The A-Frame Is More Than Just a Cabin—It’s a Full-Fledged Cultural Obsession

The triangular structure is so embedded in the zeitgeist that we render its shape for everything from storage racks to birdhouses. What’s the allure beneath its slanted ceilings?

This story is part of Everyone Loves an A-Frame, our week-long celebration of simple structures with a cult following.

When I was in the ninth grade, our family’s neighbor, a man who had been living on our suburban Los Angeles block for more decades than he could remember, came to my father with an offer. For many years, our neighbor had been the owner of an A-frame cabin on the shores of Lake Arrowhead, a popular vacation destination about a two hours’ drive from where we lived. Our neighbor was getting older, he explained to my father, and he really didn’t have much use for the cabin anymore. Would my father, perhaps, be interested in buying it? Since, really, my father would be doing him a favor, he was prepared to make the sale for the princely sum of $1,000.

After mulling it over for a few days, my father decided we weren’t really lake people, and decided to politely pass on the offer. Today, scrolling Instagram, I am constantly reminded of this fateful decision as I see beautiful A-frame after A-frame, some with their original features intact, some updated with Smeg refrigerators and brightly colored Malm fireplaces—luxurious but still retro-feeling.

I’m not the only A-frame fanatic whose most frequent proximity to the triangular structures is through a social media feed curated with photos of the cabins—elevated on stilts above a snowy Vermont mountain, surrounded by flora in a Brazilian tropical forest—or occasional weekends in an A-frame rental, of which there are many. (The housing type is an Airbnb mainstay.) Facebook groups like A-Frame Addicts and A-Frame Living have hundreds of thousands of members who post everything from chronicles of their own A-frame constructions to free plans for anyone who wants to attempt a DIY build. On Instagram, wildly popular accounts like @aframeaddicts and @aframecabins repost photos of users’ A-frame cabins, and pages like @aframedreams direct followers to A-frame real estate listings. The signature cabin shape is so deeply woven into the zeitgeist that we publish dedicated coffee table books and even render it for everything from storage racks to pet houses. But why do people love the A-frame so much—not just as a housing type, but as a symbol?

The Far Meadow A-frame by designer Heinz Legler, located about an hour’s drive from Yosemite, California, as featured in Boutique Homes: Handpicked Vacation Rentals (Avedition, 2017).

The Far Meadow A-frame by designer Heinz Legler, located about an hour’s drive from Yosemite, California, as featured in Boutique Homes: Handpicked Vacation Rentals (Avedition, 2017).

A-frame cabins burst onto the U.S. architectural scene in the mid-20th century, their rise in popularity among the American middle class coinciding with the postwar economic boom, when more families had the ability to invest in vacation homes. Easy and relatively inexpensive to build, they were often constructed in places driving distance from major cities, namely wilderness areas. Hence, the association with relaxation and proximity to nature. As the quintessential American vacation home, A-frames came to represent everything we love about a no-frills but exceedingly cozy getaway. In a Curbed article titled "The A-Frame Effect," architectural historian Alexandra Lange writes

In an A-frame, there’s little privacy, so the family has to gather around the fireplace or run around outside. Indoor/outdoor living and informal entertaining were the style of the day in the 1950s, as they are now, and you cannot be any other way in an A-frame. Leisure is part of their very character. The A-frame obviously shares DNA with the tent, but offers just enough comforts of home to the camping-phobic.

In the Internet age, interest in A-frame cabins remains alive and well. Some A-frame lovers have turned their passion into full-fledged social media empires. Take Leah Bopf, who started @aframedreams on Instagram as a way to stay connected to her favorite housing type when it came time for her family to move into a bigger space after living in an A-frame house, which she treasured. An online store followed in the mid-2010s, and now Bopf does a brisk trade in A-frame swag, popular with actual cabin owners ("they especially love the vintage motel-inspired keychains," she says, adding that they’ll often tag her in images of them holding the keychains in front of their A-frames) and admirers alike. Bopf also sells an A-frame Toile pattern that can be printed onto wallpaper, napkins, and even fabric for throw pillows or bedding sets.

A-frame-inspired home goods on the market today range from kitschy, like this Dickens Christmas village–inspired A-frame figurine, to more discreet, like this handmade maple wood candleholder from Vermont. The market also offers A-frame Christmas ornaments galore, as well as products like adult A-frame coloring books. Toys, too, have been getting the A-frame treatment for decades. Both Bopf and Julia Carusillo, a prolific vintage seller and Fisher-Price collector, specifically call out the 1970s Fisher-Price Play Family A-frame, complete with a brick-clad fireplace, bunk beds, and a grill. Good-condition versions of the kid’s toy can sell for upwards of $150. (Bopf laughingly tells me hers is hands-off, reserved for her young son.) Of course, Barbie had an A-frame at one point. Today, Lego makes an A-frame Cabin set, called out by many in the A-Frame Addicts Facebook group as a favorite gift for special occasions—one group member was delighted to receive the set from his girlfriend. 

About half of the people I talked to in my quest to unpack the lure of A-frame symbolism own or rent one of the structures themselves. But many of those who collect A-frame paraphernalia, myself included, don’t plan to own or live in one. The appeal of the A-frame seems to transcend the actual housing type—it’s about preferring a simple design to a cluttered one, a more rustic vibe to a luxe one (though there are, of course, plenty of extremely luxurious A-frames out there). Bringing a bit of the A-frame ethos into a city apartment, a suburban house, or even an office is a way to keep a little piece of vacation close. Wearing a pin, sending a postcard, or hanging a line drawing of an A-frame is, for the enthusiasts among us, mostly about the dream of fun—of having it, of sharing it, and of remembering it.

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