The Modern Farmhouse Is Today’s McMansion. And It’s Here to Stay.
In a divided country, a clean look and a neutral color palette is the aesthetic comforting communities around the country.
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By Ronda Kaysen
Ronda Kaysen has spotted 13 houses that recently got the modern farmhouse treatment within a few miles of her New Jersey home.
Drive through any American suburb and odds are you’ll spot a modern farmhouse in its natural habitat. The style is hard to miss: white board and batten vertical siding, large black frame windows, and gables. A covered porch, with a swing or maybe Adirondack chairs. A tin roof. And of course, house numbers in sans serif font.
Love it or hate it, the modern farmhouse is the millennial answer to the baby boomer McMansion.
This post-agrarian look is the defining style of the current era — dominating renovations, new construction and subdivisions in communities with no connection to farming, with interiors that have open concept floor plans, wide plank wood floors, plenty of shiplap, and kitchens with apron sinks and floating shelves made of reclaimed wood. Even multifamily homes are getting the modern farmhouse treatment, falling into the barndominium category, as they embrace vertical siding, gables and tin roofs, giving a folksy nod to apartment complexes.
In May, the wallpaper designer Hovia declared modern farmhouse the most popular interior design style in the country, a sentiment echoed by architects, designers and home builders who say they regularly field requests from clients eager for a clean look with a neutral color palette that manages to feel both traditional and contemporary.
“When it comes down to it, those are very classic materials,” said Leanne Ford, an interior designer who has hosted two HGTV shows with her brother and is known for her affinity for white on white. “The porch, the board and batten, the swing, those are all beautiful things that have stood the test of time and are still stunning. Those are going to live a long and happy life and still be beautiful in 5 or 10 or 20 years.”
Toss all those elements together and you have an aesthetic that is seemingly everywhere, as homes of all stripes — a split-level ranch, a four square, a craftsman bungalow — routinely get the modern farmhouse treatment.
Jeffrey and Lauren Sachs added wood beams, a tin roof, barn-style garage doors and a brick walkway to their modern farmhouse.Credit…Kate Glicksberg for The New York Times
In 2020, when Lauren and Jeffrey Sachs decided it was time to leave Manhattan for the suburbs, they landed on a 4,500-square-foot modern farmhouse on a leafy street of colonial revivals in Verona, N.J. In its previous life, the house had been a modest, two-bedroom cape with cedar shingles and black shutters. But the previous owners had torn the house down, leaving only a single wall, and reinvented it as an archetype of modern farmhouse design.
“I knew exactly what I wanted,” said Sonia Sun, 48, the previous owner who steered the two-year renovation, plucking ideas from Google searches and design magazines. “I wanted something that would mesh with the neighborhood.”
But by the time the work was done and the house was livable, her children had “meshed” in the town where they were living while they remodeled, and so they stayed in Morris County, in a six-bedroom colonial craftsman style home. If she ever gave the house an update, she would give it the modern farmhouse treatment. “Definitely Studio McGee, 100 percent,” she said, referring to the popular design studio. “I love her and Joanna Gaines, baby.”
The Gaines Effect
Modern farmhouse, a contemporary style that bears a passing resemblance to a traditional farmhouse, first entered the American lexicon a decade ago on “Fixer Upper,” the HGTV sensation that catapulted the hosts, Chip and Joanna Gaines, onto the national stage, and persuaded homeowners to decorate their walls with enormous clocks and word art proclaiming the banal — Family! Eat! Coffee!
The Gaineses turned Waco, Texas, into an unlikely design destination as the city’s old farmhouses were wrestled into the modern era, busy floral wallpaper stripped away to reveal virgin shiplap, the lowly building material reinvented as the main attraction.
It didn’t take long for the style to overtake contemporary homes and consume Instagram feeds as kitchens bathed in white shaker cabinets and heavily veined countertops became standard. The look evolved, led by a new generation of celebrity designers with their own renovation shows and home furnishing lines, like Shea McGee of Studio McGee, who whitewashed brick and embraced blond, beige and wicker. While many designers and design critics predicted the look would have peaked by now, its staying power proves we’re a long way from the summit.
Pottery Barn Kids advertises a modern farmhouse crib, on sale for $600, and Home Depot sells a modern farmhouse outdoor playhouse for $299. At Jessica Cloe Miniatures, the $450 six-room modern farmhouse dollhouse kit with board and batten siding is sold out, but you can still buy plenty of rustic side tables, soaker tubs and wooden trays writ small. Even Kris Jenner and Khloé Kardashian channeled the vibe for the exteriors of the side-by-side mansions they built in the Santa Monica mountains.
The National Association of Home Builders does not track the popularity of the style. But Deryl Patterson, the president of Housing Design Matters, which designs homes for builders, says the look accounts for more than a quarter of her company’s work. “If a builder says, ‘I need three elevations,’ one will always be modern farmhouse,” she said.
Mark Canale, a home builder outside Philadelphia, and a developer of a nine-house subdivision of modern farmhouses, heeded the advice of local real estate agents who told him that the demand was insatiable. “You have to build what satisfies everybody,” he said, estimating that the appetite is large enough that, with enough land, he could sell three times as many homes in the same motif.
Ms. Sachs, 32, a stay-at-home mother, and Mr. Sachs, 36, who owns a commercial finance business, doubled down on modern farmhouse soon after they moved into the $1.351 million home. They added a brick walkway and cedar beams on the porch. They replaced the garage doors with carriage-style ones. After spotting a tin roof on a cottage in the Hamptons, Ms. Sachs installed one on her house. “Honestly, I just thought it was fancy,” she said, leaning against the leathered granite island in her kitchen one sunny afternoon. For Ms. Sachs, midcentury modern feels too cold, and the Italianate style she grew up with felt too ornate and uncomfortable. By contrast, modern farmhouse feels like home. “I feel like it’s very evergreen,” she said. “It’s never really going to go out of style.”
‘Fetishism for Folksiness’
Fans of the style often describe it as classic and timeless, but the architecture and design critic Alexandra Lange begs to differ. “It’s basically modernism in drag,” she said of a style that manages to hide modernist elements — big open windows and open floor plans — behind creature comforts like gables and covered porches. Americans are drawn to the look, she said, because it has all the trappings of modernism without actually looking particularly modern. “Americans aren’t really comfortable buying modern houses,” she said. “That is a rich person’s architecture.”
Thomas Mellins, an architectural historian and a curator of the “House & Home” exhibition at National Building Museum, finds it fitting that Americans, who gravitate to styles that reflect larger cultural trends, chose this moment to land on a look that makes you think of “Little House on the Prairie,” but only if the Ingalls family lived in the suburbs and worked in finance.
Consider the McMansion, the ultimate ode to excess, often derided for ill-conceived turrets, arches, columns and gables. The style dominated the early 2000s, as Americans embarked on a house spending spree fueled by reckless lending practices from banks doling out subprime mortgages. When the market came to a crash in 2008, the McMansion came down with it. The split-level ranch had a postwar heyday when Americans were so enamored with their cars they found a way to bring them inside.
And Americans’ on-again off-again love affair with colonial revival rears its head during periods of heightened nationalism, like in the 1920s. “Immigration is cut off in 1921 and in 1924 and that is the moment colonial revival gets really popular again,” said Mr. Mellins, an adjunct associate professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “There is a dark side to that. One could see a kind of xenophobia and a fear of the other and so you want to express your Americanness.”
Now, at a moment when populism has taken hold amid deep political divisions, the style of the day is one that imagines a romanticized and fantastical agrarian past — a real farmhouse doesn’t have a walk-in shower with a waterfall showerhead or a sliding barn door to hide a well-appointed laundry room with a weathered placard that says “wash and dry.” As the country grapples with existential questions about its identity and its future, the house of choice makes you think about spinning wool into yarn.
“There is an American fetishism for folksiness and rural life, and there is a longing for rural life that comes into the modern farmhouse,” said Kate Wagner, the creator of the McMansion Hell blog. “It is alienating living in an exurb when the only thing you encounter is a huge strip mall. You have to make up for this barren, alienating landscape by devising some kind of homeliness in your house.”
Ari Katz and Shari Sperling were so inspired by country life that they decided to bring it to their tightly-packed suburban neighborhood of split-level ranches in West Orange, N.J., a five-minute drive from the Sachses’ house. “If I wasn’t Jewish, I would probably be living in Montana,” said Mr. Katz, who is orthodox and so lives within walking distance of his synagogue. “So I’m trying to bring Montana here, I’m trying to do our part to bring the West here. That was really our whole goal with this house.”
Mr. Katz, 42, and Dr. Sperling, 43, spent half of 2021 and about $750,000 renovating their split-level ranch, adding another floor and giving the exterior the full modern farmhouse treatment, replete with white board and batten siding, black frame windows, a stone foundation and four wooden columns made of western redcedar, the official tree of British Columbia. The couple recently sold their dermatology practice where Dr. Sperling is a dermatologist and Mr. Katz is the general manager.
Sit on a black Adirondack chair on the front porch and the smell of fresh cedar is inescapable. When the wood first arrived from Canada, “it literally smelled like a national park,” said Mr. Katz, gazing out at the elementary school across the street on a drizzly morning. During the long construction period, Mr. Katz happened upon a cast iron bison at an antique shop in Manhattan. He bought it, named it Monty and it now sits on the porch, too.
‘The People Against Modern Farmhouse’
Modern Farmhouse is not without its critics. Among them is Kathryn Grabowski-Khairullah, who, in 2021, bought her first home outside Detroit and was soon bombarded with rustic décor options as she tried to decorate. “At first I fell victim to some of it,” she said. “There was a lot of pressure to change everything and conform everything into this style because it was all I was seeing.”
It didn’t take long for Ms. Grabowski-Khairullah, 34, who works in arts administration, to rebel against what she saw as home décor’s answer to fast fashion — a style that felt cheap, redundant and soulless. “Everything was devoid of color,” she said. “Everybody had to have white shaker cabinets, everybody had to have white subway tile and only white subway tile, everybody had to have a giant hood over their stove.”
Looking for a place to commiserate, she started a Facebook group, “The People Against Modern Farmhouse,” which soon amassed 165,000 members who post memes and photographs ripe for ridicule. “Most of us in the group have been waiting for it to go away,” said Ms. Grabowski-Khairullah, who finally landed on her own aesthetic, a sort of “Golden Girls” revivalism. “It’s just so kitschy that it’s ridiculous,” she said of her 1980s furnishings that she plucked mostly from Facebook Marketplace. “Everything is seashells and bows and pink.”
But for modern farmhouse devotees, the minimalist palette is the point. “I’m not a huge color person, you’re not going to see a lot of color in my house,” said Jeniffer Diaz, who has spent three years stripping the oranges, pinks and browns from her ranch-style house in Palmetto Bay, a Miami suburb. “That’s my vibe.”
The house, from 1977, had vaulted ceilings with wood beams and tan tile floors when she bought it. Ms. Diaz, 31, a stay-at-home mother, and Manny Diaz, 30, who owns a trucking company, spent about $200,000 renovating the house they bought in 2020 for $560,000. They replaced the tan, green and stone facade with white stucco and concrete board siding and replaced the shingle roof with a metal one.
Inside, they painted the wood-slatted ceiling white and the beams black. They gut renovated the bathrooms, swapping out a pink vanity with scalloped sinks for a white one with brass hardware. The kitchen now has black cabinets, white appliances and open wood shelves. “Pinterest is my best friend,” Ms. Diaz said.
The result is a house that may hail from the midcentury, but when you step inside, you’ll know immediately that you are in the home of the moment.