The industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss said that this question was a frequent one after talks and panel discussions:
Since this question is so often asked, I have done some checking, for I have always been fascinated by the simple beauty of these red barns. They were built, as almost everything should be, from the inside out. A farmer needed a place to keep his livestock and store his feed and tools. So building took shape around these needs — four walls and a roof. Simple doors and windows were placed where they were needed, not to achieve exterior symmetry. This is functional architecture at its finest. But why are these barns painted red? Out of curiosity, I queried people who might know — artists, educators, architects, museum researchers, businessmen, designers, and farmers. Some of the answers that flowed in follow:A search engine will return many results for why are barns painted red. Here is one that is especially interesting.
Architect Eero Saarinen expressed the belief that the tradition of painting barns red originated in Finland and Sweden because red — “red earth” — was the only available paint. Financier Harry B. Lake and Faber Birren, the color expert, stated that barns were painted red, originally in New England, because the color absorbed the solar heat and insured a warmer barn for the livestock during the winter. Grandma Moses agrees that the practice started in New England but she believes that red barn paint originally was made by mixing linseed oil with a certain kind of clay which resembled decayed iron ore. The result, an inexpensive and lasting paint, was found to have no lead properties which could be poisonous to cows. Francis Henry Taylor, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, dug up the fact that most paint preservatives are reddish, making it easiest to use them in red paint without destroying the color. On the other hand, William W. Wurster, dean of the School of Architecture at the University of California, said that the color red has no special durability factor since it is the oil that is important. Architect W. K. Harrison replied, ”Red paint is cheap, covers well, and does not show dirt.” This view was echoed by Advertising Man Leo Burnett and Scenic Designer Joe Mielziner, who added that red lead was the best protection against the weather. Industrial Designer Harold Van Doren stated that he didn’t know why, but he knew how farmers got their barns painted red — it was done free by the Mail Pouch Tobacco Company in return for advertising privileges. Similarly, Architect Ralph Walker expressed the opinion that barns were painted red to give a background to ads for Carter’s Little Liver Pills. William Otto, executive of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, which manufactures paint as well as glass, so that the red paint used on barns in bygone days derived from Venetian red — an economical, durable paintmaker’s pigment still utilized in low-cost barn paints. He pointed out that it is an earth color, as opposed to chemically derived colors, and has more permanency than the chemical varieties. Industrial Designer Egmont Arens stated that the prosperity of farms in Iowa used to be judged by the color of their barns — white in good times and red in hard times. Business Counselor Sheldon Coons suggested that the reason was that red stood out so well against snow on Christmas cards.
I prefer to believe that farmers of an earlier day felt, as we do today, that when the landscape is blanketed with snow, red barns give a feeling of warmth and security. And so a tradition grew.
Designing for People (1955)
A related post
Dreyfuss on survival forms
[A thin line of Pantone Barn Red, code 18-1531 TCX. Click for the whole barn.]