Before there was a house at Yum Yum Farm, there was a pair of yellow lawn chairs, a fire pit, and an old, worn picnic table, all parked on a sloping hillside.
Joanna and Geoff Mouming had scoured the countryside around Iowa City, looking for the right spot to build a modern incarnation of a farmhouse. When they finally found it—55 impossibly pastoral acres overlooking corn, soybeans, and barns in the far-off distance—they spent weekends there, camping, building fires, scanning the view from their chairs, and wondering, What next?
For more than two years, they hunted in Iowa City and beyond for an architect, but no one seemed quite right. Then, on a serendipitous visit to the Iowa City Public Library, Joanna overheard a librarian commenting on a book called Good House Cheap House that had just arrived. Joanna asked to see it. She flipped through the pages, liked what she saw, and called one of the featured architects, John DeForest, at his office in Seattle. "Joanna asked, ‘Do you ever work in Iowa?’" DeForest remembers. "I said, ‘I hardly know where Iowa is.’" But something clicked. The Moumings quickly found themselves with an architect nearly 2,000 miles away, and DeForest found himself envisioning a house in the middle of an Iowa soybean field.
"John just had such good listening skills. Some architects go off on their own tangents," Joanna says. "Geoff was a little reluctant to work with someone in Seattle, but after our first conversation, we knew." Several thousand frequent-flier miles and many Skype calls later, Yum Yum Farm—as the Moumings dubbed their land—has its farmhouse. Or, as Geoff says, it has "an abstraction of a farmhouse."
The Moumings met through friends in Iowa City and married on a farm about 14 miles east of where they eventually settled. Geoff, a fledgling organic farmer who runs a landscaping business, and Joanna, a devoted cook who is marketing director for a business that sells organic dairy foods, beef, and local produce, had developed a taste for modernism over the years. They wanted their house to blend modernist ideas with the agrarian Iowa landscape. "We like wooden ceilings. We like red. We like modern architecture," Geoff says. "But we wanted it to respect the context."
So first DeForest had to get a feel for what that context actually looked and felt like. As part of his extensive getting-to-know-you process, he asked the Moumings to complete "assignments," in which they responded to questions that revealed their inspirations and preferences. They wanted a place, he learned, where they could wake up to views and dance around listening to music. They wanted space that would spill into the outdoors. In answering the questions, the Moumings also introduced DeForest to Iowa. "He’d never been here," Joanna says. "We love Iowa, and just wanted him to appreciate it too."
So they sent him photos of barns and fields and a picture of a 1931 landscape painting by Iowan Grant Wood—most famous for his iconic portrait American Gothic—that reflected the undulating patchwork of their own land. All of this DeForest put up on a "storyboard" in his Seattle offices. "We got to know them on a much deeper level," DeForest says. "It was important to establish the heart of the project before we got into the details."
Soon DeForest got on a plane to see Iowa for himself. The Moumings took him to their land, along winding roads and past Amish farms where the odd horse pulling a buggy clops along the roadside. The trio wandered around the property trying to figure out where to put the house. Finally, standing on top of the picnic table, they chose the spot. The following spring, the Moumings broke ground. A friend from the Rotary Club had recommended a builder, and things took off from there.
The Moumings chose local craftsmen to build the house, inside and out, so that it would be an extension of the community as well as the land. Chris Graber, an Amish carpenter, milled the Douglas fir for the floors, which was recovered from an old farmhouse. Woodworker Dan Feigenspan made the kitchen cabinets and other custom woodwork, like a roll-away serving cart that moves from the dining area to the kitchen to haul away dirty dishes after one of the Moumings’ many dinner gatherings. "It was a new process for everyone," Joanna says of the builders’ foray into modernism, "but Iowa people are really honest, hardworking folks. John would come here and be blown away by the workmanship." That level of craftsmanship yielded a structure that is as strong and enduring as any old farmhouse. And, in a place with a footprint of just 950 square feet, the deconstructed barnlike details are select, subtle, and essential.
The main floor is really one open space, with the bedroom separated from the living room by a slatted wall through which light crosses, sort of like a stall door. Corrugated metal lines the bathroom walls, and vapor-proof lamps light several areas throughout the house. An elevated space where Joanna works sits overhead like a kind of hayloft. The front door, made of solid maple, is a minimalist interpretation of a divided Dutch door. "It suggests an agrarian building," Geoff muses, "rather than being a cheesy copy or a Disney version."
For Joanna, the kitchen, with loads of storage and a view of Geoff’s first farming efforts, was a major priority. "I still pinch myself that I get to cook here," she says. (Geoff jokes, "I grow, she cooks.")
But it’s the openness—the sense of being connected to the land and to Iowa and its seasons—that the Moumings love most. A line of windows faces south, providing a view of the broad sweep of their property, which slopes down to a grove of trees, and the hills rising beyond, with hilltop farms miles away. One of the couple’s primary forms of entertainment is staring at the view, watching birds in the wide-open sky and changes in the weather. On stormy summer nights, the couple can lie in bed and see lightning crack 30 miles away. (They hang Chilewich panels to block the light on really active nights.) In the winter, nature brings other offerings. "When the ground’s covered in snow and the moon’s full, it reflects all the light back into the house," Joanna says. "It’s really beautiful."
The Moumings officially relocated from their Iowa City duplex to Yum Yum Farm on Christmas Eve 2007, just seven relatively snag-free months after they had broken ground. "It was a beautiful night; the moon was full," Joanna remembers. "We were up in the loft sticking our heads out the window."
These days the Moumings are still besotted with the space they’ve created and talk about it almost dreamily. At the end of the day, they drive down their swoop of gravel driveway and pull up to the house, with its metal roof and barn-red walls. Geoff’s John Deere 790 Compact tractor sits across from the porch. Sometimes the Moumings are met by one of their cats with a field mouse in his chops. "I love coming home," Geoff says. "I don’t like leaving."
Joanna agrees. "It’s so nice to live here," she says, looking out the window, "every day." With their burgeoning garden growing up into a real working farm, the Moumings’ land really will demand daily care and attention. Fortunately, there’s no place they’d rather be.