There he was, in a tent in a park at London’s top decorative antiques fair. Standing in funky trainers, Tom Ford glasses, designer jeans and a Prada jacket. A successful City banker friend of my boyfriend, trying to look at least ten years younger. A mid-life crisis and an attempt to stay relevant maybe? It doesn’t matter, it’s what’s in his wallet that the mercenary are interested in. And isn’t every dealer and fair organiser (rightly and fairly) looking for exactly this sort of buyer, who they may be able to turn into a regular client and even, dare I say it, a collector?
He’d just bought his first million-pound house in Kensington, and was looking to furnish it. He knows what I do so addressed me direct and directly. “I don’t want mid-century modern.”, he said. “I get the feeling it’ll be out of fashion and half the price in three years time.”, he continued. “I want the proper stuff, something real.” His Russian boyfriend needed convincing, however. “He likes everything gleaming and new, he just doesn’t get this old stuff.” The slightly turned up lip and stony cold glare honed by generations surviving the Arctic cold and straight-up vodka shots told me that he’d have a harder time than he thought.
From rococo to Arab glitz to stuff that’s chic and not so shabby any more, there’ll be something out there to suit these two moneyed young bucks. But it won’t be mid-century and nor will it be Modernist. This trend has been backed up by a young dealer I really like and trust, who is considering abandoning their well-known mid-century shop in favour of dealing from fairs in objects from a range of different styles and periods.
The smart people, and so the smart money, are seemingly turning away from the tyranny of exclusively modern interiors now that they’ve freed themselves from the dictatorship of the clean functional line. And designer and interior magazines are following them, presaging a major change in the demands of the market place amongst ‘the rest’. Such magazines always do, bloodhound-like as they are with their desperation to be current. On the flip-side, the fact that these ‘new’ buyers are having their look represented in such esteemed publications is good – they can showcase their homes to their friends, secure in the knowledge that they’re ‘cutting edge’ and ‘bang on trend’, as they used to say five years ago. It’s ‘proper’, that is.
But perhaps people like this pair are more in touch with themselves than we, or even they, might imagine. After all, Modernist and even mid-century modern interiors are largely impractical for real human life. Surfaces get dust and crumbs, and amass newspapers, books and torn-open envelopes. Coats, shoes and keys are abandoned wherever after a long, hard day at the office and a cold, wet journey home, as the kettle is turned on or the corkscrew operated. Children leave their toys and clothes wherever they see fit, regardless of what they are told. Quite simply, humans mess up modernism.
Tough financial times (even if they are getting better, as the government keeps assuring us) and typical British weather mean that most of us look for comfort when we get home, somewhere where we can relax and feel – quite literally – at home. Even high-flying City types are not immune to this, it seems. This means surrounding ourselves with things that we love, and things that remind us of our life, experiences and warm, happy times. Something ‘proper’. That could be granny’s favourite tea set, a worn and overstuffed armchair ideal for catching up on the latest boxed-set from, or a quirky vase bought from a French flea market after one too many bottles of wine at lunch.
Or it could be a captivating story behind an object, something to stimulate the imagination, perhaps in a ‘Boy’s Own’ way, and bring history to life. For me, it’s all about this sort of mix-and-match right now. Georgian with mid-century (both often share the same feel for line and proportion), or Victorian against the exposed brick and floorboards of a trendy Hoxton loft apartment.
But there are at least two sides to value – emotional and financial. Tough financial times apply again, and our youthful buyer has finally spotted a fad and realised that fads and fashions change. He wants to invest his money wisely. The Antiques Trade Gazette reported recently that average prices for traditional ‘brown furniture’ had fallen last year yet again. The wisest and most successful dealers I have known have always bought quality in a recession, when prices were rock bottom. When economic circumstances change, prices will rise and they will be able to cash in. Perhaps that time is coming ever closer? And, for the buyer, it means the same. A good investment, no? Typical for a successful City banker to spot it, consciously or not.
Something ‘proper’ or ‘real’ can also apply to the materials and construction. We all know that solid mahogany or oak furniture is better made than much flimsy plywood, chipboard or MDF. You’re buying traditional craftsmanship, something ‘built to last’. And it will.
How does one attract these ‘new’ buyers? I think it’s all about catching their eye and then catching their spirit and emotions. Show them ‘how to do it’ with an appealing mixed display and let their eyes drift across the range until they spot something they love. Then they can translate what you have created into the language of their own room. Pieces have to be presented in a way that these people understand, and that often means creating a vignette, even a corner of a room, in the gusty field, cattle shed or damp marquee your stand is located in. They don’t get ‘granny’s china cabinet’, nor do they see serried ranks of vases on shelves (and I’m guilty of that!) as something to aspire to. In fact, they’re quite the opposite of what they want.
As merchandising improves across Britain’s high street stores and retail park stores, we dealers have to step up to the mark if we want our trade to survive and develop. It’s all moved on, and we must too. In many ways, we’re selling dreams and stories (whoever or whatever they belong to) as much as we’re selling antiques. We’ve got ‘one up’ on the high street and retail park vendors as we’re selling better stories and better quality that will both truly endure –you can’t say the same for an MDF wardrobe.
If we don’t shape up in this way we’ll effectively become wholesalers for those wise dealers that know how to do it – mark up to a premium price, and sell the dream, quality, story and look to an end user. Ultimately, we’re all part of a ‘food chain’ of buying and selling, but it’s up to where you want and can afford to be in today’s.
First published on IACF.co.uk, the organisers of the largest antiques fairs in the UK at Newark, Swinderby, Ardingly and other locations across the nation.