The Timeless Appeal of

American Rustic Style

by Chase Reynolds Ewald

American Rustic design has evolved and taken place in 21st-century residential architecture and décor.

“Knock Loudly and Wait!” The sign is hand-painted on thick watercolor paper. Posted above the cast-bronze door knocker in the shape of a longhorn skull, its irregular edges stand out against a glossy coat of chipped teal paint. This is the entrance to the studio of the acclaimed Colorado-based, globally educated painter William Matthews. His greeting, in its informality, playfulness and lack of pretension, makes a statement that is emblematic of American rustic style: unselfconscious, straightforward, original.

 

Like Matthews’ studio, American Rustic style is relaxed, of the moment and highly individualistic. Its conviviality proffers a put-your-feet-up invitation. And as both a statement of place and a means of self-expression, a rustic-built environment is always unique. Rustic style, with its logs, twigs, burls and bark, is rooted in the Arts & Crafts Movement of the late 19th century. The movement was a natural response to the rapid industrialization, homogenization of goods and dramatic shifts in populations from rural to urban areas during the Industrial Revolution. Then, as today, its sylvan style spoke to a collective yearning for a simpler life and the appeal of nature as a refuge from an increasingly
frenetic world.

 

American rustic design found its highest expression in the last quarter of the 19th century, in the expansive woodland fantasies that were the Great Camps of the Adirondacks and in the monumental “parkitecture” epitomized by hotels like the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone and the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. But at its heart American rustic is not about grand statements. It’s about human-scaled environments appropriate to the landscape, and its expressions can be found in every region of the country.

 

Characterized by humble materials and honest construction techniques, American Rustic design is timeless in its appeal. It is aspecific to any time period, yet it is always rooted in place. It goes beyond speaking of a region. A true American rustic structure is a product of its immediate vicinity and its unique microclimate, resulting in such varied expressions as adobe haciendas, Craftsman bungalows, West Coast houseboats and Alaskan trappers’ cabins.

 

In recent years the style has evolved. The enduring attraction of sturdy log cabins with cozy, dark interiors and heavy furnishings is now tempered by a desire for cleaner lines, good quality of light, expansive views and, most of all, an original approach. Rustic architects and designers today are creating fresh, contemporary interpretations of the timeless style and exploring a myriad of approaches in pursuit of individuality. The spectrum they cover is broad, ranging from post-and-beam lodges furnished with cowboy-style chairs and museum-quality Native American art to simple cabins outfitted with repurposed items and funky flea market finds. At its most basic, American Rustic might be a writing retreat made from a canvas wall tent filled with vintage collectibles; it can be taken down in a day and packed out on mules. Sitting just as lightly on the land but antipodal in its technology, an eco-conscious prefabricated home on an open plain in Idaho rests on a foundation of railroad ties so that it can be easily relocated. The idea, quite literally, is to leave no trace.

Above: A marvel of ingenuity. The seeming simplicity of a traditional square log cabin of weathered materials belies its technological forwardness. A large pond, dug to a depth of 25 feet for consistent temperatures, houses geothermal heat-exchange plates. (AUDREY HALL 2009)

 

 

Above: A cast-bronze door knocker and a hand-painted sign make an original rustic statement. (AUDREY HALL 2010)

 

 

Above: The dining table was built from a fallen 250-year-old white oak from a family farm in Pennsylvania. The owners compiled hundreds of reference images for their project. (AUDREY HALL 2013)

 

 

Above: A guest bathroom takes its design cues from the 33rd Street subway station in New York City and Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The salvaged porthole is embedded in a custom sheet metal door. (AUDREY HALL 2013)

 

Filtered through the creative sensibility of the style’s leading designers, projects range from the whimsical to the intellectual, from the traditional to the bohemian, from the do-it-yourself to the contemporary. New homes present clean, modern-leaning design, original statements in furnishings and decor, and light, airy interiors. They run the gamut from lived-in and piled-on to clean contemporary, where sleek lines combine with rugged elements and soft textures for unique modern-rustic interiors. Whatever the approach, these homes are highly original and meticulously crafted, thoughtfully conceived, sensitively sited and beautifully executed. As is only appropriate with homes built in America’s most stunning natural landscapes, each project considers sense of place its starting point. Rustic is the ultimate in place-based architecture.

 

The elements of Rustic remain much as they have always been. They’re kid- and animal-friendly. They house books, art, handmade furniture, quirky collectibles such as canoes, antlered items, and National Park memorabilia, vintage paintings by anonymous artists, and materials local to the area: wood, stone, bark, burls. Color is introduced through textiles, old signs, leather cushions, painted furniture and the occasional bold-hued wall, while live-edge tables and headboards, or a balustrade made of branches, add sculptural interest. The kitchen is a place where designers have to push themselves to balance modern needs and a desire for light with an appropriate heritage feel; they use oversized farmhouse sinks, graceful lighting, and reproduction ranges and refrigerators, often in eye-catching colors. Mudrooms offer an opportunity for whimsicality, while bedrooms demand luxurious fabrics and a cozy place to cocoon. Indoor-outdoor living spaces are essential and appear in all iterations, but it is the fireplaces that are central to rustic living. They ground the homes, generate literal and figurative warmth, create a refuge from the elements and provide a focal point. Thanks to a thriving craft in stonemasonry, talented architects make the most of them.

 

Despite technological innovations, touchstone materials have not changed over time. Designers working in the rustic genre continue to make ample use of reclaimed barnwood, stacked railroad timbers, exposed beams, repurposed iron and sheet metal and local stones. At the same time, they feel free to inject their own and their clients’ personalities into the projects. They layer textures, tone and patterns, and employ one-of-a-kind objects. Designers introduce unusual repurposed items, such as a bench made from an ore cart, lighting fixtures fashioned from antique seltzer bottles or wallpaper constructed from reproduced and enlarged topographic maps.

 

Above: A wooden trough sink and corrugated metal sliding door creates a rustic retreat. The sink is an Indonesian dough bowl that once held slippers.(AUDREY HALL 2009)

 

 

Above: The seeming simplicity of a traditional square log 
cabin of weathered materials belies its technological forwardness. A large pond, dug to a depth of 25 feet for consistent temperatures, houses geothermal heat-exchange plates.(AUDREY HALL 2009)

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
 
Chase Reynolds Ewald is a Senior Editor of Western Art and Architecture magazine and the author of eight books on rustic style, western design, traditional craftsmanship and new western cuisine. A graduate of Yale and the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley, she lives in Marin County, California, with her husband and four daughters, and spends time in rustic settings as often as possible. Her newest book, American Rustic, was published in October 2015.

 

AboveSmedley and Chow got the idea for the insulators on the stair rails from lightning bugs: they light up. Pointed doors accommodate sloped ceilings. Small windows were found at a salvage company in Pennsylvania.
(AUDREY HALL 2013)

 

 

In fine art, too, American Rustic has evolved. It has shifted away from classic representational western art and leans more toward abstract works, with lighter, more minimal framing, or classic black-and-white photography in gallery framing. Modern influences also appear in streamlined metal balustrades and elegant, sometimes ethereal, lighting fixtures—a far cry from the ponderous but forthright wagon-wheel and antler assemblages of the John Wayne era. Today the genre employs classic rustic elements with architectural innovations and surprises, such as towers, bridges and unassuming entryways opening to grand expanses. Living roofs and underground rooms mitigate mass and help structures blend into their surroundings.

Rustic style is inherently simple. But the seeming simplicity of many of today’s new rustic homes belies their technical innovations, including passive solar and geothermal heating and other innovative, earth-friendly technologies. Rustic style is sustainably minded in other ways; repurposing goes well beyond reclaimed woods and timbers to whole buildings, such as a calving shed turned into a rec room, or a caboose used as guesthouse. The creative reuse of ranch items and tools is an endless source of inspiration and fun for many designers.

 

Building American Rustic is never an impersonal experience. Owners are hugely invested in projects, even when they work full-time in distant cities. A New York attorney who had dreamt of being an architect prioritized his schedule to accommodate weekly design meetings over the course of an 18-month project in Wyoming. The owner of an Arts & Crafts bungalow turned her collecting into a major hobby, carefully curating a compendium of related items invested with meaning over a two-year period. An international businessman and art collector with multiple homes hired an architect, then did all his own interior design. A director/producer couple in Montana parlayed their production and editing experience into their home construction; while living on-site, they turned their search for unique materials into a full-blown mission, buying a trailer and crisscrossing the northern Rockies in search of treasures they could repurpose. They would return from scavenging trips with wood from barns slated for demolition, lichen-covered stone, sheets of corrugated steel, railroad-bridge timbers, a wagon wheel from a local saloon, and old planks from rodeo bleachers etched with graffiti wrought by teenage boys in the ’50s.

 

As a trend, rustic style has waxed and waned over the decades, but it has never gone out of fashion. Like the log cabin itself, it is an iconic American expression. It speaks to our history, our belief in the healing power of nature and our enduring desire to get away from it all. Three homes in three distinct regions of the country demonstrate the extent to which American Rustic has evolved, even as it has adhered to tradition.

 

The irony of a perfectly sited and well-thought-out home is that what appears effortless is the result of wide-ranging references, patient observation and evolving vision. For New York designers Henry Smedley and Kathy Chow, the most crucial phase in building their home started well before the first hammer was lifted. Three summers spent camping on the property prior to beginning construction were what most informed its design.

 

Each having grown up with a farm in their family background, the couple had hoped to re-create some expression of those experiences. They started with a map and drew a big circle outlining a two-hours’ drive from Manhattan. Their only caveat was that they did not want to be able to hear traffic from their home. After crossing off beach areas and exploring along the Hudson River, they found their perfect paradise: 40 acres of rolling hills and big views in Dutchess County. And then, most importantly, they paused.

 

The three years spent getting to know the property proved invaluable. “We learned how strong the winds are in the winter, where the best walks are and how to capitalize on the vistas,” explains Smedley. “We learned how farmers think and how to keep the house and our other interventions on the property ‘out of the way’ and off productive farmland. This in turn allowed us to locate the entrance drive appropriately so it was not placed on farmable land. We took time to hear the stories from our neighbors about mistakes and opportunities they discovered in their time on their property. It also allowed time for us to learn about passive solar buildings and energy-efficient building means and methods. We were then able to challenge our architectural and building team to think a bit differently about that. It also allowed us time to ‘soak in’ the property and get to know it well. I weed-whacked paths through dense summer brush to learn about the topography of the land—where the steep parts were located and where the easiest places to walk were. As we cleared some paths, we realized from their tracks that the animals had figured all this out already!”

 

Their property—half forested and half open fields, with rolling hills, some wetlands and a live creek on one end—offered ample opportunity for views, pastureland for cattle (they graze cow-calf pairs for a neighboring farmer), a vegetable garden, and quiet.

 

Both professional designers, Smedley and Chow knew they wanted a small house with a certain number of rooms. “We started with a fictional backstory that the house was a barn that had been messed with,” explains Chow. “We also compiled a huge pinup board of inspirational reference photographs for the project.”

 

AboveInterior designer Erika Jennings of Sisson Designs incorporated recycled items whenever possible. The green kitchen cabinets are actually two halves of a turn-of-the-century step-back piece found in Bozeman. (AUDREY HALL 2009)

 

In searching for an architect, the couple were drawn to JLF Architects’ aesthetic and their masterful use of recycled materials. The process was collaborative. Logan Leachman of JLF managed the architectural design process, while Smedley acted as on-site project manager, coordinating with the contractor and working directly with subcontractors during construction. He has also built some of the furniture. After a weekend spent camping on the property, Smedley would roll out of his bed in the tent every Monday morning and attend the weekly construction meeting at 7:00 a.m. By 10:00 a.m. he’d be on his way to work in New York. Together the couple designed the majority of the interiors and sourced materials such as barnwood and salvaged items —old telephone insulators, doors, ventilation grates and a porthole that became part of a door, for example— from all over the Eastern Seaboard.

 

The house is built into the hill like an old New England barn. Says Paul Bertelli of JLF & Associates, “People see the building and they love the way it sits in the landscape, the simplicity of the forms, and the scale of it.” And it is small, at about 2,700 square feet. The owners are proud of the fact that it was the smallest house their architect had ever designed and the smallest house their builder had ever built. The drive-through garage/woodshop is set at a right angle to the house; the result is a dooryard that has regional precedent. It’s also a very functional space that becomes an extension of the house. With the doors of Smedley’s woodshop opening into the dooryard, the frequently used south terrace, and the oft-visited pergola, much of the home’s living space is actually outdoors.

 

With smaller front windows, the house appears barnlike from the driveway. On the opposite side, says Smedley, “it’s a more modern, a more cathedral-like space. It literally flows right to the outside.” On the ground floor a compact powder room and streamlined kitchen open up to a large, airy great room with rustic materials, unique details and contemporary touches. Guest bedrooms are located upstairs, while the master bedroom is on the ground floor; the laundry and mechanical equipment are housed on the lower ground floor, built into the hillside.

 

Although historic in form, the home is very modern in function. The siting and the windows were carefully conceived to maximize solar gain. A consultant was brought in to design the geothermal heating system, a series of four 280-foot wells that use underground temperatures to heat or cool the air. On wintry days, a cast-iron fire back sourced from a late-19th-century home in Chicago radiates heat. “You have a new house with new technology, but it has a patina of old materials,” notes Smedley. “You have the best of the old and the best of the new too.”

 

The safari-style tents and tepee are gone, but the original campsite remains, graced by a pergola for al fresco dining and by stone walls designed and built by the owners. “We didn’t build where the original campsite was located, partly out of respect and partly to move up and see the distant valley,” says architect Bertelli, “but it preserved the origins of the project.”

 

And for the owners, that was important. “Camping gave us an intimate understanding of our land: the seasons, the wind, day and night, and the rhythms of nature,” Kathy Chow explains.

 

For longtime Santa Fe residents Peter Buehner and Deborah Day, “thoughtful” would be the grandest understatement of all to describe their approach to a home that has fostered a lifelong appreciation of adobe vernacular and architecture. Their historic adobe had three rooms dated back to 1885; later additions were added in the 1930s and ’50s. It’s hard to visualize now the way the home appeared when they bought it in 1995. “It was derelict,” Buehner says. “The roof was leaking, the plaster was falling off the walls, several vigas were rotting and broken. The floors in the three original rooms consisted of three or four layers of linoleum over dirt.”

 

The house sat on a bucolic acre, where the Buehners now tend chickens, guinea hens, an extensive vegetable garden and 29 fruit trees. It had water rights on a shared irrigation ditch originally built by Native Americans, a sheep pasture next door and sweeping views of two mountain ranges.

 

When Buehner and Day bought the property, they knew it was going to need a lot of rehab. Buehner, a carpenter, was up to the challenge; he had decades of hands-on experience. Meanwhile, he and Day both volunteered with Cornerstones, a Santa Fe historic preservation group, where he learned invaluable skills in adobe repair and construction. Buehner had little previous experience with mud repair and bricklaying before working with Cornerstones, but he mixed mud on the property, added sand and rebuilt the walls. They re-plastered the inside walls of the entire house with mud, in some cases two to three inches thick because of erosion that had resulted from water running down the walls. They imported mud from a hillside on BLM land, mixed it with straw, mica and arroyo sand (which has a natural red tint), and plastered the whole house again in the mixture. “The walls are all natural, so anytime we need to fix anything we just spray it with a water bottle and add more mud. It’s always good and the materials are always ready to go.”

 

The 1880s portion still boasted its original Territorial trim. Buehner replicated it throughout the house, both inside and out. He remodeled the kitchen and bathrooms and built interior doors, cabinets, walk-in closets and the front door from scratch in his in-town workshop. “It took three years for us to move in, and another three years to finish the kitchen. We had a camp stove and a hot water spigot sticking out of the wall. I can’t believe we did that,” he laughs, “But I couldn’t devote all my time to it because we were still working.” At one point in the project, he recalls, they experienced a “catastrophic event” when a wall collapsed. “I was depressed for days,” he admits.

 

In a manner particular to adobes, the house seems rooted to its spot on the earth, appearing to grow from it. There is nothing jarring in its colors. It has no hard edges, no jumbled interiors. Rather, each room is a careful balance of volume and proportion. The uniquely tranquil color of the walls is not applied but imbued. The decor, a mixture of old and repurposed and new, has a Shaker-like serenity. Best of all, says Buehner, when the sun shines into the living room and dining room through the French doors on the west side, the wall sparkles from the embedded mica. The home is a success in the best rustic sense: It is a structure that makes its own grand statement, even as an understated addition to the landscape it inhabits.

 

Sustainability may be a convenient buzzword, but it’s really just another phrase for treading lightly on land. And when every built structure quite literally leaves a footprint, treading lightly becomes a choice, whether conscious or not. In one Montana log cabin, thoughtful building is taken to its logical endpoint in site appropriateness, modest scaling and ultra-efficiency. There is no better way to appreciate the great outdoors, it seems, than by inhabiting a conscientiously conceived indoors.

 

Many owners do, in fact, modify their ideas substantially once they’ve had a chance to get to know their land. When Todd Thomson first conceived his family’s Montana retreat, the idea was to build a cabin that would ultimately become the guesthouse to a generously scaled main house. After several seasons with his full family in residence, though, the place had worked its magic; for the time being at least, their compact home suits all their needs.

 

The 1,800-square-foot cabin was designed and supervised during construction by Dan Joseph Architects and built and managed by Highline Partners in close collaboration with the owner. “We worked very hard to create something small, unique and intimate, with a family feeling,” Thomson says. There is no wasted space and the home is extremely efficient. The small scale was a moderate challenge compared to Thompson’s loftier goal of building a leed Platinum–certified home. If they succeeded, it would be the first of its kind in southwest Montana, and one of the only such structures in the entire state. This was important to the lifelong outdoorsman and avid conservationist.

 

Although building a cabin with such a dramatically small footprint was a new process for many of the people involved, they immediately set about educating themselves as to the seven measures of home performance defined by the leed process: location and linkages; sustainable sites; water efficiency; indoor environmental quality; energy and atmosphere; homeowner awareness; and innovation and design. There are as many as 100 variables to be considered and monitored in pursuit of certification; the team’s response was to sign up for educational seminars, read up and dig in.

 

The overall master plan would incorporate water features designed and located by the architect. Thomson’s iconic childhood memory was spending summers fishing on his grandfather’s homestead on the banks of the McKenzie River in Oregon. His 22-acre Montana parcel had two streams, the starting point for a network of waterways that would ultimately consist of four ponds connected by streams and waterfalls. In addition to the ponds’ visual and auditory aesthetics, their use as habitat for fish, attraction to wildlife, and potential for swimming, they had a higher goal: providing enough geothermal mass to heat the cabin during the winter and cool it during the summer. They dug the main pond to a depth of 25 feet, where the temperature is constant at 55 degrees, and installed geothermal heat-exchange plates.

 

From the magnificent to the mundane, every detail was considered, resulting in an array of solar panels (which generate 20% of the home’s energy needs) fixed to the horse barn’s corrugated tin roof (reclaimed, of course). A gray-water reclamation system captures household water and reuses it for toilets and drip irrigation; other energy-reducing technologies include dual-flush toilets, compact fluorescent light bulbs, Energy Star appliances, and, in the barn, a composting toilet. Reclaimed and local materials were used throughout the project, while extreme recycling and minimization of construction waste were prioritized.

 

The structure, though constructed using modern means and methods, takes its outward visual inspiration from classic Parkitecture, incorporating dove-tailed timbers, dry-stacked stone, standing dead log beams and columns, and reclaimed wood flooring, rafters and beams. Handcrafted interiors convey warmth and celebrate local craftsmanship, particularly in the loft stairway with antler balustrade, a major focal point in the home. Generously scaled windows (triple-paned for energy efficiency) open onto views of Pioneer Mountain and beyond.

 

There are some crucial considerations to making a smaller home successful. “It must understand its place in the environment,” explains architect Daniel Turvey. “How does it address the water? The trees? The views? It’s like a three-legged stool. First, there needs to be an expression of structure; people enjoy the sight of beams, columns and connections. Second, a sense of transparency: you need to see in and around and through, while still protecting inhabitants from the elements. And lastly, great architecture must be site-specific; it is essential that the built response feel as though it truly belongs, that it is uniquely and organically rooted in its place. Architecture and site must have a meaningful dialog with one another, to speak back and forth until each is inseparable from the whole.”

 

The home is successful in every sense, even winning Mountain Living’s “Most Responsible Residence” award. And despite the special challenges of designing at 8,000 feet for heavy snow load in an active seismic zone, it did earn leed-platinum certification. The cabin’s cozy warmth and intimacy, its relationship to the pond and landscape, and its handmade character all combine to create a family home whose very restrained size is one of its most compelling features.

 

“For me, it’s a more modest way of treading on the environment. I don’t want to say it’s for everyone,” says Thomson, “but for a lot of people, if they had time to focus on it, they’d do something along the lines of what we’ve done here. There’s a sense of calm when something sits so well in the environment.”

 

Historically, rustic structures in America were built by untrained woodsmen, off-season fishing guides and cowboys, and individual homesteaders using mostly local materials and modest amounts of glass. Today’s rustic homes, in contrast, are often designed by highly educated and seasoned professionals. Three homes — farmhouse, casita and cabin—in three distinct regions of the country demonstrate American rustic ideals. Each is a response to its environment, each is appropriate to its climate and site. The structures are thoughtfully conceived, highly crafted, technologically advanced and filled with light.

 

What hasn’t changed over the past century and a half is the primary mission of rustic elements. Their use results in homes that are grounded, offer sanctuary and are imbued with a sense of place. American rustic homes are nature-based and appropriate to the landscape. In short, they belong.