Consider the abandoned couch, sitting limply on the side of the road. It hits a nerve — the gross, visual embodiment of our culture: we use, we destroy, we discard. Council clean-up looms, and mountains of dumped furniture, spare parts and miscellanea congregate kerbside, ready for the few salvage hunters that uncover treasures in wonder. For the remainder, landfill is often the final destination.
The days when furniture told stories of life experiences seem long gone. As Antiques Roadshow proudly airs, heirlooms would traditionally pass from generation to generation, metamorphosing in purpose and use over the years. Anything from crusted jewels to apothecary desks and solid wooden chests pass through the family tree. We watch as innocently oblivious Brits have their lives changed in an instant, learning the value of these waylaid antiques.
As heirlooms become a rarity, we have disconnected from the home-based pieces we own. The idea of ‘value’ has altered. As housing prices soar, many of us live transiently, floating between rentals and cities. We don’t put down roots, and there is no use in nesting. Our furnishings and the way we therein treat them reflects this change in ideals. In 2019, the British Heart Foundation shops survey found 30 per cent of UK adults throw away furniture and homewares that could otherwise be recycled, donated, or reused. Ease of lifestyle, Marie Kondo-ism, and a sense of curated minimalism out-value the well-made and enduring. Trends come and go; so too, it seems, does our furniture.
Blame it on the ‘Millennial aesthetic’ or our obsession with the new, but there is a push for nice things that require minimal effort and exceedingly low cost. While the conversation around sustainable fashion picks up speed, the furniture industry has managed to come out fairly unscathed so far. Our choice furnishings are budget, achieved via cheap labour, unsustainable materials and countless chemicals and dyes — the signs of the mass-produced. Once hardy and solid, our chairs, tables, and shelves are now lightweight, flimsy, and convenient to a fault. To the incinerator, these pieces are doomed.
A suite of Victorian hat blocks, estimate NZ$100 – $200 each.
A Marilyn Sainty Cocktail Chair c. 1988, crafted in New Zealand by fashion and furniture designer Marilyn Sainty. Comprising of a painted wooden seat, a powder-coated steel structure and a rubber arm and backrest, recycled from a milking-machine hose. In 2005, Marilyn Sainty announced that she was retiring from making clothes to exclusively “grow trees and make furniture”. With this chair, she had the intention of creating something “barely there”. Carefully selecting and re-using simple materials, she refined the geometric forms until creating an abstract and elegant design giving off an impression of lightness. Provenance: bought from Gus Fisher Gallery in late-1980s. Estimate NZ$1,500 – $3,000. Price Realised incl. BP: NZ$5,405.
A Stephane Rondel ‘Tablecloth’ Table. An iconic design, balancing elegance and playfulness with use of cast aluminium. Impressed makers mark to the top. Estimate NZ$2,500 – $3,500.
All this begs the question: if we furnished our home with pieces from another time, would they meet the same misfortune? What if our desks told tales of decades of writing, faint ink stains dotted about, or our coffee table hinted at debaucherous parties past with faint glassware rings?
When there are no family heirlooms to speak of, a circular furniture economy relies on the growing online resale industry and auction houses. Pop culture would have us believe the auction house is austere and reserved for those dripping in diamonds — dealers in fine arts and seven-figure-stealing artworks. The times are changing.
New Zealand’s premier auction house, Webb’s, satisfies the growing focus on adorning the home in a daunt-free environment. With a history dating back to 1976, the auction house has since directed their vision toward new buyers, led by a team of ambitious, young specialists. As Ben Erren, Webb’s Head of Decorative Arts, says, “I had to be a part of it.”
To engage the millennial, Webb’s has upped the ante on digital presence and holds regular auctions geared explicitly to this market. Erren notes, “Our online auctions have a really great offering of modern design furniture, ceramics, mid-century art glass amongst other things — priced for those looking to begin their collection.”
It is more than a ploy to modernise the auction house; it’s about pushing circularity and a sustainable furniture movement. When used furniture enters the public forum again, there are evident environmental benefits, and we become the stewards of pieces that have lived previous lives. Erren also notes the importance of “recognising the enduring design and build quality of these fantastic pieces,” mirroring the value conversation.
Erren recalls the simple teak-framed mid-century sofa he purchased from Webb’s for $400: “The couch was 60-70 years old when I got it, and it still looks as sleek today as it did back then.” Purchasing a couch today in the primary market costs more from a mainstream brand, or grants one with a feeble polyester two-seater alternative at a similar price. Why go there when the well-made and timeless are readily available? Quality, pre-loved items promise rewards.
The writing is on the wall: it’s time to enter the market. “Buy things that you will enjoy,” Erren wisely adds. Create a home with character, a space that epitomises the complexities of you. Fast furniture just doesn’t cut it.
An Eames for Herman Miller Tandem Seat. The original Eames Tandem Seating first appeared in Chicago O’Hare Airport and Washington D.C. Dulles Airport, and its iconic form can now be found around the world. This iteration presents a refined injection molded capsule seating finishing in supple leather. Estimate NZ$2,500 – $3,500.
A Hondo Armless Lounge Chair by Norix. Designed and manufactured in the United States for commercial installation. Structurally robust, and reduced minimalist form. Estimate NZ$400 – $600.