A History of the A-Frame House in North America and Beyond
A look at the rich history of the iconic triangle house, from traditional Japanese farmhouse to America's post-war cabin kit craze to today's worldwide obsession
Matthew Vanatta, Brandon Sullivan, Ellen Eberhardt
Here at Field Mag, we appreciate a good A-Frame. The triangular structure lends itself well to the remote locations where we find peace. The wooden frame and cozy interior create a natural space easy to feel at home in. Whether pre-surf, post-hike, or après ski, the A-Frame is easily paired with daydream-worthy moments.
But to truly appreciate something, you have to understand at least a little bit of its history (right?). So, to pay our respect we set out to take a look at the origin of the A-Frame and its history as one of the most sought-after weekend destinations for design-enthusiasts, peace-seekers, and outdoorists from all walks of life.
While for any average Instagram-scrolling, nature-enthusiast human of today an A-Frame may conjure up images of a remote getaway in the woods or along the coast, the A-Frame home is by no means native to American weekenders. Long before A-Frames became popular vacation rentals in the United States the all-roof-no-wall architectural style was widely used globally—and still is today—from the traditional Japanese farmhouses of Shirakawa-go, Japan to Maori meeting houses (marae) to the rural outbuildings and ski chalets of Switzerland, and so on. In these areas, the A-Frame was born of practicality and symbolism—allowing heavy snowfalls to slide off pitched roofs, providing attic space for storage, or in the case of some marae, personifications of tribal ancestors.
In 1934, the Austrian-born architect Rudolph Schindler designed what would be one of the first known vacation A-Frames homes in the United States. Created for client Gisela Bennati in Lake Arrowhead, California, this house would mark the beginning of the A-Frame’s rise to popularity among the American middle class.
Though the American A-Frame we know and love really rose to prominence with the post World War II economic boom, a time in American history that saw many benefit from economic prosperity—providing families with disposable income, the ability to invest in real estate, and the opportunity to comfortably own a second home for the first time. A boom in the automobile sector (the number of cars produced annually quadrupled between 1946 and 1955) and affordable mortgages for returning white servicemen only bolstered the moment.
At the right place at the right time was California architect John Campbell, who in 1950 unveiled his glowing Leisure House A-Frame in Interiors Magazine. An instant sensation, the stylish home captured the attention-and the spirit of post-war America. The country's uncharted optimism, combined with the new car smell of the novel modern A-Frame, led to the start of a building craze.
On the opposite side of the country, just a few years on, New York architect Andrew Geller achieved an equally near-perfect blend of form and function with the Reese A-Frame, his 1957 project for client and friend Betty Reese. While Geller—known for his modern design and experimental beach houses—exceeded Reese’s $5,000 budget by 40%, the house was published in the New York Times to much acclaim, spreading the ethos of A-Frame style-ease, uniqueness, affordability-to the masses and the A-Frame house hit its stride in the public consciousness.
The craze continued to grow through the early 1970’s and eventually the structures were in such high demand that many companies and institutions from Sears to the Douglas Fir Plywood Association offered prefab A-Frame kits. Kits were available throughout North America, as they could easily be tailored to the client and the local environment, were affordable, and relatively easy for any Joe Shmoe to assemble in few weekends with friends. With these kits, up to eighty percent of the construction was out of the hands of contractors and architects and in the hands of the client.
Additionally, in America's post WWII “second everything” consumerist society, marketing ploys conjuring up a low maintenance, low cost, high-brow type of living in lifestyle magazines also helped boost sales.
But what goes up, must come down. By the mid 1970’s A-Frames dipped into the realm of tacky as they transitioned from inspired hillside homes to mass-produced structures that could be found at every rest stop and recreation area, regardless of region. As the 1970’s gave way to the heavy consumption era of the 1980’s and 90’s, new construction of A-Frames essentially came to a halt. Lavish condos rapidly replaced second homes, resort towns shifted to almost exclusively cater to the ultra-affluent, and many leisure areas became inundated with homogeneous complexes and extravagant single family homes.
From Aspen, Colorado, to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, once bohemian enclaves across North America were rapidly transformed into booming resort towns. Often this shift forced out the middle-class outdoor enthusiasts that had built their own A-Frames near recreational areas just a decade or two earlier. With this migration of the middle, creative, and working class, many once-modest towns lost the unique vibe that made them special.
Then, between 2007 and 2009 the housing market came crashing down, the economy tanked, student loan debt ballooned, and many young professionals entering the workforce found their dreams of owning a large single family home was suddenly out of the question. For millions, the American Dream, a concept preached for generations, began to feel like just that—an unataible dream largely beyond reach.
Out of necessity, a more minimalist and refined approach to home design followed the Great Recession. Many "alternative lifestyles" moved from fringe to accepted within the greater culture. Some renovated shipping containers, others converted old vans into mobile homes and others cut square footage in half, opting to shack up in tiny houses and micro cabins. From the acceleration of these movements, to the arrival of Zach Klein’s Cabin Porn cult Tumblr in the 2010s (and the subsequent coffee table books in 2015 and 2019), a new idea was born as the picture of conventional living spaces shifted for Millenials.
Small, affordable, well designed structures-with interior design influenced largely by the organic, clean lines of the mid-century aesthetic-gained relevance and the somewhat forgotten A-Frame no longer appeared tacky, but affordable and cool, man-just as it had to vacationers decades earlier.
Fast forward to this very moment, and we find ourselves experiencing the reverberations of this early 2000's movement today. Facilitated in the digital age with A-Frame devotee Instagram accounts like @aframedaily and @aframedreams and publications like, well, us, A-Frames are staged for a comeback. Google search trends reflect a steady upward trend in interest and design studios like Den, Backcountry Hut Company, Avrame and more are heeding the call, releasing prefab A-Frames, DIY A-Frame kits, and A-Frame cabin plans, giving the people plenty of options to build or buy (or rent) one of their own once again.
These are the A-Frames of today though-affordable, compact, thoughtfully designed, and often zero-emisson or off-grid. They are hybrids of their budget-friendly, 1970’s escapist chalet brethren, the minimalist practicality of the tiny house movement, and the ever-growing eco-consciousness of the contemporary design world. Bound no longer to the confines of simply being a weekend getaway-or even being tiny-the A-Frame of today is here to fit your needs, whether that be a second, rental, remote, or first home.
As we move collectively through a pandemic, the racial reckoning of today leads to shifts in power and access, and the economy reacts to it all, it's difficult to predict anything, let alone what may happen to the A-Frame market. But the beloved archetype has endured and shifted with us, meeting its patrons where and when needed, and we can only imagine-and hope-the A-Frame will continue to grow more varied while maintaining the qualities that built its worldwide fame.
Either way, we'll be there following along.