Jonathan Knight may have found fame as a member of New Kids on the Block, but this former teen heartthrob has also transitioned from crushing dance moves to renovating farmhouses.
Knight hosts HGTV’s “Farmhouse Fixer” along with longtime friend and interior designer Kristina Crestin. In the series, which airs on Wednesdays, Knight and Crestin renovate old farmhouses in New England, restoring them to their former glory.
Now, they’re back for Season 2, showing off new designs, new challenges, and even a touch of the paranormal. Knight and Crestin spoke to us about the new season, their friendship, and the special challenges that come with restoring a farmhouse.
How did you two meet and end up working together on ‘Farmhouse Fixer’?
Jonathan Knight: I think like 20 years ago, she worked at a design firm I’d hired, and the first day we met, I just fell in love with her personality, her design style. And it has been nonstop since.
Kristina Crestin: I was less than a year out of college when I met Jon and worked on his project. Jon was the first client that I met that was really into design and engaged and super excited about all the things he wanted to do, which was different than the average homeowner.
So it’s crazy now to think that that truly was 20 years ago. When did we get old?
What made you interested in renovating farmhouses? Is there something special about farmhouses for you?
Knight: My great-uncles all had their farms in Canada, and I would spend summers there, and I fell in love with the whole farm aspect really early on as a kid. I grew up in the city in an old house, but we had a carriage house on the property and slowly I filled up the barn with ponies, some sheep, goats, hens, gardens in the backyard.
So it was kind of my foray into the farm life, and later on, I moved out of the city, moved out to the country, and got about 20 acres. I think it’s very relaxing to live off the land, enjoy nature.
Crestin: I actually hadn’t worked on that many older houses until this opportunity to do this show with Jon popped up.
So, doing this show has brought me the opportunity to focus on older homes, which is a whole other set of problem-solving—kind of neat to take on because it, like, just flexes this other part of my brain.
So it’s like right now, I have a split personality because I love the master planning of new construction. But I love just getting in there and the thought process involved with all these farmhouses. You really need to think on your feet a lot, because every day you might uncover something new.
What’s the most challenging request that you’ve gotten from homeowners?
Crestin: For one of our projects, they wanted to do the reverse of what some people do: They wanted to take out the office that was right off the front foyer and put a mudroom in the front of the house—which, if you really think about new construction, no one ever would design it that way because the mudroom is usually tucked over by the garage or it’s hidden away. It’s usually not front and center.
All I could think of is, like, “Oh, my gosh. Well, it’d better be beautiful.”
They wanted a boot-washing station because it’s a working horse farm. So, for like a minute, it was like, “How are we going to do that and make it look good?” And in the end, it’s probably one of those bad-ass mudrooms we’ve ever done because there was this pressure of everyone seeing it from the front door. So that was a little bit weird, but it turned out so wonderful.
Are there any specific problems that have made these old farmhouses challenging?
Knight: In Season 1, we had some cracked pipes behind the wall that were very unexpected. We had a whole back wall of a kitchen that was just completely gnawed by carpenter ants.
And that’s what comes with old houses sometimes. I think a lot of people don’t think that if they’re going to renovate, they may have to build a whole, brand-new back wall and may have to redo the majority of the plumbing.
Crestin: Yeah. Did you forget that we needed the fire department in one house? In that house, we uncovered steel. Somebody must have done the renovation not a long time ago, and there was all this weird steel. So Jon had to cut through the steel, which made sparks. The fire department had to be there. You open up the wall, and then you need to, like, pivot and shift the schedule and move as fast as you can. It’s kind of crazy.
What are your tricks for making these houses feel like true farmhouses instead of trendy, modern farmhouse styles?
Crestin: You’ll see there’s a lot of millwork, beadboard, and beams on the ceiling. Paying attention to ceilings becomes the biggest thing, which also really drives the budget. Because when you think about an older home and you don’t want it to look like a brand-new kitchen, the only way to do that is to layer on more detail. If you strip out all that detail, you wouldn’t have the feeling of an older home.
And likewise, materials matter. If you really look, a lot of them are always using natural stones like slate and brick and soapstone. We’re trying not to use new materials. And plumbing finishes: We use a lot of unlacquered brass or oil-rubbed bronze, and we want those finishes to patina over time, which is completely the reverse of the trend of durability and looking perfect forever. But in a farmhouse, you don’t want that. You want things to show age.
So I think it’s all of these little decisions strung together that correctively create that feel.
Do you two ever butt heads when it comes to design?
Knight: A few times. I mean, Kristina will show me a color palette and she’s like, “Am I crazy for doing this?” And I’m like, “Yeah, a little bit.” So I think on color, we butt heads a lot. But it always seemed to turn out just perfect.
Crestin: Staircases are somehow our kryptonite. I’ll be like, “OK, I’m painting the staircase,” and then Jon looks at me, horrified. Then we just go through all the pros and cons about what we’re going to do and what we’re salvaging, what’s not worth salvaging. But that’s what compromise is about. You see each other’s point of view, and then you pick a direction forward.
Do you have any other tips for homeowners looking to renovate, whether they have a farmhouse or not?
Crestin: Planning is your friend. When you rush, you make mistakes and you end up spending more money. One of my clients referred me to a ton of friends of hers, and she kept telling them I was insurance. I was like, “What about my mad design skills?” She’s like, “Oh, yeah. Well, that’s a given.”
The budget can really sneak up on people, because a lot of times, they get a budget from a general contractor and it’s just the basics, and they find all of the things not included…
So planning, planning, planning. Sounds so boring, but it will save you in the end.