A short history of the reclaimed barn wood era

By Andy Sturdevant

On or about December 2009, restaurant and coffee shop interiors changed. The change was not sudden and definite. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since I am stealing this whole paragraph from Virginia Woolf and she noted that you have to be a little bit arbitrary with these types of exercises, let’s date it about the year 2009.

Walking into a restaurant or coffee shop that has opened in a major American city since 2009, you’re very likely to be greeted by the sight of reclaimed barn wood. It doesn’t have to be a restaurant or coffee shop (and, really, it doesn’t have to be in America). It might be a bar, or café, or taproom, or distillery, or anywhere else in global cities where people in their 20s and 30s gather to work on laptops. You find heavy slabs of weathered wood acting as tabletops, or constituting the top of the bar, or mounted horizontally to the walls, as if the side of a barn has been lifted out of Stearns County, its planks reordered by size and hue, and the whole thing set sideways behind a row of liquor bottles or an espresso machine.

This is usually paired with exposed squirrel cage–style filament light bulbs hanging from the ceiling and—if the developer was lucky enough to build it all inside the sturdy bones of a 19th-century warehouse—exposed brick. Polished marble or vintage tile may also show up, but the wood and all the rust stains, warps, knots, and traces of paint remnants that came with it remain the primary attraction, the visual lynchpin around which the entire identity is oriented. Even buildings wholly unsuited to this type of treatment still prominently feature chunks of rustic timber shoehorned into cinderblock shells.

I am thinking here of the first time I wandered into a chic Northeast Minneapolis distillery carved out of a 1960s-era, light-industrial warehouse that would seem to call out for teak, Lucite, and stainless steel. Instead, I found myself amused and mystified by farm implements and gnarled wooden fixtures incongruously hanging from concrete walls that were probably decorated with ON THE JOB SAFETY BEGINS HERE posters as recently as a decade ago. It creates a weird, uniquely 21st-century visual friction where people sit and drink in the types of office buildings their parents once worked in, decorated with the pieces of the barns their great-grandparents raised.

The look is one that, when as-yet-unborn location scouts are working on the period films set in our own time, will telegraph the idea of the Obama era as surely as an orange shag carpet tells you you’re in Nixon’s America, or a heavy fog of cigarette smoke and buzzing neon situates you on the margins of the postwar period. In chic, airy interiors defined primarily by people looking down at screens, heavy beams of wood act as a bulwark, a way to anchor the digital interface of the urban environment to a shorthand designation for the natural world.

One can trace the mania for reclaimed wood to well before 2009; Oak Haven Reclaimed Lumber in Mapleton, Minnesota, claims to have “been in the business almost as long as there have been barns.” Earlier references to the phenomenon in local print turn up first in reference to modern cabins an hour’s drive or so outside Minneapolis, and then in reference to luxury homes in the urban core incorporating wood for reasons that paid lip service equally to environmental sustainability and regional personality. “Tons of character,” reported one remodeler to the Star Tribune in 2005, describing the attraction of barn wood. “An everyday symbol that reminds them daily of the magic of their cabin,” said the New York Times a few years later, in reference to a plank of cherry wood incorporated into a dining room table in a cabin in exurban Wisconsin.

Think of the use of the word magic there, free of any scare quotes or ironic distance. There is an almost totemic quality to the use of barn wood in these interiors. Perhaps it is thought to combat sterility and the excesses of the 21st century. It connects the contemporary world to a hazy idea of the bucolic past, a place where you knew where your food and drink came from because your family grew, killed, or brewed it themselves. From there, it’s a short conceptual jump from envisioning a rustic cabin existing outside the pressures of modernity to a rustic restaurant or taproom interior inhabiting a very similar space, where money and taste form a cozy, romantic-agrarian protective barrier. When restaurant critic Rachel Hutton visited Bar La Grassa for the first time in December 2009, her City Pages review noted that the reclaimed barn wood gave the place a feeling of “the relaxed luxury of a wealthy person’s cabin.” (Incidentally, Hutton also reports seeing jeggings in the wild for the first time in Minneapolis while onsite at Bar La Grassa, making that specific visit an almost Blakean visionary preview of the aesthetic of the coming decade.)

Those electronic glowing windows people are staring into act as much as a portal for those outside as inside. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both Pinterest and Instagram debuted in 2010, a few months after our arbitrary watershed year. Instagram, at least, is a service I use obsessively, particularly for peeking into the lives (and, more importantly, the interiors) of people elsewhere in the world. Both Pinterest and its ever-shifting mood boards and Instagram and its meticulously art-directed interiors serve this purpose for any number of people. Reclaimed barn wood and its diversity of textures, shapes, and hues is nothing if not camera-ready. A wedding photographer I know told me that 2009 was about the time that burlap, barn wood, and mason jars began defining the aesthetic of the contemporary wedding—surely a parallel development.

That visual identity has spread across North America and beyond. I’ve seen it myself, though less in person than on my phone screen. I’m not the most well-traveled individual. Aside from a very occasional trip to the West Coast or overseas, my journeys don’t really take me very far outside an interior circuit defined around the edges by Minneapolis and the handful of American cities scattered throughout the Rust Belt, East Coast, and Mid-South where work opportunities and family obligations take me. But I do maintain a loose network of peers in other cities, people I’ve met and people I haven’t, both in the U.S. and in North America and Europe.

Instead of seeing the diversity of our nation, often I find myself glimpsing into interiors that look startlingly like the ones I inhabit. You often hear people throwing out, half-joking, the term ’grammable (at least I hope they’re half-joking). It’s a certain photogenic quality to any interior you encounter that translates well into the 1080 x 1080 pixel confines of an Instagram image: interesting fixtures, clean walls, a balance of cool minimalism and warm textures, neutral surfaces against which a photo of a latte or a baked good will photograph well. The more ’grammable the interior, the less idiosyncratic it is. The more ’grammable, the more difficulty you might have pinpointing the precise location.

Platforms like Instagram have, in some ways, flattened the visual language of American cities, so that you can look at pictures taken in certain precincts of any metropolitan area and see the same unified aesthetic at work. These platforms quicken the spread of certain ideas about how the world can look, conveying suggestions about urbanity and sophistication that spill out into the physical world with a quicker and quicker turnaround time. What, I’ve wondered occasionally, does Minneapolis look like to my friends on Instagram who’ve never visited? How do the indefinable qualities of the air and light and materials translate across space?

Often, I wonder if, aside from specific landmarks, it looks an awful lot like anywhere else, at least in its most enthusiastically documented interiors. Reclaimed lumber, initially envisioned as a geographically specific feature of parts of the U.S. with a surplus of barns, by 2017 is visible enough across the landscape that it doesn’t necessarily signify hardworking Midwestern wholesomeness and environmental sensitivity. More than that, it connotes some vague ur-American idea of heartland authenticity that one finds wandering through upscale neighborhoods in California or Colorado or Connecticut.

How will these camera-ready, rustic wood chunks age as we belly up to them and take smartphone photos of them in the next five or ten years? Increasingly over the course of the 2016 election and its aftermath, innocuous Instagram-filtered nostalgia seems less hazily apolitical and more like another front in the culture wars. Yet invoking that idealized, unspecified past was one of the early attractions to Instagram and its antecedent, Hipstamatic. The apps allowed you to apply filters to any photo that would mimic obsolete camera formats, instantly giving any image you shot the look of a faded 1970s Polaroid dug out of a box in your parents’ hall closet. It conferred an instant pre-digital authenticity on everyday life at a time when that life was becoming more and more tethered to a smartphone. This sensibility turned out to pair perfectly with a barn-wood motif capable of turning any old cinderblock shell into a warm, photogenic prairie paradise.

Part of the appeal, it turned out, is in embodying the odd contradictions of a big slab of barn wood that’s both a subtle refutation of modernity and an object that is framed and catalogued so beautifully by technology. What could be more perfectly appropriate for the Instagram era? Put a local beer and a small plate on top of a barn-wood surface, take a photo, and you’ve got a part of December 2009 and after encased in a perfect little time capsule, as easily as you might apply a Clarendon or Juno filter.