When Samantha Manocchio moved to Washington from California last year, she brought her clothing and not much more. The 23-year-old rented a studio apartment and set out on a search for furnishings, including a table to anchor her small space.
Manocchio is part of a wave of consumers who, in the past two years, have been buying mid-century modern burlwood buffets, 1970s velvet sofas and French farm tables.
The pandemic has created a bit of a perfect storm for the used and antique furniture business.
All this time at home has made people yearn for a fresh look. The spike in home remodeling and all the moving around people have done created new spaces to fill. Frustrated consumers still waiting for a headboard and bedside tables they ordered six months ago are increasingly willing to buy previously owned sofas, just as they are willing to scoop up used Hondas and Chanel bags.
Popular online sources for antique, vintage and more recent pre-owned furniture report strong sales. Anything bought secondhand and made in the past 30 years is considered pre-owned; items made between 30 and 100 years ago are vintage; and anything more than 100 years old is an antique, according to Anna Brockway, co-founder and president of Chairish. Chairish’s business in 2021 was up 42 percent compared with 2020. In 2021, Kaiyo had five times the revenue it had in 2019. Searches for vintage or antique couches on Etsy increased by 126 percent in 2021 compared with 2019.
Reusing old furniture is a natural choice to reduce waste for sustainability-minded consumers. According to Environmental Protection Agency statistics, 12.1 million tons of furniture and furnishings waste was generated in 2018, up from 2.2 million tons in 1960. The EPA also reports that 80.1 percent of what was discarded ended up in landfills or disposal centers.
“As people increasingly shop with their values, buying vintage furniture enables sustainability-minded shoppers to reduce their carbon footprint, all while supporting small, independent businesses,” says Dayna Isom Johnson, Etsy’s trend expert.
Younger customers in particular are discovering that old items add character to a room. “Antiques have been around for a long time and have a proven durability and a classic style,” says Daphna Peled, owner of Pillar & Post. She says her millennial and Gen Z customers, such as Manocchio, realize these pieces aren’t just a fad. “Buying a piece with history that is also a greener alternative is an added bonus,” Peled adds.
Chairish, a curated online marketplace for upscale vintage home furnishings that started in 2013, has found that the saving-the-planet aspect of pre-owned pieces is an important driving force in the market. “It’s gone from being a style thing to also being an environmental advantage,” Brockway says. Of Chairish’s total inventory (around 850,000 items), 95 percent comes from dealers, collectors and galleries. “Things are shipped point to point and not from one huge warehouse, which is frankly more environmentally conscious,” Brockway says.
Alpay Koralturk, chief executive of Kaiyo, founded the online marketplace for pre-owned furniture in 2014 after he realized how often he was moving, as well as buying and selling furniture. He wanted to make it easier for consumers to get rid of and acquire pre-owned pieces and was intent on making sustainability a core value.
Kaiyo works similarly to an online consignment business. It will pick up approved pieces from sellers and photograph and post them on its website. (Current locations served are the New York metro area, Philadelphia and nearby suburbs and Washington, as well as parts of Virginia and Maryland.) Sellers can get an instant offer from the company or wait to see what their pieces sell for and get a percentage of the amount. Buyers can pick items up at a warehouse or pay a fee to have them delivered. As with vintage clothing, brands matter. The five currently best-selling Kaiyo brands are CB2, West Elm, Herman Miller, Article and Design Within Reach, Koralturk says. “We are also seeing a grandmillennial trend,” he says. Heritage brands such as Ethan Allen and Drexel Heritage are having a moment. And floral sofas are back, like it or not.
At the Gallery at 200 Lex, a 33,000-square-foot vintage and antiques emporium at the New York Design Center, gallery director Emily Collins says business has been brisk, especially from designers desperate to furnish clients’ empty homes. Collins says the 52 dealers who maintain booths there stock “pieces that are ready to rock and roll,” including leather inlaid desks and MCM Vladimir Kagan curved sofas. The dealers also post items on incollect.com, an online antiques and vintage marketplace, and buyers can then arrange through the gallery to have pieces shipped anywhere.
“Everyone wants something right now, something really special,” Collins says. “You can walk in and say, ‘I want that pair of Italian club chairs. How quickly can you get them to me?’ With local shippers, we can get them out in a few days. If they can get a big enough UberXL, we are happy to help them load.”
Designers such as Jay Jeffers in San Francisco are scrambling for available furniture. “Two adults are working on one side of the house, and the kids are in school on the other,” he says. They need more space and more furniture — and they need it fast. “But everybody is backed up,” Jeffers says. “One manufacturer just told us that last month’s 16-week lead time for a sectional sofa is now 36 weeks.” So Jeffers is sourcing more vintage upholstery that he can have recovered, but even that is taking 14 weeks.
Sofas are big sellers at many vintage shops, including Baltimore’s Wishbone Reserve, a go-to location in the hip Hampden neighborhood where shoppers, including decorators and set designers, appreciate the mix of art deco, Victorian and MCM. Filmmaker John Waters sometimes stops by. “Used upholstery, who would have thought,” says co-owner Julie Lilienfeld, who says customers tell her they don’t want to wait months “to get their upholstered pieces from Crate & Barrel.” She adds: “We get stuff in and it sells instantly.”
Antiquing once required having a car with a trunk, but social media has made it possible for others to easily join the hunt. Instagram had already expanded the market for those looking remotely for antique and vintage pieces when the pandemic hit and many antique centers and flea markets had to close. The shift brought consumers just a few direct messages away from scoring the teak bar cart or 1980s swivel pouf of their dreams.
Wishbone Reserve recently sold a sofa and two chairs by hot postmodern Italian architect Tobia Scarpa for $10,000 on Instagram. (Scarpa’s work is also owned by Hollywood designer Kelly Wearstler.) The customer paid to have them shipped to Los Angeles. “We had none of this national business before the pandemic,” Lilienfeld says. Other frequently requested items are patio furniture, Dansk enamel cookware and anything bar-related: carts, teak ice buckets, nice glassware. “I think that a lot of people are at home drinking these days,” she says.
When stores shuttered in spring 2020, Mari Ann Maher, co-owner and shopkeeper of the Antique and Artisan Gallery in Stamford, Conn., quickly pivoted. She posted items twice a day on Instagram and added a virtual showroom feature to the website. “The first thing I thought when we were told by the state that we had to close was that I have to reinvent myself,” Maher says, as she worried about how her 22,000-square-foot gallery could survive without shoppers. But to her surprise, sales from social media soon outpaced sales from the website. New Yorkers who fled to Connecticut for more space turned to Maher to furnish their pandemic-era outposts, thus avoiding long delivery times at furniture retailers. Items to furnish home office setups, lighting, upholstery and even textiles, she says, are still flying off the virtual shelves.
There are new players on Instagram, too. Holly Rockbrune and Jenna Parkes, childhood friends who grew up together in Ontario, started selling curated “drops,” or collections, of French heirlooms and antiques in 2019 on the platform. The feed for Joliette, which has more than 56,000 followers, is a grid of aspirational vignettes plucked right out of a chic Parisian apartment, featuring bentwood bistro chairs, tableaus of pottery and brass candlesticks on rustic tables. They want customers to envision the items in “snapshots” and to be able to re-create something similar, even if they’re not anywhere near a French or Canadian “brocante,” or flea market.
Mirrors are always in demand on the site (they range from $250 to $2,500), especially gilded, “iconically French” 19th-century Louis Philippe statement ones.
“There’s almost a global style now,” Parkes says. “It’s like the world has opened up in terms of design inspiration.”
Helen Carefoot contributed to this report.