For hundreds of years, the simplistic beauty and pioneering spirit of these rustic homes has inspired artists and decorators alike. See what elements come together to make the look endure.
In 1930, a farmhouse inspired a beloved American painting. That year, the Great Depression crippled the worldwide economy and deemed the future uncertain. In the summer of 1930, artist Grant Wood was exploring Iowa in search of a subject to paint. He found a time-tumbled farmhouse and sketched its pitched gable, tin roof, arched windows, board-and-batten siding, broad porch and screened door. Then he enlisted his dentist and his sister to pose as a father and daughter who might occupy a home in the heartland. That October, the painting, “American Gothic,” captured the Art Institute of Chicago’s bronze prize and gave Americans an all-important nostalgia tug. Art lovers recognized the farmhouse as a symbol of our proud heritage and a monument to craftsmanship.
Why do we have an affinity for farmhouses? Maybe we visited a farm as a child or bought produce from a roadside stand. Kim Leggett, author of City Farmhouse Style (Harry N. Abrams, 2017) and Home Stories (Abrams, 2020), celebrates all things agrarian through her lifestyle brand. How does she describe the appeal of this vernacular? “Many would love to experience the dream of living in an old farmhouse We’re charmed by rusty tin roofs, shiplap walls, creaky plank floors, even the dirt road that takes us there. And, let’s not forget the romance of the porch. It’s where stories are told, first kisses are celebrated, sweet tea is sipped, and fireflies light the night,” Kim explains.
The architectural history of the farm-house chronicles a dogged perseverance. Early structures were constructed with available building materials. In the 1700s, Colonists built farmhouses from Maine to Georgia using logs and fieldstones. Modest one- or two-room buildings provided shelter and relied on a central fireplace for heating and cooking. Interiors were sparsely ap-pointed with primitive furnishings.
In the 1800s, bricks, lumber and windows were accessible in developing cities and villages. Victorian ornaments, including columns, barge boards and patterned shingles, lent character to farmhouses. Buildings experienced an uptick and expanded to one-and-a-half stories. First floors featured living and dining rooms at the front of the house and kitchens and pantries near the back. Bedrooms occupied the upper floor. Porches wrapped around houses, providing shade and scenic views. Despite advances, interiors remained unfussy, with exposed woodwork, stone or brick fireplaces, shiplap walls, tongue-and-groove wood floors and handmade furnishings.
In the 1900s, railroads transported materials across the country. Home-owners bought fretwork, cupolas, mantels, moldings, doors, staircases, apron-front sinks, cabinets and hard-ware. In 1923, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold a kit house called The Greenview. The mail-order farmhouse was popular for 20 years. For $1,152, purchasers received materials and plans for a one-and-a-half story, four-bedroom home with a large front porch, kitchen and pantry. The kit included lumber, shingles, flooring, doors, windows, hardware and paint. Twentieth-century interiors blended handcrafted heirlooms with factory-made lighting, furniture and accessories.
Whether restoring a farmhouse or considering new construction, today’s homeowners share an aesthetic steeped in historic precedent. Exterior elements include gables. Roofing options are standing seam metal or cedar shakes. Windows tend to be divided lights. Siding combines horizontal clapboards with vertical boards. Front porches are generous outdoor living spaces. Back porches connect kitchens to gardens.
In addition to being a successful author, Kim Leggett is an accomplished designer. Reflecting on farmhouse trends, she says, “The exterior design word of the year seems to be porches. Existing porches are beefed up with large square unfinished columns to create a rustic look. Homeowners without a porch are adding them, oftentimes sparing no expense. Some add antique exterior doors, shined up to replace modern versions.”
Farmhouse interiors remain classic, too. Period and modern farmhouses boast open floor plans. Walls show-case exposed posts and beams and plaster painted in serene shades of white, beige or gray. Flooring is typically lightly stained wide-plank or random-width pine. Fireplaces distinguish sitting rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms.
Not surprisingly, kitchens are a primary focus, with Shaker-style cabinetry growing in popularity. “It’s beautiful and timeless and faced with multiple-paned glass doors, which is perfect for displaying white dinnerware or vintage ironstone,” Kim says.
Did the artist behind “American Gothic” know he was capturing an icon of pioneering spirit that would inspire future generations? Maybe he, as others, simply found solace in the lifestyle and architecture that connects with nature, celebrates simple pleasures and encourages family gatherings—even today.