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The Modern Farmhouse

Is the modern farmhouse style exterior a trend or is it more entrenched in our collective mind as the epitome of what "home" is now? What are the architectural elements that define the modern farmhouse? Why did it come about and can we use those elements on other exterior house styles? We discuss this and more. The modern farmhouse. Are you yay or nay?

Ep 19: The Modern Farmhouse

Krane: Welcome to Let’s Talk Color.

Woolf: I’m Amy Woolf, principal designer at Amy Woolf Color and Design.

Krane: And I’m Amy Krane, founding designer at Amy Krane Color. We’re both professional color experts who specialize in architectural color. We met while training and years later the conversation is still going strong.

Woolf: We both live our lives immersed in color and design. We often agree, but sometimes we don’t because color is personal. Color truths, however, are universal.

Krane: In each episode we’ll unravel the mystery of choosing color for your home or business, both inside and out.

Woolf: Okay. And we are back. We took a little bit of a break for the summer and we are back today to talk about the modern farmhouse, a very popular subject. You love it, you hate it or somewhere in between. How about you, Amy? Love it? Hate it?

Krane: Ooh, toughy. I hate those. I hate those black and white questions.

I like some of them. And I think their location and context, that's what it's really all about. So where is it and why is it there? And all of that. I certainly like elements of it. It really comes down to how it's put together. You know, what are the details of it? What are each of the parts and how does it contribute to the overall look? I do want to say that I go to visit family on Long Island and I'm from a really typical 1960's neighborhood where the houses were built in the mid-sixties. There are a few ranches, but mostly they're high or raised ranches. And, another kind of very local vernacular kind of house called a Splanch, which is a split-level ranch on sort of two levels plus a mezzanine in between.

And each street has about three, with the occasional exception, about three styles of houses. They're very close, they're on roughly a third to a quarter of an acre. Recently I went to visit my old family house and there were two identical modern farm houses next to each other around the corner from my from my mom. And, boy did they stand out like a sore thumb. They were much taller.

The houses around them were smaller and older. Of course, the darkness of the black and stark white was it. They just stood out. They looked so inappropriate and awful. And I thought wow, even here in a 1960's neighborhood people are choosing to do a tear down or buy a parcel of land or something, and they feel that it's okay to do this, like they want this kind of a house. "This is my dream home, my idea of a home, regardless of what's around me." And I think that's a mistake, you know?

Woolf: So were they both white?

Krane: Yes. Identical houses. White.

Woolf: Two identical white houses right next to each other. Mm-hmm. I mean, that to me breaks the first cardinal rule when choosing exterior color. And that is to look and see what's around you and try to create some variety and pick something different and be a little bit individualistic. And maybe that's my deep issue with modern farmhouse, is that it's lacking individualism. That black and white isn't leaving a whole lot of room for personal expression.

It's kind of like, dare I say it, you're having a Magnolia expression and not a you expression.I think those two identical houses plopped down like alien life forms in the middle of a 1960's ranch community, which I have to confess, I had never heard the term splanch until you and I were prepping yesterday.

Krane: I know. Hysterical. I think it's very local. I I think that builder might have even made it up, you know,

Woolf: So what I'm wondering is, did this arrival of two modern farmhouses identical to each other also get made up by a builder? I mean, it doesn't seem like any two individuals would choose to build identical houses right next to each other. I mean, unless they were sisters or cousins, I don't know.

Krane: They were spec houses, Amy. Because they sold at a different time.

Woolf: Okay. So it was definitely some builder's idea, to put in two identical houses. That is a bad idea. I just think I would feel weird buying them. But I guess if you're really, really in love with modern farmhouse, which lord knows everybody is, or lots of people are, at least, maybe you do that at any cost, which includes sacrificing individuality, uniqueness in the area and appropriate context.

Krane: Self-expression.

Woolf: Yes, and appropriate context. I kind of feel like every modern farmhouse should probably be sited on a minimum of five acres. How about that for a new rule?

Krane: Well, I certainly buy that, but I'm fine with it on two acres. It's really about where the two acres are. I just don't see it in the suburbs. I'm from the New York City area, so we of the outer boroughs of course do have houses, but they've been there for a really long time and have their different styles and different history and all of that.

But there are other cities that do have inner city housing and I don't see it there either. I really want you to at least be in the country, even if your property wasn't a farm. It should feel rural for me. It's appropriate in a rural place, you know?

Woolf: Yeah. There's a community I've done a couple of houses in, near here. It's a newer community, probably those houses started getting built maybe 6-10 years ago. And it's interesting, it's been built slowly over time. They've expanded the streets and added lots. And there are a couple of modern farmhouse leaning houses. They're not stark black and white, but they've definitely got that modern farmhouse vibe.

But, they're interspersed between some craftsman style houses, some foursquares, some very traditional New England style farmhouses. There's enough variety on the street that I think there's room for that modern farmhouse look without it having feel out of place. And it's certainly suburbia. I mean it's a lovely community, but I think that that works. That's okay. But I agree with you, in downtown Northampton where I live, I would not want to see somebody do a tear down and put up a modern farmhouse.

I mean, the longevity of it is really interesting.

Krane: It's the question of whether it's a trend or not. It's certainly a trend, but is it a trend that's here to stay for a long time? Maybe. So does that make it a trend anymore? Like black houses and dark houses started off as a trend and have really been here 10 years now. And I don't see the dark houses going away. And by that I don't mean just black, but dark blue, dark brown, dark charcoal. I just don't see it going away.

Woolf: There was a time, I don't know how many years ago when somebody mentioned Chip and Joanna, and I had to look them up because I did not know who they were. And clearly they had already become a household name.

Krane: I did too.

Woolf: And I, when did it all start? Do we have a date on Magnolia?

Krane: I don't know. Because, you know they had their HGTV show way before they created the Magnolia Network. I have to go back in my records and see who the first client was who said that one of her design heroes was Joanna Gaines. And I had to look it up too, because I was not an HGTV person at all.

Woolf: Me neither. It's too painful. It's way too painful.

Krane: There’s so many reasons why. It's just not elucidating, not interesting, whatever. However, I will say that since Magnolia network has come, there are a number of Magnolia shows which I tune into occasionally. And they're fun. You know, beach houses and cabins and old houses. I guess they choose houses and designers and people designing the houses that are very interesting to me, very current and very interesting.

But that show on HGTV all those years ago, I wasn't tuned into at all. Then when I heard of them, I checked them out and I thought, wow, they've got a charming thing going on in terms of their repartee and all of that. They probably spawned all of those shows about fixer uppers and flipping houses and stuff.

Woolf: Right. What was their show called?

Krane: I forget. Oh boy. Was it Fixer Upper? It could have been Fixer Upper.

Woolf: I don't know.

Krane: It could have been. We're showing our ignorance here.

Woolf: Sorry, dear audience, this is one example of where you guys probably know way more than we do about Chip and Joanna.

Krane: So why don't we talk about what its elements are? It totally starts with board and batten siding and....

Woolf: Vertical white. White, white, white...

Krane: And white. Right. And the house has a lot of gables usually in the front, at least one gable but often more, in the front. It almost always has a porch, and the front porch often uses wood stain elements. Maybe on the porch posts, maybe their garage door. Just a little bit of wood stain. Not always, but sometimes a full or partial metal roof. Not always, but often. Anything else you can think of?

I mean, I guess we should talk about the big thing, the elephant in the room, which is the use of black. And that ranges.

Woolf: And the black windows. I think that's probably one of the biggest market impacts that this look has had. You know, 10 years ago, black windows were special order, a big upcharge. And now it's become one of the standard colors. Black, white, gray, bronze, putty. That seems to be the basic handful of colors.

And certainly we see black being used all over the place in all kinds of contexts. I actually think black windows on a modern farmhouse are lovely. I think they're great. I think just enough black and not too much is what makes it work for me. If I had my way with everything in the world including house colors, I would always be going for a soft black. You know we just saw the Behr color of the year get announced yesterday. It's this Peppercorn color. I love that kind of color. I love Geddy Gray from Ben Moore. I like these kind of knocked back softer blacks. And so for me, I feel like you could get that modern farmhouse look with a softer black. But you know, that strong black is where it's at. It’s certainly the standard stock color. And again, if I had my way and we all used a softer charcoal, we'd all be paying upcharges for custom window colors.

For me, this also goes back to our training with IACC where we were taught that high contrast really isn't great for the eye. And I think that's much more of an issue on an interior and less so for an exterior. But I think it's just so deeply ingrained in me that less contrast is always going to be better. So a softer black and a toned white to me would still achieve that farmhouse look.

Krane: I agree. I just don't go for a black roof on a modern farmhouse. So black windows, white siding, but I don't like the dark black roof. I think it might be indicative to some people of what a modern farmhouse is, but I think it is too contrasty. This is funny, you and me doing a switch because I usually have no problem with contrast. I don't like the black roof.

I much prefer to have a silver metal roof -- natural metal or silver metal if you're going to have any metal roof and otherwise have a darkish gray, not the black and white. And as to the windows, I thought a lot about it since we started talking yesterday, because funnily enough, I kind of glommed onto and started specifying black windows for the interior, which is such a different decision than for the exterior.

So I can think of very few homes I've worked on where I did specify a black exterior window. And the thing about it for me is I don't want thick black sashes. If the style of the window, the model and brand of the window has pretty thick, pronounced sashes, I do not want those thick black lines set into a white house. I don't like it. So if you're going to go black on the outside, for me it's very thin sashes.

It's also very popular for the modern farmhouse to do two-over-one or four-over-one. So to have a different number of panes top and bottom of your double-hung windows, and to have just one big piece of glass on the bottom, not everyone does it. Some people do it. I think it's very nice. And I think, without the mullions, muntins, grills, whatever you want to call them, creating the panes, less of that means less black. I think that is something that I think makes for a nicer, modern farmhouse look to me.

And I also like, and the architecture has to allow for this, when the board and batten gets changed up on the house. So maybe it's narrower in the gable, and then there's a band, and then it becomes wider board and batten. You know, a little bit of variety in the siding, even though it's all board and batten. Not every house can handle that, but I think it's really pretty. And I think it's a nice design element to add to a house's exterior, which is otherwise all white.

Woolf: Getting back to the windows, thinking about window size -- the format of the window I perceive that as a ratio. If the windows are small, then you're going to have more black, it's going to be more busy. The windows are on the larger size and the ratio decreases and it's a little more tolerable.

What I'm noticing is black is the current default, no matter the style of architecture. I've driven into the Boston suburbs a couple times this summer and there's just black windows everywhere. It is like a default regardless of the style of the house. And a modern farmhouse smack in the middle of Boston in those mid-level suburbs, they're not really suburbs, they're really kind of city. I'm not loving it.

But, I do see those black windows on houses with really bright colors, and I think that looks okay. I guess what bothers me, and what's been a trickle down effect of the modern farmhouse look is that everybody seems to want black windows. So they sort of become a default. People select them without really thinking about it. And then you're kind of stuck with something that, in my opinion, doesn't have a great deal of flexibility. I think it looks good with bold colors. I think it looks good with the modern farmhouse -- looks good with white.

But, you know it’s a funny thing. You can't cherry pick. The modern farmhouse has become incredibly popular, but I feel like you have to go all in and do it or not. Don't cherry pick the ideas and try to put them somewhere else.

Krane: I prefer it on mid-tone and darker houses, and I think there's a lot of flexibility there to use it. I just don't want to see it on pale houses. I accept it on a modern farmhouse because it is, like you said, it's the whole thing. You buy the whole package. So black windows, white house. I'm accepting it because it's part of that design, but I have to say I wouldn't put it on beige houses and tan houses. I wouldn't put it on light houses. I wouldn't put it on light gray houses. I don't really like it on a light house. I want the darker window on a darker house, a mid-tone to dark house. And I've got no problem with it with color. I don't think it locks you in with color at all.

I think you could have a green house, a green-gray house, a blue house, a slate, blue-gray house. I mean, anything for me that's nice and tasteful and appropriate for the architecture as long as the value is there.

I have a problem with the black fascia and soffits, which some people do, which just adds to the heavy outline of the exterior of the house. So maybe you've got a black roof and then you've got black soffits and fascia. And for folks who don't know what that is, it's the trim boards that come right below the eve of the house. They come below the roof. So the fasciais that board that faces you. And the soffit is the board that is 90 degrees to it, underneath sort of creating a box as it were. And I just think that that's just way too much black. Absolutely.

Woolf: So I read something lately about the modern farmhouse and why it has staying power. So I think we should talk about that a little bit. It is interesting to think about why people make this choice over and over and over again, and whether it's really because of the influence of Joanna Gaines or whether it is because it's easy. How many clients, Amy, do you get who call you or contact you to get interior color help? And they say, "I just want white." I always laugh at that. "I just want white." Because I think white is one of the trickiest color neighborhoods to navigate. There are so many different whites, there are so many undertones, there's so much going on that white can go wrong pretty quickly. But I wonder about this bright white, dark black, no variation one choice, one's and zeros. It's a black and white decision, you know, and people take confidence and feel like they can just make the decision and have it be easy and it'll work.

Krane: Although, there still is the decision of the white, so it doesn't take that complexity out of the decision. But I think in people's minds, it takes the “does it go together?” anxiety away. Because someone already decided that it was okay, it goes together and they don't have to hire a designer to do it for them.

Woolf: Right.

Krane: I think it does mean home now for a certain demographic. I think that millennials really ate up this modern farmhouse thing. I think for many people it means home. I mean it's romantic. It's storybook. You could be living your life miles and miles away in every respect from a rural country farm kind of existence. And yet, you know, we're all so influenced by media and social media and what we see. And I think there's a little bit of a fantasy in there.There's a little bit of a fantasy that you want to fulfill when you create a home -- your idea of home, your first home,

Woolf: It’s the first nesting experience.

Krane: Yeah. Either your first nesting experience or maybe you had a starter home and then you were able to trade up. That's what I'm trying to say. When you had a little bit more money to spend and it could be closer to your ideal of the perfect home. I think it does resonate for a certain demographic. I don't know, I could be wrong if 56 year olds are buying a new home, are they going for this? I don't think so. But, I think the 42 year old is. I'm making sweeping assumptions here.

Woolf: You know what it is, it's idealism. It's an idealism that sort of glorifies this rural simple life, but somehow elevated. Krane: I mean, romantic in terms of the romance of home, the romantic idea of what a home is nurturing. Woolf: I'm thinking of Kinfolk as you say all this. Kinfolk certainly ties into all of that. It's also really interesting to me to think about the legs that this so-called trend has, or movement or era. I guess that's what it is. If it lasts longer than a trend, then it becomes an era. We are in the era of the modern farmhouse. It's really interesting to me to think about what would've happened if we hadn't had the pandemic. What would've happened if people did not leave the cities to escape to the country to be safe from everything that was going on at the time.

Because all that gardening and organics and beekeeping and this ideal vision of the rural existence. It's wholesome, it’s safe, healthy. It really got legs during the pandemic. So it's funny, I wonder about whether it was a perfect storm or not.

Krane: Although the modern farmhouse has been here for 10 years. So way, way before that, I think. I think you're right Amy, and I think you also have to take it in the larger context of something we've talked a lot about, which is, what you get from the idea of homesteading. People raise bees and they have flowers, they have gardens. They're doing organic. They're beyond organic. It's a wish for, you said it perfectly, it's a wish for a bygone era before social media, before processed foods, when things were handmade. t kind of all ties together for me. It's just hearkens back to an idealized or romantic vision. A romantic vision of what the past was.

Woolf: I’m just saying, might it have fizzled out a little bit had it not been for the pandemic?

Krane: Yeah. And you know, one of the most saved pictures on my Pinterest page is a house by a company called Wright Builders, w r i g h t builders. I don't know where they are. It has been saved and I have gotten hundreds and hundreds of questions about the colors, and it's not my work. I know the colors, they're Sherwin-Williams colors. The house is board and batten, or partially board and batten. It has gables. It is Acacia Haze from Sherwin, which is kind of a sage-y green online. When you look at the color, it's less sage-y, but it has green, it has board and batten, it has a full or partial metal roof and it has wood accents. So it's very much the modern farmhouse. I do think the modern farmhouse goes beyond the white and black house.

This is sort of the the apex of it or the icon of it. But the elements of that design are finding their ways into houses being built now, or renovated now, that still feel kind of modern farmhouse to me, but aren't white and black. Folks, you can go to my 2021 design trends on my website if you want to see that house, or my Pinterest page.

Woolf: So, following on what you've just said, Amy, it would be interesting to think about what we would do if we could wave a magic wand and direct the modern farmhouse for the future. You know...where do we want to see this trend go? Is it going to go anywhere? Is it going to stay black and white? Is it going to pivot? You know, can I get my soft charcoal? Can I get my toned white? Can we reduce that contrast a little bit?

No, we're not going to get a stock color in soft charcoal, right? That's not going to happen. If you want soft charcoal windows, we're going to have to custom order them, which is an upcharge and extra time and who's got time for that, right?

Krane: Well, as long as they're not vinyl people also paint their windows.

Woolf: Right. You make a really good point because I'm thinking about new construction. And new construction is generally vinyl or aluminum clad. So you're making a decision that lasts a long time. If you are repainting, then obviously you can do whatever you want. But, I'm having a cognitive disconnect around repainting. Any house that has wooden windows that are being painted is an older style of architecture. And I want to see that lean into its origin and its original architectural and design intent and not see an older home get reinvented as a modern farmhouse. You follow me?

Krane: I do. I've seen people do it, and I often don't think it's a good idea. They do it, or they handpick the elements that work on the house. Like, let's re reside in board and batten and paint it white and let's paint our windows black, for instance. And, you know, maybe their architecture will support it. Maybe not. I don't want to see it on a craftsman, but I've seen that treatment on ranches. That's kind of kind of a big thing.

Woolf: And especially on a ranch where the roof tends to be more prominent. You don't have gables facing your front exposure so you've really got a big swath of roof there. So that's where I think of upgrading to a non-black roof --- silvery gray or gunmetal at the very worst.

Krane: For sure.

So thanks, thanks for tuning in and joining this conversation with us. We hope you've learned a little bit more about color for the built world.


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