Why Buy Classic Furniture Designs New When They Resell at 50%?
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Why Buy Classic Furniture Designs New When They Resell at 50%?

If you can get iconic 20th-century pieces for significantly less money on the secondary market, why would you purchase new from the manufacturer? We ask the experts.

By MICHELLE SLATALLA
Thu, Aug 11, 2022 9:36amGrey Clock 4 min

MY HUSBAND recently set up his home office in a separate, private building—formerly known as our garage—so he could Zoom loudly and with abandon.

As far as I knew, everything was going well until one day he appeared in the house during working hours.

“There’s something I’m afraid we are going to have to talk about,” he said somberly. “I’ve been dreading this conversation for a long time.”

I composed myself. And then he said: “I want a new desk chair.”

I was shocked. After all, we have been married more than 30 years, and for much of that time he was very happy with the beige upholstered armchair that used to be in our living room—even if it had let itself go a little after three kids and a succession of dogs and cats who took up residence on it.

“You always said you loved that chair,” I said.

“People change,” he said. “We grow, sometimes in mysterious ways. I want an Aeron chair—”

I gasped.

“—and it costs US$1,645.”

He had a specific configuration in mind. After visiting Design Within Reach (an authorised retailer of the moulded-plastic office chair by Herman Miller that transformed the aesthetic of ergonomic furniture when it debuted in 1994), he fell for a fully loaded model with adjustable back support, movable arms, tilt control and casters designed to glide effortlessly across carpet.

Was it worth US$1,645?

After all, plenty of preowned Aeron chairs are available with lower price tags, like many other iconic 20th-century furniture designs that remain in production decades after their introduction, including the Eames leather lounger, the Saarinen tulip table and the George Nelson marshmallow settee. Once-loved used and vintage models on the secondary market “usually are going to be 50% off the retail price,” said Noel Fahden Briceño, vice president of merchandising at online furnishings marketplace Chairish.

So why would anyone ever buy a new version of an original design?

“My friends ask me the same question,” said Ben Watson, president of Herman Miller. “Buy vintage if you’re a real student of design and have the knowledge to weed out knockoffs or scammers or something repaired poorly. But if you want to specify exactly the furniture you want—with a specific leather or fabric or veneer—buy a new one if your budget can afford it.”

Interior designers say that when buying furniture for clients, they choose between preowned and new on a case-by-case basis.

“I’m not a fan of vintage Eames chairs because I don’t like the way the tufting ages,” said Jessica Maros, an interior designer in Dallas. “But I’m obsessed with vintage Togo leather sofas designed by Michel Ducaroy for Ligne Roset. You can even throw red wine on that leather and somehow it just develops a patina that gets better and better.”

Of course, one buyer’s wine-soaked patina is another’s hygiene nightmare. “What many people don’t realize is that the patina develops from oils from the body on older aniline leathers. The color gets darker because you sit on the sofa,” said Simone Vingerhoets-Ziesmann, executive vice president of Ligne Roset USA, where new versions of Togo styles that debuted in the 1970s cost from $2,905 to $12,670, depending on size and fabric choice.

Wear and tear is usually worse on upholstered pieces than on categories such as lighting, coffee tables and artwork, which tend to age gracefully, said Shannon Eddings, an interior designer in Austin, Texas. “Most of our completed designs feature at least one vintage or antique item from those categories.”

“Why would I advise anyone not to buy the new ones?” Luca Fuso, chief executive of Italian furniture company Cassina, told me. I couldn’t tell if he was offended by the suggestion or just passionate about his inventory. “Because we manufacture the new ones, we have no reason whatsoever to recommend vintage items.”

Manufacturers say that in some cases production processes have improved in the decades since a design was introduced. “The finishings are lasting much longer, and the materials are more reliable,” said Mr. Fuso, of Cassina, which since 1965 has owned the rights to produce the iconic chrome-framed Le Corbusier armchairs introduced in 1928.

Given all the pros and cons, would my husband be happy with a preowned Aeron chair?

After all, the version he tested at Design Within Reach was a Remastered model introduced with great fanfare in 2016, with improved spinal support and more fully adjustable armrests.

“I need the spinal support,” he assured me.

“Fine,” I said. “But before we decide, let’s drive over to this office-furniture liquidator I found alongside the highway in Silicon Valley.”

An hour later, we were standing in Better Source, a warehouse in San Mateo, Calif., filled with rows of office cubicles, credenzas and conference-room chairs. The Aerons were lined up right by the entrance—dozens if not scores—like a vast army of spinal support. Three other prospective buyers were already sitting in the chairs—rocking back and forth in them, adjusting the tilt angle, testing the spinal support.

Prices ranged from $565 to $980.

“These chairs look new,” I said to salesman Bob Callaway while my husband started rolling around in one.

“Since the pandemic started, we’ve been getting a lot that companies ordered in 2019,” the salesman said. “In some cases, they are from offices where people still haven’t gone back to work.”

The work-from-home revolution has caused a glut of surplus office furniture. Where once Better Source would get 10 calls a week from potential sellers, “now we’re getting 10 a day,” Mr. Callaway said. “Sometimes, like, 400 chairs in one lot.” In fact, the building we were standing in is a fraction of the size of the main warehouse 25 miles away in Hayward, he said.

“Look at this,” my husband said excitedly. “Here’s one that looks just like the one at Design Within Reach.” Sure enough, it was a Remastered model. The cost: $980.

An hour later, the old beige armchair was back in the living room. The dogs were thrilled.

Vintage vs. From-the-Factory

The Eero Saarinen Dining Table, still in production by Knoll, was introduced in 1957. It costs $2,899 from Design Plus Consignment Gallery and US$4,027 new from Knoll.

The George Nelson Marshmallow Sofa, manufactured from 1956 to ‘61, was re-introduced as part of the Herman Miller Classics collection in the ‘80s and remains in production today. It sells for US$3,250 at resale site Social Objects and US$5,285 from Design Within Reach.

The 699 Superleggera chair by Gio Ponti with cane seat, in production for more than six decades, has a price tag of US$2,197.82 on Archiproducts; 1stDibs is asking US$1,725.55.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: August 10, 2022.

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