One of the surprise success stories of the past year has been a renewed interest in antique furniture and homewares. Local antique dealers have reported record online sales to customers both in Ireland and abroad. One reason cited is a growing desire among buyers for more sustainable furnishing choices, and these items represent a way to preserve the past while protecting the future.
There are several reasons why people moved away from antique buying in the first place, the main one being that it was seen as expensive. The arrival of mass-produced, low-cost furniture meant people had access to less costly alternatives.
More people live in smaller homes nowadays than in previous generations, so antique pieces didn’t always fit. We also became busier and didn’t have the time to hunt for antique furniture, so convenience trumped quality. And finally, the trend for built-in wardrobes and other fitted joinery did away with the need for free-standing antique pieces.
The explosion in low-cost self-assembly furniture in the past 20 years has led to a disposable attitude towards furniture. Pieces now tend to be replaced rather than looked after and passed on to future generations.
The negative environmental impact of regularly replacing goods has brought about a change in attitude towards disposable possessions. More and more people are actively seeking out products that will last rather than end up in landfill.
Very little is built to be repaired any more. Electrical items, for example, come with warnings against opening them up. But recently, a movement is underway, pushing back against the disposable culture of everything from fashion to furniture.
The pandemic has also triggered a renewed interest in DIY home projects. The support for local craft businesses suggests a move away from convenience furniture. People are also beginning to realise that not all antiques are expensive, and in many cases, antiques can be cheaper to buy than contemporary furniture. For example, you can pick up a dining table and chairs in a hard-wearing material such as oak for between €200 and €300 at auction. Not only will it last a lifetime and be something to pass on to the next generation, it may also hold its value.
Preserving the past
Buying an antique is also an investment in a little piece of history. Each piece will have a story and these stories are often as valuable as the pieces themselves.
It also supports the craft industry. Highly skilled people whose craft is often passed down from generation to generation, are typically experienced in maintaining, restoring and repairing these beautiful items.
We have lost many of our great craftspeople over the years as most things are no longer made here and demand has dwindled for furniture repair or restoration. The renewed interest in antiques will hopefully also revitalise this industry.
Protect the future
“The disposable furniture market is a dangerous route if you believe we are on the wrong path environmentally,” says antique dealer Niall Mullen. “A Georgian chest of drawers has a carbon footprint 16 times lower than a contemporary chest of drawers.” Two hundred years ago the timber used to make furniture would have been cut locally. Now timber is shipped from all over the world. Furniture items build up so many air miles before they are even made and often end up in landfill.
The cocktail cabinet
With people confined to their homes and no access to bars or restaurants, Mullen says the cocktail cabinet is enjoying a revival in the past 12 months. “This week alone I have had five enquiries,” he says. Cocktail cabinets first became popular in the 1920s and endured – art deco style being favoured – as commonly found pieces of suburban furniture right up to the 1950s. In the US, their popularity took firm hold during Prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s because people wanted to have cocktail parties at home as they couldn’t drink in bars. “Here we are 90 years later, the bars are closed, we’re all at home and cocktail cabinets are popular again,” he laughs. Their discreet exteriors were purposely designed to conceal their real purpose from any law-abiding visitors.
It’s unreasonable to imagine everything you buy for your home could be pre-loved, but it’s worth pausing from time to time to see if there are older versions of what you need that might be worth investing in.