Playing House

Kelly English’s new business intertwines design and childlike wonder.

Designer & Artist Kelly English
Photography by Craig Bares

When shopping for a playhouse, you need to do some retail research. This isn’t a drive-by purchase, after all—it’s an aesthetic commitment to a lilliputian dwelling that will stand side by side with your own house.

But designer-artist Kelly English really had to do her homework. “I had so many pent-up ideas for making things, and this explosion of knitting happened,” says the former MCAD professor. With all the knitting came a vision: to “knit” a playhouse for her daughter, Clover, that would help her connect with nature. “Clover learned how to use an iPhone—at 9 months old! I was freaking out.”

English envisioned a beautiful natural structure in her backyard that would inspire imaginative play. After researching Native American wigwams, she turned to Facebook to find recycled brush that could be used to weave the playhouse of her dreams. A landscape designer who was clearing some shoreline up north responded to her post.

Through trial and error, English quickly discovered the powers of working with willow. Strong, pliable, and lightweight, it can be knit or woven on a grand scale.

It took three months of work, and in fall of 2010 Clover’s willow retreat was born. “To curl up inside our quiet insulated thicket that winter was great, and in the summer Clover had a shady play space,” says English. “It’s also big enough for my husband and me to light candles and drink a glass of wine.”

Word spread about the enchanting hideaway, and English started getting orders from friends. She launched her business Cheeriup, named after a robin’s call, in October. It’s headquartered at her studio in Northeast Minneapolis, where she stores the willow and preps each project.

The thickets are available in sizes starting at four to six feet tall and can be installed indoors or out. Customers usually request a riff on one of English’s prototypes and then customize with windows and embellishments such as ceramic bells, colorful yarn fringe, and woven window boxes.

“I know building thickets for a living may sound weird, but it’s actually really dreamy,” says English. “I love the cyclical, flexible nature of it—I can pick up Clover from daycare whenever I want.”

Thicket production is beholden to the seasons, so in the winter English hunts, gathers, and plans her projects while waiting for the ground to thaw. When it does, she packs a pile of willow into her hatchback and starts weaving magic around town.