Photography by Tony Valainis
A woman in a white summer dress under a denim jacket steps out of a rich leather-seated powerboat, handing her coral-and-turquoise tote bag to a friend standing on the dock with her own quilted coral bag over her shoulder. The color story is strong, accented by the friend’s aqua T-shirt that matches a vintage cooler in the boat, and coral flip-flops and another carryall in the back seat. Soft, filtered light gives the scene that lazy-hazy look of a late, sun-drenched afternoon by the water.
In so many of Vera Bradley’s catalog photos like this one, Indiana’s Lake Gage is in the background. People all over the world have seen it. And they had no idea they were looking at a place cherished by one of the company’s founders.
Barbara Baekgaard spends nearly every summer weekend at Lake Gage, and has for 45 years. Raised in Florida, she wasn’t thrilled about moving to Indiana in the 1970s for her husband’s job—until they found this 150-acre spring-fed watering hole, north of Fort Wayne and a wristlet’s throw from the Michigan border. “It’s the sweetest little lake, and it saved me,” she says. It’s a little more than 3 miles around, and there’s an open view across the entire lake, creating a sense of intimacy. The street encircles the water, too, making it feel close-knit and low-key rather than gated and exclusive. Because there’s no public boat launch, even on a summer day, it’s not that busy, she says.
The Baekgaard family property cozies up to the street. There are two houses next to one another: Green Gables, a five-bedroom residence, and Baekgaard’s personal three-bedroom hideaway, The Getaway, where she plugs in three waffle irons and cooks for her grandchildren every Sunday morning at 10:30 am whenever the family gathers at the water’s edge. (Her record is 65 waffles.) There’s also a furnished boathouse right by the shore.
Thanks to a bunkroom, guest rooms, and two sets of dorm-style bedrooms, the homes together can sleep 20 to 30 people—family friends, her four children and now their families, her grandkids’ college pals, Vera Bradley sales reps. A Danish flag hanging over the porch railing honors Baekgaard’s late husband, who was from Denmark.
Inside all three structures, the matriarch’s impeccable style prevails. She used prints liberally, although most aren’t Vera Bradley fabrics (except for some bedding). And the patterns don’t overwhelm the breezy, tranquil spaces. Baekgaard’s love of wallpaper (she had a wallpaper-hanging company before starting Vera Bradley with Patricia Miller in 1982) is more dominant than her association with cheerful prints. It appeals to her because it creates a pop of color right away and is easier to change out than tile. She uses a lot of Thibaut. “I like the price,” she says. Her grandchildren call her Birdie, which explains a delicate bird motif in one bedroom. A keen observer will catch that even the entire vents are meticulously wallpapered.
One of Baekgaard’s decorating rules is to mix solids in with patterns, to give the eye a rest. She also doesn’t love theming rooms by design style, like Art Deco or Early American. She believes in buying furniture and accents you love: “You’ll always find a space for it,” she says. And about the dragon-print chinoiserie fabric on four swivel chairs in the living room? “I always like a little who’da thunk it?” she says. “You wouldn’t set out to do a lake house with dragons, but that’s what makes it fun.”
Fun is the whole point of lake living, after all. A screened-in back porch has a swinging daybed for naps and reading. Upstairs, the two dorm-style rooms are still set up with six beds, which was helpful when Baekgaard’s 12 grandchildren (six boys and six girls) were younger. But even as young adults, they haven’t outgrown the slumber-party setup on the top floor of the main house, where a playroom under one gable connects dorm-style bedrooms through whimsically angled doors.
Maybe the relaxing environment Baekgaard has created at Lake Gage is part of the secret of her longevity. At 80, she is Vera Bradley’s chief creative officer emeritus. Last year, she led the launch of a men’s line, Baekgaard USA. “I’m the oldest living entrepreneur,” she jokes. But she is hardly out of touch. For her next project—a boutique hotel in downtown Fort Wayne called (for now) Fox on Main—she is planning to bring a homey yet modern feel inspired by her favorite independent hotels around the world. “No four-poster beds,” she promises. But hopefully, a little bit of who’da thunk it.