” she says. “The way the sun hits the water and it glitters.” She layers some of her pieces with chalk, paint, cut glass and crystal. The pillows, rugs and wallpaper she designs ripple with bold, spirited color.


An upstairs balcony evokes the widow's walks that crown old seaside homes in New England.

You might think, then, that the Wisconsin vacation home Kristi shares with husband Matt and 11-year-old son Owen would be a mod riot of hues. Instead, it has an air of tradition and a thoughtfully edited palette. The Kohuts grew up by lakes and love maritime history and culture. Owen learned to sail at age 5. When they renovated their house, they looked eastward, as if through a captain’s telescope, to the Atlantic seaboard.


Maritime style doesn't have to mean anchors and seashells. In the Kohuts' living room, a steamer trunk coffee table channels the golden age of sea travel. Blue accents flow like water throughout the home.

Every room features nautical textures and touches: shiplap and board-and-batten walls, rope, brass, leather, weathered wood, even model schooners. In the living room, built-in cabinets painted navy blue pop against white walls like the crisp collar on a sailor’s uniform. Aqua carpets and soft gray paint mirror the mutable hues of the lake outside.


The fourth Kohut, Shafer, poses in the dining area. This corner of the house has the most traditional nautical look: navy paneling, maritime art and weathered oak furniture. But Kristi brings in surprises, like a pair of colorful geode-inspired throw pillows she designed.

Just when things veer close to feeling themed, though, one of Kristi’s signature throw pillows flits into the room like a butterfly and alights on a sofa. Contemporary patterns appear the same way, unexpectedly and refreshingly. In the dining area, for example, a gilt-framed painting of sailboats by Minneapolis artist Abbey Holden hangs above the banquette—but the bench cushion is covered in a modern graphic print. “There’s a certain energy when you live with color and art,” Kristi says. “It gives you joy and happiness and a vibrant home.”

The Kohuts spend most of each summer at the lake house, and as many winter weekends as they can, too, squeezing every drop from lake life. Owen casts lines from the dock, builds forts in the woods and competes with a nearby sailing club. Matt grills dinner on the patio. “I grew up going to Lake Michigan, so while I was on the water and around boats, it was on a big lake,” Kristi says. “There’s something about the smaller lake experience. It’s such a throwback. You can actually see the stars out here.” And, if you look closely and stretch your imagination, you might see them glinting in her art, too.


Owen helms his aptly named vessel, O-Wind, on placid Delavan Lake. Kristi says that as much as nature, the sailing culture on the lake inspires her art: “I love the colorful spinnakers, the vibrant striped patterns and even the typography.”


Top Left Kristi Kohut, who left a career in advertising, started making art after her son was born. One of her favorite places to paint is on an old drawing table in her upstairs master bedroom.

Bottom Left During the renovation, Kristi asked her builder to keep some walls free of wainscoting so she could display art, like the Ashley Longshore piece that hangs next to a bar cart downstairs.

Top Right Pale, misty-gray paint subtly contrasts with white millwork in the kitchen and upstairs bedrooms.

Bottom Right A couple of years ago, Owen started tending his own garden in raised beds near the house. Matt puts the edible harvest to use on the grill.


1  Black floor tiles, a striking tub and one of Kristi’s paintings punch up the bathroom. “Put art anywhere and everywhere!” Kristi says.

2  Kristi uses a variety of media, including paint, pastels and markers, in her work.

3  In Owen’s bedroom loft, a round window and brass sconces mimic a porthole and ship’s bells.

4  Charcoal paint adds drama to the master bedroom’s built-in bookshelves.

5  In a tucked-away nook, a bullseye mirror hangs above a vintage wood cabinet.

6  Owen’s bedroom features shiplap, brass railings and a rope ladder to the reading loft.

7  The kitchen leans classic, with soapstone counters, white subway tiles and dark grout that echo the black-and-white look of the master bath.

8  Repeating colors and patterns creates cohesion across a home; the pale blue rug in the master bedroom is similar to the one in the living room downstairs.

Click or tap here to watch Kristi work and to get a buying guide to this home. 



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