Mixing the well-worn with the shiny and new may be trendy now, but it’s hardly a new trick. Here’s why rustic-modern endures.
My friend Hamish has lived his entire 50-plus years in a ranch house built a century ago by his grandparents a few miles west of Calgary. Hamish wears Wranglers, farmer shirts and cowboy boots year-round; he drives a Dodge truck and sometimes sleeps alone in a yurt a couple of hundred metres from his house. You might think you know how Hamish lives: tractor parts rusting in the yard, cattle skulls bleaching on the barn roof, lots of cracked leather, old wood, peeling plaster and 19th-century family photos. Well, you’re not far off. But this isn’t your average foothills cowboy. Hamish—a Francophile with Jungian leanings, a collection of Borsalino fedoras and a perennial subscription to the New Yorker—is to Alberta rancher what Naheed Nenshi is to Alberta politician. That is, utterly surprising. A bright white George Nelson pendant hangs like a June moon over his grandma’s 1912 oak dining table, which is flanked by two Philippe Starck Louis Ghost chairs. Hamish is rustic-modern incarnate. Not everyone can live in a beautifully decaying farmhouse and, truthfully, adding a modern element to a rustic space is usually easier than going the reverse route. In Hamish’s case, the only thing he does to achieve that elusive fusion of nostalgia and clean, hip functionality is to call up Victoria’s Gabriel Ross from time to time. Copper patinas and weathered wood, on the other hand, don’t technically happen overnight (though they are certainly manufactured sometimes). But who can blame anyone for trying? The style makes for an organic, pleasingly balanced esthetic—Vancouver’s Matchstick coffee shop is a thoughtful, inviting example of upscale meets down-home. Done well, rustic-modern evokes a nostalgia that’s the design equivalent of elegant comfort food—mac and gruyere cheese, say, with foraged morels. Poorly done, it’s an overcooked steak with cold mashed potatoes. Over the past decade, rustic-modern style has become pervasive enough to give birth to entire chains (Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware to name two) that specialize in the look. It’s almost impossible to remember a time when it wasn’t de rigeuer to blend stark, machine-made functionality with raw, natural and salvaged elements. Rustic-modern style—as opposed to country modern, which strives for cozy shabby-chic replete with floral patterns and pared-down rural kitsch—aims for refined rawness, warmth and pragmatism. But rustic-modern’s sloppy side is seen in a growing number of predictable manifestations in both residential and commercial settings. Robert Quinnell of Vancouver’s Provide says that, of late, he’s seen too many rustic-modern influenced spaces that seem designed with a dearth of the time and energy required to achieve an authentic appeal. In a telephone interview, he kindly asks me if I’m a hipster (I’m not) before lamenting that the style has become a ‘predictable hipster trend” in cafes and restaurants from Vancouver to Brooklyn. ‘It’s everywhere,” he says, ‘and it’s often forced.” Quinnell likens its popularity to last decade’s stampede to tattoo parlours. ‘People used to get massive tattoos in order to be unusual and different,” he says. ‘Now everyone’s got one. They’re not very interesting anymore.” While Quinnell, whose own aesthetic preference runs more to ‘minimal-gallery on the tiptoes of rustic-modern,” appreciates thoughtful rustic-modern—he names Australian bodycare retailer Aesop and the recent facelift of Earls Restaurant in downtown Vancouver—he has more often seen it miss the mark. ‘It’s not just about getting some lumber, lightbulbs and mason jars,” he says. ‘It’s about achieving a light, airy feeling; it’s got to be organic, interesting, clean and minimal. You want a natural transition from the rustic to modern,” he says, pointing to Paris as an effortless mecca for the look (like Hamish’s digs, 19th-century Montmartre apartments come complete with perfectly imperfect rustic appeal). Still, says Quinnell, a unique, timeless version of the aesthetic can be achieved in small, meaningful ways wherever you live. ‘Edison bulbs are great, but don’t stop with that,” he says. ‘Make it beautiful and give it life by putting one inside a hand-blown glass ball.” He also mentions art pieces by Joshua Van Dyke, a Bowen Island-based sculptor who makes antler horns out of skateboards (see above left). ‘His work defines rustic-modern for me: repurposing something to make the old new again in a sophisticated way. It takes due diligence to get that right.” Quinnell remains optimistic about the future of rustic-modern style; he says it’s here to stay, and it’ll eventually become ‘cleaner, more precise.” Meanwhile, I’m hoping if I tell Hamish I’m considering purchasing a resin-moulded Texas longhorn skull from Restoration Hardware’s new line, he’ll just give me the real deal off his barn roof. wl.