When Sonia Davis was shopping for a bed for her daughter in December 2018, she stumbled upon the most unlikely of gold mines: an antique walnut dresser that was missing the top. (See what I mean by unlikely?)
Davis didn’t have room for the trunk in her own home, but she fell in love with the clean lines and pretty square footage. “It just needed a new blanket and some cleaning. It was offered at an incredible price and I knew it was worth so much more,” Davis said.
So she bought it with a plan to fix it and then sell it. Along with her husband Ryan (“my secret weapon because he knows all the tricks of taking care of antiques including what not to clean it with it”), Davis cleaned the chest and took it to a marble manufacturer to have a new slab made.
She then created an Instagram account and posted a “preview” photo of the chest taken in her basement and then the finished piece taken in her foyer. “It sold out within hours that day,” she said.
After that, Davis realized she was up to something and officially launched Found. “There wasn’t a lot of people focused on selling vintage brown furniture pieces in great condition and making them affordable,” she said. “So I started going to auctions and looking for things I wanted in my own home.”
Within a few months, Davis amassed thousands of followers on Instagram, where every day she posts images of an antique piece of often “brown” wood furniture, in a decidedly simple, consistent way: always by herself, in front of a white wall, with detail pics in the carousel.
Today almost every piece she releases sells in minutes – not hours. I recently inquired about an article that was posted for 21 minutes; It was already pending with another buyer and was marked as sold after another 15 minutes.
When I asked Davis why she thought her pieces were flying out of her feed so quickly, she offered two thoughtful explanations, one to do with how she presents her inventory and the other to do with opening her shop.
First her presentation: “I think I can pull through all the Instagram hype with clean pics of the furniture and lots of white space,” she said. “The pieces really speak for themselves. I don’t share the stories behind it or anything about me. I am only presenting them in their condition.”
Second, their timing: “I think during the pandemic, people have found solace in the traditional. I keep hearing from clients things like, “I grew up with this at my parents’ or grandparents’ house” – and that can be a great comfort, whether someone is aware of it or not. The type of furniture I sell adds history, character and warmth, which is very appealing to people these days.”
Aside from the Instagram-friendly presentation and shifting style preferences, there’s also a pragmatic explanation for the recent rush towards brown furniture: it is available. No lead times, no supply chain hassles.
Earlier this year, I met Kenny Ball, another Instagram-worthy antique dealer, at the Nashville Antiques and Garden Show. I was a few minutes late for early shopping – a fatal mistake, as it turned out – and was wading through all the lovely pieces already marked with red “Sold Out” tags when I looked up and saw his booth.
So I introduced myself and asked him what he thought was driving it supermarket sweeper-style shopping spree which I had heard took place within minutes of the show opening. “I’ve always sold a lot of brown furniture,” he said, “but I feel like more people are buying it now. I see younger people buying antiques now. They find it better value for money, they can get it now and it looks good.”
While Ball, who exhibited this week at Chelsea on Green, the new antiques showroom at High Point Furniture Market, and is opening a larger showroom in Charlottesville, Virginia in June, is amazed to see buyers returning to antiques (“It is like fashion – the classics never go out of style!” he is surprised at how many goods he sends.
“We now ship across the country. Instagram has become a great sales tool for me. But customers have to trust you. I’ve been doing this for about 30 years and I feel like I have a good reputation,” he said.
Designer Meg Braff, who recently opened a second showroom in Palm Beach (the first is in Locust Valley, New York), is also seeing a surge in antique wood furniture sales across the country.
“We’re selling some antique dining tables and chairs again,” she said when I visited her on the eve of her new showroom’s opening. “There has been a noticeable return to ‘old school’ or even ‘grandmillennial’ decoration in New York. Palm Beach is a bit more modern, but wooden furniture looks right at home in many of the more gorgeous homes. I love painted antique furniture as accent pieces in Florida.”
Why, Braff attributes the trend to a rediscovery of the joy of collecting pieces over time. “Part of the fun of decorating is the slow build, expanding your spaces and collections over time, making your home a true reflection of yourself,” she said.
Braff said this process allows a collector to “gain confidence in her personal style and realize that a mix of styles and eras is much more interesting than buying all new beige and white furniture in one quick shopping spree.”
Plus, “wooden furniture has a place in almost every room,” added Braff, who noted that pieces like large antique French provincial cabinets can be used as an alternative to custom millwork. “Mixing it with pieces of antique furniture is a great way to add some gravitas to a new construction home,” she said.
To give these older pieces a more contemporary look, Braff recommends considering a range of finishes for the other pieces in the room, from brass and gilded mirrors to porcelain lamps or white plaster ceiling lights. “Wooden furniture also goes well with wallpaper because it adds a bit of richness and depth,” she said.
Mixing it with modern art is another designer trick to breathe new life into antique wood pieces. “A great modern painting looks incredible over an antique chest, console or sideboard,” said Ball, who noted that mid-20th-century paintings with interesting frames have become popular objects for his clientele. “Anything big and abstract looks good,” he said.
When buying brown furniture for clients or for her own showroom, Braff tends to look for slightly more streamlined pieces with good proportions. “Regency consoles and chairs are things I’m always looking for because they pair well with both modern and antique furniture,” Braff said.
The designer is also on the lookout for large mid-century wooden credenzas from the 1960s and 1970s. “They often fit great under today’s giant TVs and can anchor a room just like a fireplace,” she said, noting that she often leaves them in their original finish but also likes to paint them a fun color.
Like Ball and Braff, Davis recently expanded Found’s retail footprint with a larger showroom in Birmingham, Alabama, and has also noticed that her customers are increasingly younger and further afield.
“I’m happy to say that we now ship across the country,” she said of her Instagram sales. And about her personal shopping, which she offers by appointment or at monthly shopping events: “I’m surprised when I see younger people shopping with their mothers. It’s so much fun and I love watching it.”