We are living in the age of the Modern Farmhouse. This is why so many of our kitchens have apron sinks, Shaker cabinets and industrial lighting, whether the home is a prewar apartment in Manhattan or a split-level in Mamaroneck. A dining room wouldn’t be complete without a table made of reclaimed wood, perhaps from a barn. Not our barn, of course, because who in Westchester or Manhattan has a barn?
The design style, a modern twist on the classic American farmhouse, takes the clean lines of contemporary design and accents them with industrial finishes, all while giving a nod to what is considered homey or rustic. A variation on the shabby chic phenomenon of the 1990s, the look was prominently featured by Chip and Joanna Gaines on the HGTV show, “Fixer Upper,” which ended last year. The couple who rebranded Waco, Texas, as a design destination have temporarily left the airwaves while they prepare to launch their own cable network, but their signature brand of shiplap walls and cozy white sofas doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
Home decor stores sell decorative accessories that look like someone’s fantasy of what farmers might actually hang on their walls: picture frames fashioned out of faux old wood windows; wood word art — so much word art — that makes stark proclamations in chunky text like “Be a Voice, Not an Echo” or, more to the point for a kitchen wall, “Eat”; and distressed coffee tables that look like they’ve been planted around the family hearth for decades, not recently shipped from China.
Instagram accounts like Our Faux Farmhouse, The Modest Farmhouse and Our Vintage Farmhouse have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers with endless photographs of white living rooms, barn doors hung from black hinges and wicker baskets full of fuzzy throw blankets. The Instagram hashtag Modern Farmhouse has almost 1.2 million posts. Scroll through it and you start to wonder if color exists beyond white, black and reclaimed wood.
“The modern barn or farmhouse is here to stay,” said Sasha Bikoff, a New York City interior designer who is building herself a 4,000-square-foot, all-white modern barnhouse in East Hampton.
But I set out to report this story wondering if perhaps we’d reached Peak Farmhouse. There have been flickering signs that the relentless pursuit of faux farm may be waning. A year ago, Southern Living magazine called for the end of cookie-cutter farmhouse decor and word art. And last fall, House Beautiful asked, “Is the Modern Farmhouse Trend Dead?”
The look is decidedly nostalgic, a reboot of “Little House on the Prairie,” where we can have a kitchen that looks like it came with home-churned butter, except we don’t actually have to churn any butter.
“There’s a homeyness to it,” said Vanessa Alexander, an interior designer in Los Angeles who recently built a 6,500-square-foot farmhouse for herself in Malibu. “It has a sense of memory with comfort and family and country and a connection to the land.”
The rise of modern farmhouse — Laura Fenton, writing for Curbed, reported that the term joined the American lexicon in 2016 — coincides with a time of American instability and uncertainty. If the future is unclear, it’s no wonder we might want to recreate an American pastoral where we can wrap ourselves in a flannel throw blanket and sit in a wicker chair on a front porch gazing into the distance like pioneers, even if the view is of the suburbs and not the Great Plains.
Modern farmhouse gives us license to do the work ourselves, to be homesteaders-lite. Those of us looking for a crafty outlet can express ourselves by refurbishing an old dresser, repurposing discarded window frames or wrapping Mason jars with burlap. Who needs an expensive interior designer when the aisles of home decor stores are packed with whisky-barrel tables and vintage kitchen canisters just begging to be purchased?
The Gaineses “are cool, they’re attractive. They’re raising goats and they’re gardening, their kids all seem well-adjusted,” said Gideon Mendelson, an interior designer in New York. “The look that they’ve marketed, it’s good-looking, it’s easy on the eye, it’s not risky, it feels homey, it touches on a lot of things that we want.”
“Fixer Upper” may be over, but the Gaineses aren’t. Their brand, Magnolia, is now a magazine, a market and a real estate agency. In October 2020, Magnolia will launch a cable network, replacing the DIY Network. “They’re just getting their stride,” Mendelson said. “They’re going gangbusters.”
But no single look can last forever, even if its biggest champions are ascending and selling a line of housewares at Target. There must be a breaking point, right?
“Eventually, everybody always tires of it, that is why a trend is fleeting,” said Michael Amato, the creative director of the Urban Electric Co., a lighting designer. While modern farmhouse has a broad appeal, it can also veer into kitsch. “To me, the moment it goes overboard is the minute you walk into HomeGoods and there’s an explosion of ‘Eat, Live, Laugh, Love, Die,’” he said.
Designers are noticing subtle shifts. Edison bulbs are losing favor, as homeowners realize that while a raw bulb may look pretty, staring directly at one is not terribly appealing. And color seems to be making a comeback — green kitchens!
“The modern farmhouse is evolving into something a little bit more global,” Bikoff said. “It could be Balinese, it could be Chinese. It could be a little bit Italian from the ’70s.”
So, if we tire of American farmhouses, we could always branch out and dabble with ones that look like they’re in the south of France, or maybe the English countryside or Indonesia. Who knows? This fantasy farm life could be limitless.