Farmhouse Style

One of the kitchens among those in the book I’m writing for Lost Art Press is in a newly built house on a hilltop in a spectacular rural location. When the clients first contacted me about their kitchen, they described the architectural character of the house as “farmhouse style.” But their architect’s drawings – beautiful artifacts in their own right – launched me into a mini-rant on this widespread misnomer.


The story behind this simple, affordable cabinetry for my clients’ kitchen will be in the book.

Google “farmhouse style” and you’ll find thousands of links to furnishings, blog posts and print publications based on misinformation. On the one hand, you’ll find vapid marketing-speak such as the following, in a post billing itself as “The Ultimate Guide to Farmhouse Style”: Farmhouse style is “unpretentious” and “all-American,” according to the author. “Nodding to its homegrown roots, farmhouse style homes have a collected-over-time look, complete with old-school prints, distressed furnishings, and vintage finishes.”[1] The kitchens and other rooms provided in this post by way of illustration are indistinguishable from those of suburban condos across the land, although you may find a throw pillow or dish towel made to evoke associations with old flour sacks, or an old saw with a barn painted on it hanging over a door.

On the more substantive end of the misinformation spectrum you’ll find images of dining rooms with wide-plank floors, exposed beams (whether real or made of high-density polyurethane such as the brand-name product Fypon), vaulted ceilings clad with reclaimed wood and interior walls of exposed brick or stone (again, whether structural or simply a decorative product applied to the surface, which some traditional masons derisively call “lick ‘n’ stick”) as illustrations of farmhouse style. Here, some effort has at least been made to relate to an aesthetic traditionally found on farms. The problem is one of misidentification: The aesthetic is drawn not from the farmhouse, but from the barn.

Historically, farmhouses have simply been houses on farms. They were (and still are) built in the prevailing architectural style of their time and location – a simple 1890s Gothic Revival here, a charming 1920s story-and-a-half bungalow there, a 1915 I-house or a 1950s ranch. These real farmhouses are visible in rural areas across the country. Not having yet had a chance to photograph a few for the book, I’m illustrating this post with examples from a favorite alternative source, a building almanac for farmers published by the United States Gypsum Company in 1946 – clearly in an effort to sell the company’s building products in addition to providing a variety of practical advice. Several years ago, my friend Kim Fisher (my version of Lost Art Press’s Saucy Indexer) came across this gem and sent it to me.

Farmhouse style 1

“Mrs. M.” recommends adding a screened porch. Remodeling advice for farm homes in the 1946 “Business of FARMING Building Almanac: 748 Ideas for Building-Remodeling-Decorating.” (United States Gypsum Co.) Notice the radical change to the architectural style of the house from the “before” to the Colonialized “after.”

Farmhouse style 2

“Use color for a common denominator,” advises the 1946 “Business of FARMING Building Almanac: 748 Ideas for Building-Remodeling-Decorating.” (United States Gypsum Co.)

Historically speaking, there is no such thing as “farmhouse style”; it’s a mish-mash of superficial farm-evoking tropes, albeit one that tens of thousands now refer to by that name. In reality, the association of “farmhouse style” with exposed structural elements and a stripped-down, whitewashed aesthetic derives from the culture of barns.

— Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

Farmhouse style 3

“The Business of FARMING Building Almanac: 748 Ideas for Building-Remodeling-Decorating.” (United States Gypsum Co.)


About nrhiller

cabinetmaker and author
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44 Responses to Farmhouse Style

  1. John Moran says:

    I like the piece of furniture against the left-hand wall in the last image … whatever it is. Is something like that going to be in the book?

    • nrhiller says:

      Do you mean the table/sideboard? It’s interesting that two readers have asked about that piece, but no, there’s no plan to include such a piece in the book.

      • johnanthonyleonardo says:

        Yes, that is what I meant – it is a combination piece isn’t it – side table, book-shelf, ‘chest’ of drawers. I think there is mileage in developing that theme.

        And an apology – there is only one comment – I replied without logging in first time and in the ensuing muddle ended posting twice, sorry. 🙁

  2. johnanthonyleonardo says:

    The piece of furniture against the left-hand wall in the last image is interesting … whatever it is.

    With slightly more elegant legs it would be rather nice, and probably quite useful as well.

    Is anything like that likely to appear in the book?

  3. Justin says:

    I’ll be glad when this “farmhouse style” or “rustic chic” style calms down a bit. When did living in a barn become so “cool?” I don’t hate it, but it seems to be overdone lately. Thank you for this post, Nancy. It is good to educate folks.

    • nrhiller says:

      Honestly, I would love to live in a converted barn, and I have nothing against barn aesthetics. Timber-framed barns, in particular, are fabulous structures. What I object to here is the uncritical use of words–in this case, the conflation of the farmhouse with the barn.

    • Gerald says:

      Be careful what you ask for. Next up…mid century modern river tables.

  4. I blame those people in Texas. Crappy reclaimed crappity crap. Sliding barn doors to the bathroom or bedroom. (Shudders.)

    I lived through some of those “style” choices shown above. The best thing I can say about them is that I lived through them.

    As for adding or deleting elements to nice old homes, I want to weep every time I see a nice old 1800 home with added Victorian bow windows or bizarre entryway.

    I love old barns. I could ride around Maine for a month and just look at barns.

    While I am in old fogey mode, I will add an unconnected rant against Formica and other products that look like wood. I have nothing against them, per se. But it is a picture of wood. If you are going to take a picture of wood, take a picture of nice wood. Your 24 inch wide formica should be, at most, two “boards,” not 8.

    I’m going to put on my earmuffs with Bluetooth, listen to a good book, and mow a bunch of grass now.

    • nrhiller says:

      Thank you for this dose of vintage Cashmania. You’ve brightened my day. Formica and other laminates have their place in retro mid-century-style kitchens. But “farmhouse”?

  5. Bob Glenn says:

    Oh, and don’t forget shiplap. You just gotta have shiplap!

    • tsstahl says:

      Stole my thunder. 🙂 I’ll go with the chickens. Oven mitts, towels, burner covers, cookie jars, you name it all comes with chickens. I’m betting even money that chickens and Star Wars merch are about equal in depth and breadth.

  6. John Kunstman says:

    Growing up in rural America very near the poverty line. I think the true “farm house style” is made to make do. Make what is needed out of what ever materials you happen to have available. Minimal furnishings that serve more then one purpose.

  7. davelouw says:

    Wait, next you’re going to tell us that ranch style homes do not, in fact, represent typical homes on American ranches!

    In all seriousness, since the early 1900s when an actual housing industry formed builders have used marketing to sell houses.

  8. No different than Tuscan style type of kitchens of 10-15 years ago look nothing like kitchens actually found in Tuscany.

  9. Ken says:

    Arbiters of taste all around and nobody else thinks those kitchen cabinets look like they came from Home Depot?

    Sorry for not being kind but these kind of posts and comments get up my nose.

    • Michael says:

      They don’t look like Home Depot cabinets to me. HD cabinets usually have horrible color and grain match which is rectified by an ugly sprayed toner. Look at the drawer fronts and how the grain is matched across. Also the cabinet doors all have a pleasing arrangement of cathedral on the panels and mostly straight grain on the rails/stiles. They are full overlay with nice tight (and consistent) reveals (also hard to find in factory cabinets). Look, red oak isn’t my favorite but those cabinets were clearly built to a higher standard than box store cabinets.

    • nrhiller says:

      I have no problem at all with you mentioning that the cabinets look like they come from Home Depot. I totally get your point, and have been keenly aware throughout the process that to many, these cabinets would appear no different from those made by any large-scale home store company. More thought than is visible here went into the design. Details of construction and installation play a big part in differentiating this work from what’s mass-produced–care in milling and matching solid lumber, the use of high-quality, American-made, formaldehyde-free 3/4″-thick veneer-core plywood for the casework etc. (Notice that the grain runs through from top to bottom panels in the doors, and from side to side in each pair of rails.) When clients with whom I have a longstanding working relationship come to me with a request for something simple, well made, and affordable, given their limited budget and (at that time) impending retirement, I check my ego at the door and focus on doing the best I can with the means available, working with the aesthetic of the context in mind. The short section about this kitchen in the book will, I hope, include an image of the house’s front, which will shed light on the cabinets’ aesthetic. Thanks for your comment.

  10. mitch wilson says:

    About thirty-five or so years ago, I had a friend who lived in a converted old barn outside of Ithaca, NY. Well, a small part of the upstairs loft of the barn had been converted; the horses still lived downstairs in the stable. Since he was on crutches with a broken leg, when he came home late one night, he couldn’t wait to get inside to the bathroom so he leaned against the outside barn wall to take a whizz.
    The barn wall fell down on him.
    Broke his shoulder.
    Farmhouse chic.

  11. Michael says:

    My grandparents worked really hard so I wouldn’t have to live in a barn. They would be mortified had I decided to live in an upper middle class parody of one.

  12. Mike Siemsen says:

    A restaurant in Minneapolis went with a barn theme using barn wood for the interior. Customers complained about the authentic smell.

    • nrhiller says:

      Again, I love old barns. Nothing here is meant to be a slur against barns or houses whose aesthetic is modeled on them. This post was intended to point out that what many refer to as farmhouse style is actually based on the architecture of barns. I appreciate from the comments that the point would have been easier to see if I had included an image of the facade, which is stunning in its austerity and in its use of unusual construction materials.

  13. Bruce says:

    Always the practical designer, I look at your island and grab my aching knee in sympathetic pain. What did you do? Succumb to farmhouse roof fashion and throw in some [knee] braces? Why not simple [barge] boards in the top so one can pound chicken cordon bleu and not have the bird run over the edge on vibrations.

    My wife retired a month ago and supplanted me as domestic manager. I am really sensitive to the disjoint of fashion and function right now. Even the dog has to suffer the delay in treats from a poorly mated jar and lid.

    • Bruce says:

      Oh, my! I just read most of the posts preceding mine. I think the moon is in the wrong phase. Or, we won’t be seeing this particular kitchen in the forthcoming book.

      • johnanthonyleonardo says:

        I trust you are ignoring the sarky comments! Since, as you say, there is no such unique style as ‘farmhouse’ anyone is free to design whatever they want and call it ‘farmhouse’, so I hope you will be including “this particular kitchen” in the book, and the last image with that interesting table/bookshelf/set of drawers – I wonder if Mr Schwarz has ever come across such thing in his researching.

      • nrhiller says:

        You will be seeing this kitchen in the book, because it is a good example of many important points that are central to what the book’s about. As you might expect of a book from Lost Art Press, this is not just a book about aesthetics and craftsmanship, but about larger cultural, historical and economic questions, in addition to taken-for-granted notions about all of these matters!

    • nrhiller says:

      The brackets are there to support the large overhang of the granite top, per the stone supplier’s specs. They are not primarily decorative, but functional, and I kept them to the absolute minimum specified by the stone company. I discuss knee-room (and foot-room) implications with clients, because I’m aware that such protruding parts (the hayrake stretcher of a hayrake table is another great example) are a huge annoyance to some people. In this case we could have used steel supports with a 45-degree brace, but they, too, would have encroached on knee room, so in the end we decided on these brackets because of their resonance with the house’s architectural style.

      • Mike says:

        In a lot of kitchens (mine included), the designers specify a shorter than ideal overhang in order to avoid corbels. As a result your knees hit the cabinet (or worse, the cabinet door pulls). The corbels are a better solution. Since they are visible they are easy to avoid.

  14. Gary says:

    Some where above was reference to exposed beams, aren’t there a few really old houses out there that started as log cabins and were later expanded and improved over the following years?

    • nrhiller says:

      Yes, of course, some old houses, especially those that were timber-framed, have exposed beams and other structural parts. Timber-framed barns are an example par excellence of exposed beams, rafters and the like.

      Most log cabins, at least in the American Midwest, were built as temporary shelter with the plan that the family would move into a more conventionally built, “better” house once it was ready. This is just one reason why so few remain. I do know of one Queen Anne-style house in Bloomington, Indiana that was built around an original log cabin, the continuing existence of which took some sleuthing to discover beneath layers of new material.

  15. Love this, looking forward to the book.
    For a truly authentic farmhouse style interior I’d specify some rusting heavy machinery, a large container full of dubious chemicals, industrial sized everything from the cash and carry and the “stand clear, vehicle reversing” noise on a permanent loop.

    • tsstahl says:

      Add mice.

      “For a truly authentic farmhouse style interior I’d specify some rusting heavy machinery”
      Breadmaker, stand mixer. Check
      “…large container full of dubious chemicals…”
      Motley collection under the sink. Check.
      “…industrial sized everything…” Wolf stove/oven with wear on one small burner. Subzero fridge with only a quart of almond milk and leftover kale from Panera. Check

      “…and the “stand clear, vehicle reversing” noise on a permanent loop.” Amazon Echo, doing exactly that. Check.

      Upper middle class modern kitchen. 🙂

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