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Purchase Story

Comfortably Numb

Hollie Davis and Andrew Richmond | May 11th, 2017

The Young Collector

The world is getting smaller. Computers have collapsed distances virtually, at the same time that dropping phone prices have made keeping in touch over long distance easier as well. Our kids will never understand that we had to retrain their grandparents to start calling us before 11. Even physically, our resistance to distance seems to be on the decline. Perhaps it’s our comfort level with our cars or our gradual cultural acceptance of longer commutes, but what we’d call a short drive these days is probably longer than it was 20 years ago. We are increasingly willing to travel longer distances, to pack up and move farther away, and to get out in the world in general.

Maybe it’s because the world looks more and more like home. Chain restaurants have always claimed to remove the uncertainty from dining out, but now they’ve removed it from travel as well. A kid who likes the standard menu at Wendy’s in Sandusky, Ohio, will probably do just fine at any of the ones in California, Massachusetts, or Florida. In a sense, the success of large franchises makes burgers taste the same even at places that aren’t Wendy’s, because everyone’s eager to copy a proven, working formula—or menu. The same, of course, is true of our clothing. With the ability to shop online and with major retailers having strong presences in large regions, even if we’re not all wearing the same clothes, they certainly look as though they came out of the same person’s closet. For a country that likes to trot out our rugged individualism, very few of us seem interested in expressing that individuality.

Globalization reshapes interior décor and design as well. A closer look at international design trends does not assuage the isolationist’s concerns that we will all become one large homogenous, flavorless culture. A recent article in the Guardian, titled “Same old, same old. How the hipster aesthetic is taking over the world” (, pointed out the trend in coffee shops. Even in coffee shops that are not part of a chain that might have interior design directed by a single corporate style choice, they have found a way of mimicking the same tired hipster-driven style, the author, Kyle Chayka, suggests.

Fans will say hipsters embrace and refresh the best of old trends, making nerdy things cool, but critics accuse them of just cherry-picking their way through the prop department, taking anything that strikes their fancy, creating a hodgepodge and carrying forward the aesthetic without any awareness of or interest in the historical symbolism or sources of their current trend. If the joke about the suburbs is that the newest development is named for whatever they bulldozed to create it, the joke about hipsters is that their coffeehouses will decorate with the industrial machinery of whatever warehouse district they’ve gentrified. As a result, you can walk into almost any coffee shop in New York City, London, Tokyo, Los Angeles, or even Des Moines, and the aesthetic will likely seem familiar.

Because of this generation’s new sense of globalism, it’s only logical that their style should go global as well. Hipster trends from London and New York City have been exported around the world, influencing décor in Sacramento and Shanghai. Chayka refers to this trend as AirSpace. The idea is to create comfort and familiarity for the upwardly and physically mobile: similar surroundings, shops, restaurants. Wherever they go, there they (still) are. This has even resulted in Roam, a collective that promises for about $500/week, you can move through a handful of “coliving and coworking” spaces around the world, including Miami, London, and Bali. Certainly this is and will likely always remain attractive only to those with a specific lifestyle, but if this is our general direction, what does it mean in terms of the ownership of things in general and the collecting of antiques specifically? Are we creating a sort of universal nest that we never really leave?

Over the past decade, we and much of the rest of the antiques trade have talked about antiques in terms of uniqueness and individuality. We’ve expounded on how they can make a home distinctive and how they offer means for personal expression—buy an antique, and you’ve got something that’s just you, just one of a kind.

Is that really what younger buyers want? Would we be better off selling this stuff not as art and history but purely as function? There is the reality that structure would (maybe ultimately will?) upend the market, as people evaluate antiques based on an entirely different set of criteria. Should we embrace this cultural momentum, if it exists anywhere beyond the trend of a moment, and talk more about how antiques are the same as the things we use today rather than different from?

Perhaps we should start renaming pieces in the tradition of Ikea. Depending on the category of item, most of their products are named after Scandinavian places, occupations, male and female names, and terms from nature, music, meteorology, the calendar, etc. You could come home, pour some wine in a Trout, turn on the July in your study, have a seat in your favorite Chester, and select a book from your walnut Hedge Fund Manager.

OK, maybe not. But it is worthwhile, we think, to consider where we are if the answer to the future of the market is to make the nearly limitless diversity of antiques more consistent and, apparently, therefore more comfortable. If it is a comfortable sameness that’s driving this, regardless of the root cause, what is it about antiques that makes people uncomfortable?

They make us comfortable, don’t they? We’ve been into a lot of collections, and it can be a really similar aesthetic. A trained eye might detect differences between a $100,000 collection and a $1 million collection, with reproductions and repairs to make the distinction, but overall, the look is often the same, particularly to a non-antiques person. A common criticism we hear of shows is “Every booth looks the same!” Antiques must have a comforting sameness to us as collectors as well. Is this perhaps why for so many collectors repurposing strikes a nerve? Objectively speaking, we’ve never seen anything that wasn’t a common form with a low monetary value refinished or repurposed, yet some people still seem to get angered by it. One could argue that this reaction might be so strong because these pieces violate our sense of comfortable sameness.

So we seem to be living in parallel worlds, where we live with one version of comfortable sameness and they live with another version. Perhaps the cross-cultural appeal of mid-century modern, a small segment of the antiques market, is at the intersection of the comfortable sameness of antiques and “AirSpace” style.

Perhaps it really is just the old “I don’t want to live in a museum” complaint, the belief that antiques can’t be comfortable to live with because you can’t escape your awareness of them. Maybe the exact appeal of big-box-store furniture—what we see as bland—is that one doesn’t need to be aware of furnishings at all.

When you live with antiques, you’re aware of a historical sense of things. At least we are. You think about how modern our ideas of comfort are, how short a time ago it was completely normal not to have running water, to have the water in the basin in an unheated room freeze overnight, to wear clothing that was heavy and scratchy, to have to be aware and mindful of daylight, how ever-present dirt was. We live with these things in a strange sort of juxtaposition between the past and the present, utilizing them in a kind of comfort their original owners could not have imagined. Home, we accept almost universally, is supposed to feel comfortable. Maybe for many younger people, the world has become so hectic and demanding that the cool detachment of mid-century modern is comforting. But we all need to live lives that we aren’t actively trying to escape from, in homes that are welcoming places, not merely places to unplug and disengage. There is a place somewhere between comfortable and numb—perhaps that is where we’re all trying to arrive.

We welcome ideas, tips, criticisms, and questions regarding “The Young Collector.” We may be reached  by e-mail <[email protected]>, on Facebook (, via our blog (www.youngantiques, or by writing The Young Collector, c/o Maine Antique Digest, PO Box 1429, Waldoboro, ME 04572.

Originally published in the May 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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