A Pandemic-Driven Love Affair With All Things Vintage

It’s not often that Home Union, a vintage home furnishings store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, gets its hands on a 1970s Mads Caprani curved floor lamp. But when it does, the $2,200 Danish fixture sells in seconds.

The demand for the teak lamp with a gentle curve and wide pleated shade is so intense that the store’s owners can’t even maintain a waiting list. Instead, when one comes in, they simultaneously list it on their website and announce the news to their 161,000 Instagram followers.

“It’s almost laughable. It’s sold in 30 seconds,” said Daniel King, who co-owns the store with his wife, Meghan Lavery, and likens the experience of selling the lamp to the rush for coveted concert tickets, “but there’s only one” for sale.

The Mads Caprani lamp wasn’t always this popular. Four years ago, it retailed for around $600. Mr. King and Ms. Lavery see the craze as emblematic of a growing hunger for antique and vintage furnishings that started about two years ago, but has accelerated during the pandemic.

Drawn to a vintage and antique look by Instagram, shoppers in their 20s and 30s are increasingly attracted to hard-to-find items and designer names they may have only recently discovered. They are willing to spend the time hunting down a trendy item online, and are patient enough to wait to claim it. Demand for top vintage and antique categories like rugs, desks and table lamps is up at least 20 percent on the online marketplace 1stDibs.com, with some categories up as much as 80 percent.

The conditions are ripe for a love affair with all things vintage. Millions of people have been home for a year, spending their days scrolling through Instagram feeds that have recalibrated to this newly domestic era.

Influencer and celebrity posts of vacations and parties have been replaced with ones of a sequestered life. Look at enough Instagram living rooms and it’s easy to get a lust for, say, a Cesca cane chair, a simple utilitarian chair with a caned seat and back and tubular steel legs, first designed in 1928 by Marcel Breuer and widely replicated. New ones manufactured by Knoll sell for around $1,000. Vintage replicas sell for around $125 when they come into the Dobbin Street Vintage Co-op, which has locations in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

“Everyone wants it because they saw it in an influencer’s home décor post,” said Courtney Wagner, one of seven members of Dobbin Street, which operates like a collective with the members sharing expenses and overhead. “If we get one of those in, 100 people message us and we’re like, ‘We only have two! We only have the two we found this weekend. Sorry. You’ve got to send us your money right now or it’s going to the next buyer.’”

The co-op specializes in affordable vintage home goods, and has always attracted a younger clientele. Foot traffic to the stores, in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, is now close to pre-pandemic levels.

But it’s on Instagram where business is booming. Before the pandemic, the store’s Instagram feed was more of a marketing tool, with most of the co-op’s 72,000 followers visiting for inspiration. Now they’re there to shop, with internet sales accounting for 50 percent of the co-op’s business, up from 25 percent a year ago.

“Before we would sort of post to encourage foot traffic, like, ‘Hey, here are a lot of new things we brought in, come visit the store,’” said Ms. Wagner. “Now it’s literally like, ‘This item is for sale at this price, here are the dimensions.’”

Design from the 1980s is particularly popular among customers in their 20s and early 30s, who are drawn to the colorful, whimsical aesthetic. “It reminds them of their parents’ furniture so they’re attracted to it,” Ms. Wagner said.

Sellers of vintage and antique goods say their clientele has become better educated about design through social media. There is simply more time to tumble through internet rabbit holes of leather and walnut. What’s the point of all those endless Zoom meetings if you can’t spend the time you’re on mute scrolling 1stDibs, ogling an electric-blue glam-rock metal and marble Ettore Sottsass side table from the 1970s for $4,500? Follow a few Instagram hashtags like #vintagedecor or #vintagehome — each with well over 2 million posts — and you can escape into a world of credenzas and coffee tables.

There’s also the Zoom room shame effect. We worry that our virtual co-workers are silently playing their own private game of Room Rater, judging our bookshelves, houseplants and lighting on a scale of one to 10, just like the popular Twitter account.

Position a leather Hardoy butterfly chair with its scooped, hammock-like body and iron legs in the corner of the camera frame, maybe with a fiddle leaf fig towering behind it, and your otherwise unmemorable background is suddenly a 10. In this era, the home office is the new work wardrobe — you may never get dressed anymore, but your backdrop certainly can.

“Because of the pandemic, people are treating their apartments more like fashion and they want to be more unique, so they are more attracted to items that can’t be purchased at a big-box store,” Ms. Wagner said.

Higher-end items are moving fast, too, with dealers saying that they’re regularly selling items with five- and six-figure price tags to buyers in their 30s. Michael Bargo, a designer and antiques dealer who lives in his apartment and gallery on the Upper East Side, and specializes in French midcentury design, said clients with inherited wealth now see their furniture as the next place to plant their money. They “have realized that these are investment pieces and not just decorative items,” he said.

Mr. Bargo, who has 61,000 Instagram followers, said that his young clients liken their furniture choices to buying a piece of arka or real estate. And because they’re home, they have plenty of time to admire that Charlotte Perriand wall-mounted shelf, a simple avant-garde wood and metal design,which one client recently bought for $85,000.

Dori and Daniel Rootenberg, the owners of Jacaranda Tribal, have been selling antiques online since 2007. The couple, who work out of their Upper West Side apartment, specialize in traditional arts from Africa, Oceania and North America — such as masks, shields and decorative bowls — with items selling from a few hundred dollars up to $500,000 for museum-quality items.

Over the past year, they have noticed their clients getting younger and finding their business through Instagram. The new enthusiasm has helped make 2020 and 2021 their strongest sales years ever, Mr. Rootenberg said.

Said Ms. Rootenberg, “People haven’t been able to travel. It kind of fulfills that need of buying something from a far-off land,” she said. “It fulfills that wanderlust.”

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