The sustainable eco-generation wants you to know they're in it for the long-haul
New York - For Janie Roan, the 4 a.m. start time was all part of the bargain as she trundled out of her Brooklyn based apartment in the hopes of making it to Maine by opening time for one of the state's annual fall antique and vintage fairs. "There's a beautiful butternut chest of drawers being offered by a dealer up there," said Roan, "that's hopefully still going to be there when I arrive."
Roan certainly isn't unusual in her early morning quest for that perfect piece of furniture, but what is unusual about this particular scenario is her age and previous interests as they relate to the decorative arts. Growing up in Brooklyn, the 28 year old says that in the past her primary source for decorating often involved a trip to Ikea or Crate & Barrel. "Flat-pack furniture was just part of my generation," says Roan, "but somewhere along the way, it just started to shift and align with my ideas about sustainability and creating a living space that felt warm and cozy rather than austere and cold." Prioritizing her belief in a balanced socio-economic future, Roan says that her discovery of buying 'old and used' items came to be somewhat revelatory. "I simply had no idea there were so many unique designs and pieces from the past that were out there and still available for purchase," she says, "it was almost like the lifting of a veil." While Roan's personal collection has grown over the past few years, she also acknowledges that many of the items that are of interest to her today are becoming harder and harder to afford. "Five years ago when I first started searching for antique three-drawer chests, they were cheap, very cheap," she says. "Today, that butternut chest I was chasing would have likely been gone before noon if I hadn't gotten there early." Roan adds that with many of her friends now accompanying her on the early morning upcycling adventures, it's become both a boon and a bane for her collecting passion. "It's great that we can all share a ride together," she says, "but my friends are also the one's helping to drive up the prices."
Many dealers in major urban centers are likely to concur with Roan, as prices have been escalating quickly on almost everything from Early American rustic to even semi-ornate Victorian pieces. Jonathon DeVries a long-time dealer from Newport, Rhode Island, who frequents and displays at antique shows up and down the Atlantic coast, says that he's witnessed an explosion in interest and prices over the last three or four years that he attributes directly to a younger generation. "It's even younger than the millennials," he says, "we're getting kids in their early twenties who are becoming primary buyers." DeVries thinks that while millennials may have started the trend, it's definitely Gen-Z's who are moving the ball forward today. "Things like Pyrex and Corning Ware dishes, that we used to give away, have recently jumped up in value so quickly that we're not even sure what to price it at anymore," he says. However, it's not a straight across-the-board value increase for everyone acknowledges DeVries, with some of his dealer friends inventory still languishing at the end of shows. "If you're trying to sell giant over-sized Victorian pieces to the younger generation living in apartments or condos, then you're going to be missing the boat," he says, "but if you stick to the smaller items like washstands and side tables, they'll move quickly."
Henry McDavid, a young dealer from New Hampshire who now specializes in antique spool furniture, says that he started in business as a 'picker' when just out of college in his early twenties. "Heading out of 2010 probably wasn't the best of decades for antiques, that's for sure," he says, "but one thing that was great about that time was the price." McDavid quipped that he could literally buy out-of-favor items like Victorian and early spool furniture for pennies on the dollar, and in many cases for free as long as he agreed to haul it away. "It's astounding to think," he says, "because today, I can't keep these pieces in stock." McDavid acknowledges that even items like odd sized spindle beds that require specially sized mattresses are usually spoken for long before hitting the showroom floor. "I'm lucky that I had sufficient storage to keep these pieces for a later day," he says, "but in reality, it was also just good timing that a younger generation came along and were interested in this kind of stuff." McDavid says he's long been trumpeting the news that buyers are much younger now than before, and seem to be more aggressive when it comes to getting what they want. "Five years ago people were making lowball offers or asking for a markdown, today it's a bidding war, and they're usually under the age of thirty." While McDavid's listing prices on his spool-themed website have risen sharply in recent months, he's also quick to point out that that it won't take long for source sellers to start raising their 'asking' price. "I was ahead of the curve," he says, "but I doubt those same folks will be letting me haul it away for free again."
Nostalgia is in says Emily Harris of the collectors co-op, a loosely knit group of store owners on Etsy that come together to share tales of buy-and-sell stories with the intent of targeting specific offerings to prospective clients. "It just keeps getting younger," says Harris, "we're almost solely concentrating on online buyers in their mid-thirties and below now because that's who's driving our sales." Items like wall, chandelier, and furniture-top lighting are all seeing steep price increases due to demand says Harris. "We're buying from salvage yards, home-reno companies and more, and we still can't keep pace." While Harris says she's happy to ride the skyrocketing values, she wonders when the rising price-point on vintage home décor is going to peak. "It's not really sustainable," she says. "I'm seeing young people paying upwards of four times for an item that I had listed for a quarter of that price only a year ago." Harris believes the post-pandemic need for a world that's more comforting and inviting, rather than minimalist and modern is at the root of the younger generations 'buy-old' craze. "I think the pandemic maybe showed just how vulnerable our modern world was," she said, "and why those ties to the past can be so enticing."
If anyone has need to question who the new demographic is when it comes to the decorative arts, then look no further than the world famous antique and vintage market at Brimfield, says Don Smith, a semi-retired dealer who notes that in his estimation, the attending crowds at Brimfield have turned from mostly blue-hairs and hats in recent years, to inked and ear-budded. "I've been attending, and sometimes showing for over thirty-years," says Smith, "and I've never seen so many youngsters clogging the aisles and booths." Smith isn't alone in his estimation either; David Orr, who's also a regular at Brimfield, and writer at large for a number of decorative arts publications, says that you can see the influence of this generation in the offerings. "Things that weren't even thought of as being collectible just a few short years ago, like 1980s homewares, are suddenly demanding exorbitant prices now - even by show standards." Orr says that he's interviewed numerous 'progressive' dealers from this year's show recently, and they all tend to tell a similar story, "Prices are good, very good."
Adding to this, many young dealers are also reporting that hot and in-fashion used furniture websites such as Chairish and Kaiyo, are also helping to up the price-points on antique and vintage goods by making it easier for people to see that their mother's old Formica kitchen table from the 70's, might actually be worth more than a simple donation-receipt from the local thrift store. Sites like Craigslist are even showing higher priced comparative examples from other websites, when you search their site for a similar item. When all of this is combined say dealers, it's going to push up prices. Scott McAdams, who works for one of the largest flea markets on the west coast, says that most of his dealers are young and extremely tech savvy. "They'll show prospective customers what something is worth on their phone or laptop so they can compare prices to online sites instantly." McAdams notes that it's not just the dealers who've become younger at his venue, but also the attendees. "What's funny," he says, "is that despite the technology use, the prices aren't going down, but up, way up."
For many in the business though, rising prices (even inflated ones), are a welcome relief, and hopefully a portent of a return to a long and secured stretch of interest and pricing in the world of antique and vintage decorative arts. While some may lament the uncertainty that comes with such price hikes, if Janie Roan's passion for her butternut chest-of-drawers is any indication of that generation's long-term interest, then there's also a decent chance the rest of us in this industry are going to be in good hands for some time to come.
- A.I.A. Staff Writers
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