I am writing this from an imitation Arne Vodder dining chair that is roughly two inches too short for my Ikea table, forcing me to keep my arms elevated at an unnatural height, while also leaving my neck and shoulders dangerously hunched. My back hurts. I could move to my Milo Baughman-style armchair, but frankly the situation there is even worse, as the extended seat cushion and rigid top rail mold my posture into the shape of the letter Ç (the cedilla is my legs). Not so long ago I was happy to work from a $30 Target computer chair, but today I wouldn’t dream of keeping such a bleak object in my apartment, no matter how comfortable.
What happened? I got a little older, started making slightly more money, and found myself caring about furniture. To be clear, it’s not like I’m reading books about Bauhaus or saving up for an Eames chair (I had to Google to figure out who my chairs are ripping off), but I am concerned with having a cool couch in a way I never thought I could be.
A quick glance into my peers’ more-adult apartments shows I’m hardly alone in this inclination. My Instagram feed is filled with stylish interiors, much of them furnished by trendy, affordable sites like Wayfair and Houzz, plus giants like Amazon and Wal-Mart. In between my friends’ posts are ads from these same companies. As a 2018 Surface piece on knockoff designs points out, there’s a huge consumer base out there “in search of something that ‘just looks nice.’”
Fast-furniture manufacturers capitalize on this desire by giving shoppers an opportunity to buy trend-informed furniture at a price that doesn’t force them to pretend they’re investing in the future. Wasteful though it may be, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to buy an expensive sofa if you don’t know where you’ll be living in a year.
So it should come as little surprise that much of this furniture isn’t great. Search for “mid-century modern sofa” on Wayfair and the current top result is the Cobbs Convertible Sofa by a brand called Langley Street, now on sale for $268.99 (45 percent off!). Out of a possible five-star ranking, it scores a 4.25 based on 3,938 reviews, which makes it seem wonderful. But read the reviews and, fittingly for a convertible, something lackluster unfolds. It’s not so much the straight-up negative reviews (“soon as we opened the product, it smelled like horse’s dung SO BAD”) as all the hedges: “It’s not the most comfortable, but I can definitely sit on it for a while”; “Overall i would recommend this couch to people who don’t have a lot of money”; “The plastic middle support legs are a bummer but not too worried about it.” These are all from five-star reviews. Consumers are so used to inexpensive things being bad that mediocrity doesn’t stop them from rating them as perfect. As Wanyi from Mississauga puts it, “It is not super comfy but not uncomfortable for me either. It looks amazing!”
The description of Langley Street on Wayfair’s website says it “inspires and celebrates the individual by offering mid-century furniture and home decor items perfect for small-spaces.” If that’s not really your thing, Wayfair also sells pieces by a brand called Corrigan Studio, which says its “seamless silhouettes in chic materials bring authenticity.” Or try Mercury Row’s “collection of inspiring, affordable furniture and décor.” Or head over to AllModern.com, “your home for affordable modern design.”
There’s something for every taste, but don’t be surprised if it all comes from the same source. Much like Amazon, Wayfair has dozens of trademarked brand names at its disposal. (Some highlights include Hashtag Homes, Rosalind Wheeler, which appears to be a fictional name later given to a real character in a novel, and Zipcode Design, which offers “contemporary silhouettes that encapsulate the urban aesthetic.")
The illusion of competition, made more urgent by the fact that nearly everything on the site claims to be marked down from a higher price, is now granted to budget-minded consumers, who formerly had to rely on the Ikea catalog to ask themselves, “What kind of dining set defines me as a person?” The couch that’s good for the goose is good for the gander, too. In a February 22 earnings presentation for investors, Wayfair boasted that over the past three years, sales from in-house brands have grown to make up 69% of the company’s total revenue. Which, nice. (I reached out to Wayfair for comment on its use of multiple in-house brands and how they feel about the proliferation of lukewarm five-star reviews on their platform, but after an initial “Hey, what’s this article about” type of email to me, did not receive a response.)
Again, aesthetic concerns seem to be the thing reviewers on Wayfair care most about. Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair, a landmark of 20th century design, is made in America with painstaking craftsmanship (Design Within Reach’s ad copy flaunts hand-welting, hand-tufting, AND hand-buffing). Like big-name pieces of furniture, it is not available from Wayfair. But, as the Surface article points out, you can buy a “Barca Lounge Chair" on the Wayfair-owned AllModern for $1,059.99 — roughly $4,000 less than the original. “The only downfall is the back cushion snaps into place with two buttons that often become unsnapped,” Luke from Maryland says in what is still somehow a five-star review.
To be clear, there are dozens of companies besides Wayfair selling similar wares for similar prices, but they seem to share a common business model. Roughly: Designers come up with an idea, which is then sold in high-end stores, and subsequently seen in the homes of an elite few. Mass-market retailers produce similar versions in higher quantities and with lower quality components, usually in places like China and Vietnam, where labor is cheaper and regulations are lenient, and sell them for a fraction of price to way more people. It’s not exactly a novel business, but what has changed is the way the internet expedites the process, both in the amount of time it takes ordinary consumers to notice new designs, and in the speed with which brands can get knockoffs to market.
“The same thing is happening in furniture that you saw happen in fashion,” Hannah Martin, a senior design writer at Architectural Digest, told me. “You have this cycle where people buy something and it breaks and they throw it out and do it all over again.” She contrasts this with members of previous generations, who “went to showrooms or big-box furniture stores and sat on the sofa, thought about upholstery fabrics, and physically spent a lot of time with the things. Whereas now you can buy a sofa for less than $1,000 from your Instagram account.”
Cheaper furniture isn’t all bad. “There’s something nice about the democracy of people having affordable options. I think it’s more about the way that we use those things,” Martin said. If you buy something cheap online and live with it for years, that’s good; if you throw it away after a year, that’s wasteful. She pointed out that newer companies like Floyd and Campaign seek to bridge the gap between affordability, quality, and sustainability. Think of them as the Everlane to Wayfair’s H&M.
Instagram and internet-fueled globalization partially explain how the cheap and trendy furniture market has exploded, but it’s the precarious future prospects of Millennials that complete the picture. (I’m distinguishing between “millennials” and “Millennials,” with a capital M. The former term, which refers to people born between 1981 and 1997, is so broad as to be meaningless. But the latter, which indicates we’re dealing with people resembling the subjects of an article with “Millennials” in the headline, is useful. You know who I’m talking about.)
This may be a stretch, but try to put yourself in the shoes of a member of the Seamless class, that sizable portion of Millennials working for a digital media startup, streaming platform, meal-delivery startup, a large video game publisher, Tesla, or any other buzzy company that might eliminate your job at the drop of a hat. You’re making decent (relatively speaking) money, but between your city’s high cost of living, your massive student loan and/or credit-card debt, the possibility of total Earth death due to climate change, and the ever-looming prospect of layoffs, you might as well spend your money while you’ve still got it. Instagram, where users spend roughly an hour a day browsing through the manicured personas of friends, celebrities, and, especially, popular semi-acquaintances, has become the perfect place to scout potential purchases. In Martin’s words, “When we’re scrolling through Instagram, because you’re seeing the ads at the same time, it’s very commerce-driven. I think we’re more wired to be like, ‘Oh, what’s that they have? Should I get that?’”
Social media compels its consumer-producers to remain on guard for any aspect of life that could be repurposed into content. A rustic chair, a faux-Memphis table, a shelf with a Chris Kraus novel or an X-rated candle — all of these things make an ideal backdrop for a post that convey one’s authentic self-image. You no longer need to be a socialite to turn your home into a salon.
“Home has always been a way to project your personality, if you have the money. Now, because of Instagram, it’s a lot more mainstream,” Martin said. “Your private life is on display. You can show your cute ‘shelfie’ or whatever people call it.” Fast furniture isn’t the new fast fashion so much as a continuation of it. “It’s an extension of your wardrobe, or part of your personal style that’s on display.” And should that shelf collapse a few months, well, that’s just an opportunity to buy a new one, and to post about it.