Antique furniture has an unlikely new face: millennials. Using Instagram as a springboard, they have replaced paddles with DMs and are housing inventory in home garages rather than dusty shopfronts. One of the first Australians to package vintage and second-hand furniture this way was Pip Newell, 29, who launched Curated Spaces in 2017 after successfully buying and selling pieces on Facebook groups. “Instagram was single-handedly the most important driver for business,” Newell says. “I don’t think Curated Spaces would exist otherwise. The alternative was to create a website or open a store, and the level of investment required for that was scary and risky.”
Over the past five years or so, the resurgence of vintage furniture, especially mid-century modern designs, has filled a gap in the market that for so long was either highbrow or ubiquitous and mass produced. When friends Holly Thompson, 34, and Stephanie Lane, 30, moved out of share houses, they weren’t in a position to buy designer but didn’t want just Ikea. Buying and selling vintage furniture online was a way to get access to affordable but unique pieces for themselves and make extra money on the side. Together, they launched Goodspace, sourcing everything from one-off 1960s Flerbelle velvet armchairs to unique pleated lamps. “We’ve always been conscious of keeping prices reasonable so that anyone in our age bracket can afford it. This makes beautiful, well-made furniture accessible,” says Lane. “And being online, it means younger people don’t have to feel uncomfortable going into intimidating stores.”
The market for vintage and antique furniture has grown exponentially with Gen Y, who have grown up with e-commerce as the norm. “There’s no reluctance among this demographic to buy furniture online without seeing it first. That’s something that really differentiates this audience,” says Newell, who sells on-trend modernist pieces and rare antiques including 19th-century Chinese sideboards. “More than at any other time, it’s a demographic highly motivated to shop sustainably. There’s been such a movement away from fast furniture.”
Unlike Gumtree or eBay, Instagram’s curated feed means it already holds a captive audience. “Users are already in a particular mindset,” says Rachel Donath, 37, who launched Inventory by Rachel Donath last year, turning a lifelong passion for European homewares and furniture into a fully-fledged business. “People don’t necessarily go to Instagram to shop,” Donath says. “It’s more for inspiration and escapism. But when their feed features posts of aspirational design, they may be inspired to do something similar. A post from a vintage seller may help them accomplish that.”
Collecting IRL (in real life) is about the thrill of the hunt; online it’s about the “thrill of the find”, says Donath. The provenance of her pieces varies wildly, with bimonthly shipments bringing in anything from 20th century Murano glass chandeliers to a 17th century Aubusson tapestry and, now, her own small line of furniture, which is made locally. Using gut instinct instead of algorithms or metrics, Donath shares new products “impulsively”, which keeps followers on their toes. “I don’t really have a system, to be honest. When I have something beautiful to share it’s hard to hold off.” A well-kept secret among Australia’s best interior designers, Donath communicates with buyers via private message for confidentiality, particularly important for more expensive pieces.
Conversely, Goodspace, which has more than 43,000 followers, operates on a public first come, first served basis. Priority goes to the person that comments “SOLD”, followed by “NIL” (next in line). Prices and dimensions are listed upfront and most of what’s posted sells out immediately. It’s a transparent exchange Thompson and Lane say resonates with younger customers and extends to all their product photography, which they shoot at home. Similarly, Newell, who last year moved to a webstore as Curated Spaces hit just under 118,000 followers (it’s now at 124,000), shoots everything on her iPhone. “I think people can relate to this sort of styling more than if they were taken professionally on a DSL camera,” she says. “I like to think the authenticity comes through so people can see it’s a person behind the account and not some carefully formulated equation.”