The pivotal moment arguably came around the time architecture magazine Wallpaper*—that bible of modernist chic—featured a gorgeous 14-page photo spread titled “Agricool” and featuring ethnically ambiguous models amongst sheep, dead geese and deep-red prosciutto. With it, urban homesteading was given a facelift. The movement, an outgrowth of localism, 100-mile dieting and the urge to rebuild a lost connection to food, sweat and dirt, has officially arrived in the design world.
With its functional, back-to-basics ethos, the homesteading trend has until now represented everything haute design is not. But we’re talking about urbanites after all, and a trend that isn’t going away. Since 2006, Vancouver—which recently lifted a ban on backyard hens—has added some 1,800 plots to the cityscape: several have wait lists of 100 people or more. Recently, Michelle Obama added bees to her White House garden. The chicken hatchery featured in Farm City, Novella Carpenter’s hot new memoir about farming on a vacant lot in a ghetto in Oakland, Calif., has actually run out of chicks.
And where there are city chickens, cute, stylish city coops will soon follow. Take the Eglu: the world’s first designer coop, which has won a handful of awards. Modelled after the gel-top iMac, the $615 henhouse—available in red, yellow and what the London-based company calls “keep-it-subtle” green—is popular with a broad range of people, including a DJ and a British Tory MP.
Eglu is not the only company cashing in on agricultural cool. Even the lowly kitchen composter is being revivified. A gorgeous stainless-steel countertop pail, for example, replaces the plastic ice cream bucket. Jarst, a composter-cum-vase, allows kitchen composters to showcase a growing plant as they go. The MIO, a sleek, cylindrical, bright-green composter made for indoor and outdoor use by designers Jaime and Isaac Salm, is functional and big—without being an eyesore.
Pastoral chic is also hitting runways, as designers reimagine grease-stained jean coveralls and New Holland ball caps. Alexander McQueen’s latest menswear line features a leather butcher’s apron; Vivienne Westwood’s fall collection for men has overalls, vintage-seed-catalogue-inspired T-shirts and hunting jackets. (Suede gun patches decorate the right shoulder.)
Though unabashedly modern, the new aesthetic does borrow from nostalgic themes, building on the retro pastoralism that began hitting the design world a few years ago. Textile designers gave us orange butterflies and sparrows. Dutch designer Tord Boontje put deer and peacocks in whimsical forest settings on glassware and china. Branches, leaves and antlers began appearing on T-shirts and bags everywhere.
“When trusted corporations fail and you can’t trust the banks, we look to the past—it’s very reassuring,” says architecture critic and curator Trevor Boddy. “We’re in a real back-to-the-future moment,” he adds, noting that, historically, recessions also bring a shift to a more conservative mood in style. (In Britain, where by some counts hen keeping has doubled in the past year, Penguin recently reissued Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps, first published in 1941 amid wartime rationing.)
The rise of utilitarian, back-to-basics labels like Norway’s Siv Stodal and London’s Margaret Howell parallels a sharp decline in “logos, monograms and heavy, luxury branding,” explains London designer Oonagh O’Hagan. She was part of the team that remade Hunter brand footwear: the “super uncool” knee-high rubber boots favoured by the Queen. Like composters, the $115 boots are dowdy no more, having been photographed on Kate Moss, Stella McCartney, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. (They are de rigueur at Britain’s muddy summer music festivals).
Radical DIY urban farmers are not surprised by the trend they helped seed. “Obviously, the way to change the world is not by buying a fancy chicken coop,” sighs Ruby Blume, the daughter of Communists who runs California’s Institute of Urban Homesteading). “Of course” somebody will want to make a buck off-loading designer coveralls and “urban farming tchotchkes” on yuppies. But this doesn’t bother her. The undercurrent, she says, is the same: people longing for something authentic, to do good and reconnect with what has been lost to convenience.