Creative Collaborators of Leelanau: Fernhaus Studio’s Kelsey Duda


By Mae Stier

Sun contributor

Leelanau County has long been a haven for artists and creatives, and the region is rife with individuals, businesses, and organizations working together towards common goals. From the Leelanau Conservancy’s LC Collective, which brings young leaders together to engage the next generation in land preservation, to local initiatives like The Creative Coast, which works with Traverse Connect and area businesses to highlight entrepreneurs and artists in the area, there is no shortage of collaboration and support.

Photos by Mae Stier

For Kelsey Duda, co-founder and creative director of Fernhaus Studio, a hospitality group based in Traverse City, the region’s creative culture and collaborative community was a large part of what drew her to move to northern Michigan in 2020.

Originally from Southeast Michigan, Duda spent over a decade living in Grand Rapids before landing in northern Michigan. Her connection to the region began with a renovation project in Elk Rapids 10 years ago, where she had her first opportunity to try interior design while creating an Airbnb–something that was still a new platform for vacation rentals in the region–which led to more design opportunities.

Upon completing the initial project in Elk Rapids, Duda began designing a new Airbnb property in the same town, which she named “Fernhaus.” The property was the first project she executed from conception through the build, ultimately doing much of the work herself, alongside her father, after the project was delayed during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After launching the Fernhaus Airbnb in December 2020, Duda could no longer ignore her connection to the region. She quit working for a designer in Grand Rapids and moved to Elk Rapids full-time.

It was then that she founded Fernhaus Studio alongside co-founder Turner Booth. In the three years since, the hospitality group has taken over Riverside Inn in Leland, Outpost (formerly Brew) in Traverse City, and perhaps most notably, restored The Mill in Glen Arbor, opening it in the spring of 2023 as a cafe. This summer, Fernhaus opened Millie’s in Glen Arbor, a pizza and ice cream shop where Riverfront Pizza was previously.

Duda was initially drawn by the region’s beauty and the central role the natural surroundings seemed to play in people’s lives here. She felt pulled to the creative community in Traverse City and Leelanau Counties, which felt different than what she had experienced while living in Grand Rapids.

“There is a lot of entrepreneurial and creative energy (here). If you want to live here, you have to work really hard and often create your own job. It’s not easy to find housing either, so when people do move here, it feels very intentional,” Duda says. The more time she spent in the region, the more she was meeting talented people who were “like-minded” and “here for the same reasons” as she was: to connect with the natural surroundings.

That desire to be outdoors and find other individuals interested in outdoor activity led to a serendipitous hike in December 2021. Duda attended a hike hosted by myself and Nick Loud of the Boardman Review at the Leelanau Conservancy’s DeYoung property. The hike was part of a winter hiking series open to anyone interested in joining. That openness is something Duda appreciates about northern Michigan, where community events feel inviting to everyone.

On the hike at DeYoung, Duda was introduced to local artist Alyssa Smith, who has since become a close collaborator. Smith’s work is currently on display at The Mill in Glen Arbor, and Duda has hosted multiple collection releases of Smith’s at the Fernhaus Airbnb in Elk Rapids.

That hike also connected Duda to the Leelanau Conservancy’s communications director, Claire Wood, who, during the following year, would start the LC Collective, connecting young leaders in the region to envision new ways of connecting the general public to the Conservancy’s mission. Duda joined the LC Collective in 2023 after attending an art and music event hosted by the Conservancy, entitled “Harvest Moon,” the previous fall.

The “Harvest Moon” event and the initial hike on the Conservancy property represent to Duda what is so unique about this region. The interconnectedness of what people create and the environment they create art in is evident and celebrated, often across various platforms. The Leelanau Conservancy hosts art exhibits at their properties, poems are painted on the TART Trail with chalk paint, musicians come together to raise funds for causes throughout the region.

This purposeful connection is what drew Duda to the region initially, and she notices the common desire of many residents to take care of the beautiful area where they live. This thread runs through the work of Fernhaus Studio as well, and Duda looks forward to continuing to collaborate with artists, organizations, and farmers whose work is so rooted in this specific place.

“The best part of any of these properties is the nature that surrounds (them),” Duda says of the businesses Fernhaus Studio manages. “If we can use our talents and resources to protect and share it, that feels like the right thing to do.”

Duda may be especially primed to notice and nurture collaboration by the nature of working within the hospitality industry. It is her job to create welcoming spaces, and it is clear her experience of being welcomed by the creative community of northern Michigan informs how she builds this into the businesses she oversees. “My natural tendency is to want to support artists and makers. In these spaces, pretty much everything is handmade, found, or an intentional collaboration with an artist.”

All her design projects with Fernhaus heavily feature handmade goods and local art, with local artists like Kristin Mackenzie, Alyssa Smith, and Jesse Hickman well represented in her projects. Not only do the spaces feel welcoming to guests, but they also celebrate the culture and artists who live in the region. She feels indebted to the many people who have offered late-night sewing skills or helped complete a project down to the wire. “I can’t even count all the people who (have come) alongside to make these things happen.”

Collaborating with local artists is also a way for Fernhaus Studio to honor the history of the spaces they work on. Specifically, the renovation and reopening project at The Mill invites Duda to consider how to work alongside others in the community. The Mill originally opened as a grist mill in the late 1800s and later became a recording studio and artist retreat in the 1970s. It has often “been a collaborative space in its many iterations. We definitely want to lean into honoring that.”

The Mill, which opened in the spring of 2023, looks forward to continuing to add to its offerings this year and to bringing in more artists for collaborations. They plan to open the restaurant on the river level this spring, and their dishes will be custom-made by local ceramicist Ben Maier.

Duda also looks forward to collaborating with Suttons Bay-based clothing designer Elijah Nykamp, owner of the shop nykamping, to create custom baguette bags for their upcoming “Bread Club.” There are also plans for a “Member’s Club” to offer continued opportunities for the community to connect and utilize the space.