Much of modern farmhouse style – the shiplap, natural materials and distressed finishes popularized by magazines and shows such as HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” – evokes a simpler time in a vague, nostalgic way. But barn wood art, the latest farmhouse decor peppering your social media feeds, has a very specific and fascinating provenance: a community organizer in Adams County, Ohio.
Barn wood art is generally fashioned from repurposed wood, often from condemned barns. Artists or DIYers arrange small pieces of wood in various shapes and stains in a rustic frame. The result is a beautiful display of patterns, typically with the wood’s natural knots and grains exposed. These geometric, weathered wall hangings can help homeowners achieve that updated farmhouse look.
And they also clearly evoke quilt squares, including those painted on barn sides during the early aughts as part of the American quilt trail movement. Julianne Donofrio, director of “Pieced Together,” a documentary about that movement, says that the idea for quilt trails began when Donna Sue Groves, a rural community organizer, came up with the idea of painting a quilt square design on a barn in Adams County to honor her mother, Nina Maxine Groves, who was a quilter.
“Donna Sue was on a committee to help bring about rural development and tourism,” Donofrio says. Groves pitched the idea of a driving quilt trail to the committee as a way to bring people to the county.
In 2001, the committee commissioned the first painted quilt square: an Ohio Star in red with a white background that was revealed at an annual festival. Soon after, Groves started to receive calls from neighboring counties that wanted to create their own barn quilt trails.
The Adams County barn square movement spread to 48 states and Canada. Today, there are about 7,000 quilt blocks registered as part of organized quilt trails, and there are many others that aren’t registered.
In recent years, Donofrio has noticed barn wood art on social media. “It just feels like a natural evolution of barn quilts,” she says. Typically hung above a couch or used as a focal point on a wall, the cozy, comforting art makes a statement and tells a story.
Scot Brine, a woodworker and artist in Kingston, Mass., creates commissioned and unique sustainable pieces through his business, Hawkeye Woodworks. “Every single piece that I do has reclaimed barn wood in it,” he says.
Brine has multiple pieces that evoke the geometry of quilt squares. He says his inspiration comes from famed Spanish painter Pablo Picasso and Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher.
“I truly believe that wood is in itself artwork, without manipulating it into anything,” he says. Although Brine doesn’t believe that he is influenced by the barn quilt movement, he does see the similarities with his work in terms of the patterns and design.
He started noticing that people were interested in the decorative, rustic pieces of wood around the same time that farmhouse decor became a trend. He saw that more clients wanted the raw and unfinished look of an old piece of wood, and that they appreciated the sustainability of using pieces of historical barn wood in new ways.
“When you bring in an element of history and the natural beauty of wood – reclaimed wood is history – people start to appreciate that,” Brine says.
Many woodworkers credit the barn quilt movement as an inspiration for their wooden wall art. Grindstone Design creates wooden quilt wall art from salvaged barn wood in rural Missouri. Using raw wood and a simple finish, the art carries the weight of history with a modern twist.
The trend has reached mass retailers, too. Pottery Barn hopped on the quilt square bandwagon, producing a white Ohio Star painted on a red background, constructed of recycled wood that looks like the slats of a barn door. Wayfair sells a wood-framed piece of wall art that’s painted with a distressed look using geometric and radial patterns, but it’s not made of repurposed wood.
Nicole Boyle, a California-based interior design specialist with Fancy Fix Decor, says that rustic, wooden wall art makes a perfect statement piece to hang above a couch or a bed.
“I actually think it could go with any style home, because natural wood goes with almost anything,” Boyle says.
Donofrio says quilt patterns hold a special meaning for people and are an integral part of why the barn quilt movement took off. “It only feels natural that artists and enthusiasts would make it their own,” she says.
“For a lot of people, these patterns evoke a memory. They evoke a happy feeling,” she adds. “I think it is something that is accessible for a lot of people who may not be fans of other types of art. You can take the same pattern and paint it so many different ways; there’s just something beautiful about them.”