You Won't Believe These Magical Willow Play Structures | Midwest Living
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You Won't Believe These Magical Willow Play Structures

Twin Cities-based designer Kelly English creates willow-branch playhouses she calls Thickets. What began as a single project for her family has grown into a full-time business.

It all started with her daughter.

Kelly English made her first willow Thicket in 2010 for her nine-month-old daughter Clover, wanting her to have a natural and inspiring outdoor play space. “We used the original Thicket all the time,” Kelly says. “We read in there, took naps, had picnics, made hammocks for all her babies, and used it as a grounding place for her to calm down during those toddler storms.”

Clover in the original Thicket, 2011

Insta-fame grew her business.

“It happened very organically,” Kelly says. People saw the images she posted of Clover’s Thicket and wanted one of their own. “It was at the birth of Instagram, so I was posting a lot of progress there, and so were my clients. I was very lucky with the timing of this.”

Thicket play

From part-time to full-time.

Kelly originally pursued the busines she called CHEERIUP part-time so she could be a stay-at-home mom with Clover. Two years after she started making Thickets, she took it full-time. “My business has tripled in the past five years,” Kelly says. “I’m still a one-woman show, handling everything from wild-harvesting the willow to designing the Thickets to client service to the weaving, admin, and marketing.”

She has even started having commercial clients such as preschools, parks, restaurants and museums. “I’m really excited about the idea of more Thickets being in places where loads of kids are playing in them,” Kelly says.  But because she is a one-woman show, she can only make 12 to 16 Thickets a year; each takes 3 to 4 weeks to weave. “Accessibility is really important to me, but challenging since I have to price them based on the labor they require. Full-size Thickets start at $4,200.

Why willow?

Willow, found in wetlands, is flexible enough to weave together, but strong enough to withstand the elements. In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Kelly has no problem finding materials to harvest. “Weavers have been wiring with willow for ages,” she says. ”I harvest within a 100 mile radius around the Twin Cities area.” When cared-for and weatherproofed, outdoor Thickets last from seven to ten years. Since they are made of willow, Thickets are 90% compostable when they have reached the end of their outdoor life.

Thicket development.

The Thicket design and shape hasn’t changed much from the original she made for Clover. “There are little elements I’m playing with, like rounded versus pointed tops and round versus square windows. The main difference is that I’m doing so many different sizes now.”

Thicket building

Her largest and most popular Thickets are 6 feet wide by 8 to 9 feet tall. That size typically weighs about 700 to 900 pounds and can be customized with features such as windows, window and door decor and a pouch on the outside.

Kelly has also developed the Fledgling Thicket (from $595), 3 feet wide by 3 feet high and around 40 pounds. “The Fledglings are designed with portability in mind, and are able to fit through a standard sized doorway.” Table-Top Thickets (from $345) are 14 inches to 17 inches high—about the size of some dollhouses—and come in three styles.

Fledging Thicket (left) and Table-Top Thicket (right)

More expansion?

“Not at this time,” Kelly says. “I think the simplicity of the form of a Thicket itself is powerful enough in terms of creating a playful, restorative, nurturing space we can all relate to.”

All photos courtesy of Kelly English/CHEERIUP. For more information on Thickets, visit CHEERIUP.com

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