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Generation Rent and the end of ‘forever furniture’

Generation Rent and the end of ‘forever furniture’

April 08
20:50 2018
Booking.com


For new homeowners, there is some romance attached to the chaos of moving in. The takeaway boxes pile up, the furniture is so slow to arrive that you suspect it’s being transported by barge — but what of it? With decades of domesticity stretching ahead, a stint camping out in the sitting room might even be fun.

The thrill is not the same for renters. When Kabeer Chopra moved to Philadelphia to attend business school in 2015, he tried to order a nice sofa, only to discover it would be roughly three months before it was delivered. “Waiting for a sofa makes no sense because you don’t even know if it will fit in to your next space,” Chopra says. “People in the US between 25 and 35 move once every three years.” Like all eager MBA students, Chopra was quick to spot the business potential in this particular rental “pain point”: last year he co-founded Burrow, a sofa-in-a-box start-up that delivers modular furniture to US households within a week of ordering.

Burrow is at the bleeding edge of an industry-wide reckoning about how renters decorate their homes. In the US and the UK, more people are currently renting than at any time in the past 50 years, with home ownership among 25- to 34-year-olds at a record low, but it is in the former that the design industry has innovated rapidly. For the couples and even young families that are setting up home together but still renting, an industry that involves multiyear payment plans and delivery times that might be a quarter of their annual tenancy feels like a bad fit. As Chopra says: “How do you adapt something that hasn’t been adapted for 50 to 100 years for the age of Amazon, where [products] adapt to your lifestyle rather than you having to compromise?”

Maxwell Ryan is a good person to help answer this question. The founder of the influential interior design website Apartment Therapy, Ryan has been snooping around strangers’ houses for well over a decade and helping them solve their decor dilemmas.

He sees the current moment as an interesting — if somewhat contradictory — one: “There’s a sense of ‘I’m not sure where I’m going to be in three years so I’m not going to put down too big a root,’” Ryan says. “But at the same time, because of social media and Instagram, people are definitely decorating . . . The home is part of your selfie.”

© George Wylesol

According to Ryan, a Generation Rent interior is one that skimps on large, hard-to-transport furnishings and splurges on decorative flourishes. “So [for example] they may only have a small sofa, and they’re not going to have a lot of big-piece furniture, but they’re going to really trick out their bed,” he says, referring to the recent popularity of eye-catching throws and scatter cushions — once considered the height of twee.

Scrolling through the home tours on the Apartment Therapy website, a blueprint emerges for the stylish renter property. The furniture is sparse and often plain, while surfaces are clustered with trinket cacti and succulents, and floors with large pot plants. Rather than hanging pictures, the preference is to lean frames — often overlapping — against bare white walls. As one post on the site points out, the leaning trend is “a great answer for renter woes”. Ryan’s team posts at least one article a week on new renter-friendly products. Removable wallpaper, stick-on tiles and the Japanese import washi tape (an adhesive tape that can be used to decorate walls without leaving a mark) are all popular rental hacks. “The stuff that stands out in photographs isn’t the furniture, it’s the decorative stuff,” Ryan says.


The concept of “forever furniture” is increasingly alien: the UK currently sends 300,000 tonnes of usable furniture to landfill every year. What does this mean for designers? Even Ikea, which built a business empire on the promise of disposability, seems concerned at how regularly Billy bookcases and Malm headboards end up littering city pavements. It aims by 2030 to give all its products “circular capabilities”, meaning they can be bought back or donated in some capacity.

But there is an alternative proposition. Some companies, Burrow among them, are convinced they can get upwardly mobile renters to stop throwing away furniture by making high-quality, flexible design into something aspirational. The Burrow sofa pitches itself as the perfect companion to the city-hopping millennial who moves because life is full of interesting opportunities, not because their landlord just upped the rent. The modular design allows it to expand as a household grows: from a single-occupancy armchair, to a loveseat, all the way up to a huge family-friendly sectional.

Floyd, a Detroit-based start-up, does something very similar for beds. Its sleek birch platform arrives in less than a week, and can grow from single to king with the addition of extra panels. “I think we’ve been trained by furniture companies to consume furniture at a much faster pace,” says Floyd’s CEO Kyle Hoff. “We firmly believe as a company that moving or renting doesn’t need to equate to throwing away furniture.”

Ryan is unconvinced. “I think that whole thing is a little geeky,” he says. But stranger things have happened. Five years ago, it would have been hard to predict that the bulky, decidedly unsexy mattresses industry would be one of tech’s hottest concerns, with customers enthused by “viscoelastic memory foam”.

As they build their brands and push their message, these design disrupters will have to hope that they aren’t themselves disrupted by a start-up that has taken the challenge of renter-friendly furniture in a different direction entirely. Feather is a furniture rental company with hubs in New York and San Francisco geared towards hyper-mobile, style-conscious millennials who don’t want to be tied down by any large possessions, regardless of how easily they can be boxed up. Rather than making furniture more moveable, Feather pitches the entire concept of ownership as outdated. “The top three assets you have in your life are a home, car and furniture. There are tons of rental platforms for homes, there are tons for cars . . . and then there’s furniture, where currently everybody owns,” says founder Jay Reno, whose company can deliver and assemble a slick set of mid-century furniture within three days of it being ordered. “What we’ve seen in the US is the American dream has changed. People care a lot less about ownership.”

At its heart, the battles that these young companies are fighting are conceptual ones: can luxury be redefined as being about experience rather than ownership? Can people really be convinced to enthusiastically buy furniture whose design will be a daily reminder of their home’s impermanence?

© George Wylesol

While the sands may shift, the fact of renting will not. Young and not-so-young professionals will continue to schlep from private tenancy to private tenancy every few years, often bringing with them little more than a few suitcases and an ever-growing family of pot plants. Generation Rent’s fondness for foliage is a cliché, but with good reason: it’s the smartest way to feel like you’re putting down roots in places where, by rights, you have none.

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