Recently I sold a pair of my mother’s Georgian demi lune tables at a weekly auction in London. Made of mahogany, with marquetry around the edges and with simple straight legs, they received no interest for three consecutive weeks. In the fourth the hammer fell after a maiden bid - for just £42.
The tables, part of a mournful cargo of furniture I dispatched to the salerooms following the death of both parents, were a feature of my youth, but I hardly ever got to see what they looked like. Mum considered them so precious that they were covered in several layers of tablecloth that only came off on state occasions. A couple of days after the sale, Ikea, the world’s biggest seller of tables and other furniture, announced the appointment of a new chief executive, and reasserted its intention of world domination.
The two events have fused in my mind and I have decided that the tables are turning. The market for brown furniture must have reached its bottom. My bet is that during Jesper Brodin’s rule of the kingdom of Billy bookcases and Ektorp sofas, growth will falter. He will not achieve the company’s goal of selling €50bn of Skandi tat by the end of the decade. The trend for modernity will peak. We will all rue the day we followed Ikea’s order to “chuck out your chintz” - and we will want it back again.
Already there are signs. On the radio the other day I heard Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, the designer, mocking the world’s insistence that our homes are practical. We do not desire practicality from sex or food, he argued, so why do we demand it from our furniture? I looked gloomily at my Ercol tables and chairs, bought recently for a considerable sum, I found myself thinking: he is on to something.
Meanwhile the market for brown furniture is due a bounce, if for no other reason than prices are so low that there is no further space to fall. Even the cheapest of the cheap Ikea ranges is expensive by comparison. I have just consulted the catalogue, and found a dining table for £55 called Olov. It is not made of the finest wood by cabinet makers who learnt marquetry during a seven-year apprenticeship, but of fibreboard and plastic, and you have to screw on the metal legs yourself.
Fashion will turn, as it always does, and brown furniture will come back in
When I sold Mum’s tables, I also sold her handsome mahogany secretaire, leather-lined with claw feet, secret drawers and the gleam that comes from centuries of elbow grease. It fetched £120. Ikea sells no such item, but an undistinguished Hurdal chest of drawers, made of cheap pine, and again with no craftsman to help as you flail about with an Allen key, costs £250.
There are decent reasons why the price of antique furniture has fallen. With everyone crammed into tiny flats, there is no space for anything big. And as no one writes letters any more there is not much use for a writing desk, even one lined in leather. And who needs secret drawers, when all secrets are guarded by the cloud?
But people still need tables and chairs, and somewhere to store their yoga pants. I know that the consumer is supposed to be always right. But in according these relative prices, the consumer is behaving like a ninny.
The continued unpopularity of brown furniture proves all those experts who talk about consumer behaviour are talking rot. One of the biggest trends for the past few years is meant to be authenticity. We are meant to love things that are hand made, constructed from natural materials and which come with stories attached.
There is nothing more authentic, hand made, or natural than a mahogany demi lune table, and when it comes to stories, being 250 years old means you have collected a few. Yet we do not love those tables. We hate them.
What consumers actually love, and always have loved, are things that are fashionable. No one values authenticity or stories in the abstract. We only like them if we can attach them to something that we already desire because all our friends desire it too.
Fashion will turn, as it always does, and brown furniture will come back in. And then it will be bad news for Mr Brodin and his team at Ikea, but jolly good news for the new owners of Mum’s beloved furniture, who got themselves a bargain.
This article was originally published by the Financial Times.Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.