In 2016, “Fixer Upper” stars Chip and Joanna Gaines surprised sixth-grade teacher Ms. Nixon with a classroom makeover. The HGTV personalities revamped the Waco, Texas, learning space to resemble a bespoke farmhouse, complete with succulent planters, vintage-inspired bar carts and all-beige everything.
School supplies were organized in rustic, wooden crates. A handmade metal sign read, “Life is a math equation. In order to gain the most, you must convert the negatives into positives.” A rust-colored “6” hung on the wall like a cryptic, conceptual artwork. Single, red apples appeared atop each desk, providing jarring glints of color.
Shortly after watching the episode, teacher and blogger Melanie Ralbusky gushed about Nixon’s new classroom look on her blog, Schoolgirl Style.
“What I love most about this decorating style is the warm, homey feeling you get when surrounded by all of these earthy elements,” she wrote. “Pair it with a black and white color scheme and you have the most beautiful, calming, neutral environment.”
Ralbusky dubbed the aesthetic “Industrial Chic.” And two years after the Gaines’ foray into classroom decor, it’s taking over schools.
Classrooms around the country would have you believe their decorative details were hand-chiseled by some old-timey craftsmen in newsboy caps and suspenders. In reality, the spaces resemble almost every indistinguishable bougie coffee shop, hotel lobby and hair salon in the U.S.
“There’s lots of burlap and shiplap. It’s that farmhouse style,” Carly Speicher told HuffPost of the aesthetic. A former teacher who now sells teaching materials online, Speicher has blogged about her love of the farm-chic look, which defined her classroom while she was actively teaching.
“There are lot of neutral colors: browns and grays mostly,” her husband and blogging partner Adam added.
For Ralbusky, Industrial Chic is all about replicating the comforts of home at work ― assuming you live in a twee factory illuminated primarily by lanterns and string lights. “Teachers spend an enormous time at school,” she explained over email. “I was trying to bring that homey feeling into the classroom and take the institutional-ness out of school.”
On Schoolgirl Style, Ralbusky suggests decorative objects that will help teachers reach peak Industrial Chic, such as gold staplers, paper lanterns and a globe that’s entirely painted black. And of course, Mason jars.
“Mason jars are a MUST!” she writes.
While some furnishings are available at megastores like Target, others can be sourced directly from Ralbusky’s website, Shop Schoolgirl Style. “Industrial Chic” is one of 71 stylistic themes listed on the site for teachers to choose from. Of the lot, which also includes Rock Star and Animal Adventure, Industrial Chic is undoubtedly the most popular, Ralbusky said. She remembers the day she put the collection online ― coincidentally the day of her grandmother’s funeral ― and the outpouring of enthusiastic customers texting, emailing and calling provided a small joy on a difficult day.
The style has remained wildly sought after since, replacing “kiddish and cartoonish” styles, Ralbusky said, “like hedgehogs.”
During the summer season, thousands of teachers from all over the country, and occasionally outside of it, visit and shop from Ralbusky’s website ― whose offerings include faux vintage chalkboards, paper cutout string lights, reclaimed wood arrows and succulent cutouts. Most of her website traffic comes through Pinterest, and recently Instagram.
The Speichers agreed social media is responsible for Industrial Chic’s classroom takeover, offering a way for teachers to compare spaces, exchange decorating tips and settle on a consensus vision regardless of their physical geography. While Pinterest offers a place to craft vision boards and store inspiration, Instagram, which Ralbusky described as “eye candy for teachers,” is where you show off and potentially make some money.
Tags like #teachersofinstagram and #teacherlife connect professionals from across the country into an online community. Like any proper pocket of the social media, this one has its very own influencers. Given their notoriously underpaid profession, some teachers supplement their incomes with their online presences, uploading sponsored posts from craft suppliers like Michael’s. Teacher Amy Groesbeck told BuzzFeed that teaching yields a $50,000 salary, while her influencer status brings in over $200,000 a year.
However, most teachers who haven’t bagged corporate sponsors and are not allocated a budget to decorate their classrooms pay out of pocket to spruce up their spaces. Carly estimated teachers spend $100 to $500 on classroom decor on average; she personally allocated between $200 and $300 to the cause.
After the summer shopping season comes fall ― the time to snap, share and compare.
“At the beginning of the year, everyone is posting pictures like crazy,” Adam Speicher said. Like with any social media obsession, the compulsion to curate a perfect classroom can become overwhelming, and for some, even interferes with other responsibilities like lesson planning.
“It puts unnecessary pressure on newer teachers especially,” Carly said. “They think they need to focus on the classroom, when it’s more important to spend time on your curriculum.”
There’s some science to the suggestion that a classroom’s appearance affects students’ academic performance, and, in fact, the more sparse and neutral the better. A 2014 study by Carnegie Mellon researchers found “children in highly decorated classrooms were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed.”
Industrial Chic ― colorless, deliberate wooden, pleasingly stark ― isn’t just an interior design trend, but a savvy teaching hack.
Yet there’s something eerie about a classroom bearing an uncanny resemblance to your forgettable brunch spot from last weekend. Schools, it seems, are but another category of interior space that’s fallen in line with the countless co-working spaces, Airbnb rentals, start-up offices, breweries and boutiques that share this faux-rustic formula.
In a piece for The Verge, writer Kyle Chayka described how technology has facilitated a synchronization of tastes around the world, yielding a recurring sense of spacial deja vu. He quotes French anthropologist Marc Augé’s 1992 book Non-Places, which asserts that the omnipresence of homogenous and vaguely familiar spaces makes people feel as though they “are always, and never, at home.”
Industrial Chic accurately mimics the spaces where we live and lounge, and eat, drink, wait and work. Moving between home and homeroom is now as seamless as “reloading a website,” as Chayka put it.
A coffee shop is a farmhouse is a hotel lobby is a classroom. In 2018, there’s non-place like home.