The Kardashians Are in Their Modern Farmhouse Era

What does it mean when the future-savvy family embraces such a seemingly nostalgic style?

Soaring over the Pacific, then the hills of Southern California before descending over a backyard pool, a drone flies through musician Travis Barker’s legs and into a mansion in Calabasas. It’s the opening of Season 1 of The Kardashians, the Hulu version of the famous family’s flagship reality TV show. With slick editing, an airborne camera weaves in and out of Kourtney’s, Khloé’s, Kendall’s, Kris’s, Kylie’s, and Kim’s homes and offices, showing the stars going about their days and preparing to gather at Kim’s house for a barbecue. It’s a thrilling moment, not only because of the camerawork’s aerial gymnastics but because it promises that the new series will continue developing the seamless intimacy of their earlier show on E!, Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Since that show premiered in 2007, the Kardashians-Jenners have sold a form of companionship by welcoming audiences into their homes, and millions have shared in the family’s journey from their chaotic first-season house with the porch and the stripper pole to Kim and Kanye’s minimalist mausoleum and beyond. In the Hulu series, Kris and Khloé have taken the show’s vision of togetherness further, moving into neighboring homes so that family will always be just a few steps away.

But as I watched this development over the past year, something tripped me up: Kris and Khloé were moving into modern farmhouses. The style, though trendy, seems a puzzling choice. I associate modern farmhouses with HGTV, Chip and Joanna Gaines, shiplap and old books, decorative metal pitchers that look like Clara Barton might’ve used them to dress a gangrenous wound—nostalgia, not navigating what’s new, as the Kardashians-Jenners have historically done so well. Granted, the interiors of Kris’s and Khloé’s homes aren’t very rustic; Khloé’s is minimalist, monochrome, beige, its wide plank floors the only thing vaguely reminiscent of farm life, and Kris’s a bit more traditional with hints of reclaimed wooden furniture, but the interior, designed by Kathleen Clements, Tommy Clements, and Waldo Fernandez, is so large and sparsely decorated that it looks more like the presidential suite at a high-end resort than a folksy family retreat. Not an apron sink in sight in either. But on the outside of both, the farmhouse style is unmistakable: Piles of simple, low-slung forms covered in batten board and stone tile, a mix of materials that I suppose is meant to look old and like it was accumulated over decades. Looking at them, I wondered if the queens of the future might be winding down their reign and preparing to retreat, at least stylistically, into the past.

But that narrative might be too simple. Talking to Laura Barraclough, chair of the American Studies department at Yale and author of Making the San Fernando Valley, I learned that the idea of living in a modern farmhouse is nothing new—it has deep roots in the Valley, where the Kardashians live. "It fits with the history of that place," she tells me. "There’s a wider aesthetic that supports what they are doing." Time and again people in the United States and especially in Southern California have conjured a fantasy of homesteading to escape the dehumanizing effects of modern life, though the promise of personal freedom and prosperity often comes at some dramatic societal expense.

A century ago, the writer Ralph Borsodi promoted the back to the land movement to urban professionals disenchanted with the grind of life in big cities, exacerbated by the 1920–1921 depression. He opens his 1933 book Flight from the City with a narrative that feels familiar even today. He and his family were living in New York City, where a housing shortage made rents "outrageously high," and his family was too caught up in trying to survive to savor the fruits of the metropolis. "How could we enjoy them when we were financially insecure and never knew when we would be without a job?" he wrote. Then, in 1920, the house they rented was sold and they had no place to live. Instead of sticking it out in the big city, they gave up and moved to a small plot on the outskirts, where they set up a homestead with a small farmhouse where they could grow and raise their own food. It’s a lot of work, but Borsodi says he discovers that homesteading can create a more economically secure and "expressive" way of life.

Borsodi was optimistic about farmhouse living as a way to free people from their dependence on massive markets. He wasn’t wild about either capitalism or socialism. Both, he thought, made people dependent on forces far beyond them. "Insecurity is the price we pay for our dependence upon industrialism for the essentials of life," he wrote. Homesteading for him wasn’t just a nostalgic idealization of the past. It was a way to manifest a better destiny built on self-reliance, independence, and other ideals grounded in frontier living.

The historical connection to the Kardashians-Jenners gets clearer when I talk to Tomer Fridman, Kris and Khloé’s real estate agent. He echoes Barraclough and tells me that modern farmhouses make a lot of sense in the strange city where the two live: Hidden Hills. Incorporated in 1961, it is a guard-gated city, one of the few in the United States, Fridman says, and it’s an equestrian community, meaning that it has zoning laws requiring space for barns or stables on properties, and the city maintains public bridle paths. "If you go there, you feel like you’re on a ranch," Fridman tells me. "You see kids riding their horses to school or parents taking their kids on horseback. Granted, it could be, like, Leann Rimes, but it’s still horseback."

A sign in Hidden Hills
A sign in Hidden Hills

Fridman impresses upon me that Hidden Hills is not Calabasas, which is something that has always confused me, as the Kardashians-Jenners seem to refer to them interchangeably on the show. The twin cities sit across from each other on opposite sides of the 101 freeway at the western end of the San Fernando Valley. Kim, Khloé, Kris, Kylie, and Rob are in Hidden Hills; Kourtney is the only one now in Calabasas. "Hidden Hills was always what I would call old money," Fridman says. Calabasas is newer, incorporated in 1991, and larger, with about 22,000 people compared with Hidden Hills’ 1,700. Calabasas is not a gated city, just full of gated communities. "In Calabasas, you don’t have the contemporary farmhouse [style]. Hidden Hills is a traditional community. It looks more like the Palisades or the Hamptons. Calabasas looks like Beverly Park. It has a grander feel.… Calabasas looks like Newport Coast, like Orange County."

Crucially, however, they are both independent from the city of Los Angeles. Like other wealthy enclaves in the L.A. area, such as Beverly Hills, they offer rich people a way to be close to the city without sharing its financial burdens. And life behind the gates offers the promise of security or at least privacy from tourists and paparazzi.

According to Fridman, the first modern farmhouse in Hidden Hills appeared around 2013. It was a renovation of an old Cape Cod–style home recently vacated by a family looking for more room—coincidentally, the Kardashians-Jenners. This was the house Kris and Caitlyn lived in on their first three seasons on TV, and after they sold it, the new owners renovated it into the first of a new style, at least in the area. "I’d never seen anything like it," Fridman says. "Not in the city, not in the Valley, not in the Hills, not anywhere. It was done by an architect named George De La Nuez, and he’s ended up completely transforming Hidden Hills since that house."

Ranch style homes had traditionally dominated the city, but the new style was sweeping in. "I would see my house copied everywhere," De La Nuez tells me. (De La Nuez did not design Kris’s and Khloé’s new homes; Kris’s was designed by Brian Lerman according to De La Nuez, and Khloé’s by Ryan Levis.) "I think a part of it is that it’s almost the first style that hit during the Instagram and social media phase. Everything gets spread to everybody so quickly." But De La Nuez says, "The best examples are certainly in Hidden Hills," where height limitations intended to maintain a rural feel, along with prohibitions against flat roofs, mean that developers trying to maximize the allowable built square footage on lots have to break up homes into rambling accumulations of smaller volumes. (Were any portion of a home’s footprint ever to reach the grand dimensions of, say, a pseudo French château, there would be no way a pitched roof could cover it and stay below the 30-foot ridge height limit.) "I think it’s popular also because it’s easy to build," De La Nuez says. "There’s not much articulation to it. It’s simple, it’s materials like batten board siding or James Hardie plank siding, so you have the wood siding. You have stone accents that basically anybody can execute."

There’s a relative humility to the style, too, though I emphasize the word relative, as the modern farmhouses in Hidden Hills are regularly selling for upward of $5 million. "There’s not a lot of grand approaches," De La Nuez says. "You don’t have the monumental gates and the pilasters and the big ass light fixtures. It’s not a screaming, look-at-me kind of house. They still have their Bentleys in the driveway, but Hidden Hills is a community that does not celebrate pompousness. There’s people on horseback riding around, looking into your backyard. You’re out on your front porch. You can say hi to neighbors walking by."

Aerial view of Calabasas
Aerial view of Calabasas

This fantasy of rural-suburban living goes back locally even further than the incorporation of Hidden Hills in the 1960s. "The fascination with the idea of a family farm gets going across the Valley in the 1920s," Barraclough tells me, the same time when Borsodi was promoting the back to the land movement outside New York. Los Angeles leaders were eager to market their city as an alternative to the polluted, congested cities of the Midwest and East Coast, which were attracting many emigrants from southern and eastern Europe and turning into hotbeds of working-class discontent. L.A. leaders touted their city as the "white spot," the reward for Anglos for crossing and conquering the continent, and they set out plans for a decentralized city where the working population would be dispersed and less likely to congregate and organize for labor rights.

Developers also targeted affluent whites with dreams of starting over on impractically small farms, some as little as an acre, that would offer an escape from urban hustle, bustle, and ethnic mixing. Journalist William Smythe organized what he called Little Landers colonies across Southern California, some in the Valley, and recruited white urban professionals to move onto small lots, raise chickens, and grow crops. It was an attractive fantasy, never mind that Japanese-American, Chinese-American, and Mexican-American laborers were often the ones making the area’s many farms succeed and were barred from buying into these projects.

Barraclough tells me that interest in homesteading in the San Fernando Valley generally and the Calabasas area specifically resurged in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Community groups organized events "where everybody was encouraged to dress up in bonnets and calico skirts.… These were people who were urban professionals, lawyers, bankers, real estate developers. These were wealthy people dressing up as pioneers and frontiers people." The activity correlated with a period when tract homes were sprawling across the Valley, destroying the remains of the older, larger-lot homes. "It’s also the moment when fair housing legislation is being passed and a lot of that new housing legally becomes available to people of color for the first time," Barraclough says. "There was a lot of fear and anxiety about how the suburbs of Los Angeles were changing. One of the responses from people in suburban Los Angeles and the Valley in particular was this nostalgia for a frontier or a pioneer or a homesteading past."

Early ads for Hidden Hills homes promised "Your Own Rancho" and featured prop wagons. Fridman remembers that in the early ’90s there was a stagecoach on display in Old Town Calabasas. "It was like the Wild West," he says.

So maybe Kris and Khloé just happen to live in a style of home that’s very popular in their area—an idea I have trouble accepting, given that the Kardashians-Jenners are no strangers to renovations—but why do they live in Hidden Hills, anyway?

When Kris first visited Hidden Hills, she "saw horses, llamas, and cows, and people walking their dogs and riding their horses," she writes in her 2012 memoir, Kris Jenner…and All Things Kardashian. "It was heaven."

As she writes it, Kris went to Hidden Hills to start over. It was 1996. She had divorced her first husband, celebrity lawyer Robert Kardashian, and had married the former Olympian whom we now know as Caitlyn Jenner. Kris’s life with Caitlyn was markedly different: Robert was wealthy, and Caitlyn, an athlete whose endorsement deals and acting gigs were drying up, less so. Kris and Caitlyn were struggling to support their large family, and Kris was beginning the career pivot that would change the nature of celebrity as we know it. But first, they needed a place to live.

Hidden Hills gave Kris a launchpad. Throughout the ’90s, Kris revived Caitlyn’s job prospects, guiding the former athlete to speaking gigs, infomercials, and more. It was in this pseudorural city that Kris honed the craft of parlaying someone’s name recognition into a monetizable career, and her urgency to work only increased in 2003, when her ex-husband, father of four of her children, died.

"It’s a profound moment when your children lose a parent and you are the only parent left. It was up to me then to help them make something of their lives," she writes. "I had realized my lifelong dream of having six kids, and now I was done with the birthing and ready for the work. It was time to stop screwing around. It was time to get off my ass and get to work."

A few years later, after her second-eldest daughter, Kim, achieved name recognition thanks to her friendship with Paris Hilton and eventual notoriety, Kris made the most of the moment and pitched her family as a reality show to Ryan Seacrest and producers at the cable network E! They said yes, Keeping Up with the Kardashians began, and Kris’s life as a "momager" took off.

Kris’s and Khloé’s new Hidden Hills homes
Kris’s and Khloé’s new Hidden Hills homes

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