In 2015, when classmates Kabeer Chopra and Stephen Kuhl moved to Philadelphia for business school at Wharton, each needed a new couch.
Chopra chose a $1,200 West Elm sofa in a pale gray — and was informed it would take 12 weeks to arrive. Kuhl went the Ikea route, picking a $400 model that he lugged home and then spent 2½ hours assembling. “It was a miserable experience,” Kuhl says.
From the ashes of their commiseration, Burrow was born: a company founded in April selling a single modular couch in four sizes and five colors, including “crushed gravel” and “brick red.” Its modular sofa looks vaguely midcentury modern, capitalizing on the ever-present craze for that pared-down look. The three-seater will set you back $950; a similar item from West Elm costs $1,600.
“We wanted to solve those pain points,” Kuhl says. “Wouldn’t it be great if a furniture company built a couch that actually fit the way people live their lives?”
Burrow was soon funded by Y-Combinator, a powerful startup incubator. Over the past few years, a series of new companies (many with trendy, single-word names like Floyd and Hem) have cornered millennial markets by adhering to the same tenets. They remove choice, offering instead a single product or a few streamlined options. Think of what Everlane did for clothing, Glossier did for cosmetics, Away did for luggage and Casper did for mattresses: simplicity that looks effortless but is meticulously stylized. (And Instagram-friendly, of course.)
The world of affordable furniture has long been ripe for disruption. College graduates on a budget turn, naturally, to Swedish behemoth Ikea. But despite its bargain-basement prices, simple design, and jazzy capsule collections — Ikea is, arguably, the original home-décor industry disrupter — eventually young people grow tired of owning the same cheerfully utilitarian furnishings as everyone they know.
Next on the totem pole are well-established brands like West Elm or Pottery Barn, but these are rarely affordable for millennials (loosely defined as those born between 1980 and 2000); moreover, they burden customers with overwhelming variety. The West Elm Web site’s armchair section alone has 100 items, more if you count different colors.
“Until recently, there was a large void of options available between those living with Ikea styles and prices and the jump towards expensive department store furniture, such as Restoration Hardware,” says Sean Juneja, CEO of the Décor Aid, an online interior design firm that pairs top designers from around the country with clients.
To help fill the gap, Detroit-based Floyd also launched last year with a single product: a bed. Its birch wood-and-steel platform is low to the ground, with a minimalist Japanese feel. The twin size begins at $489, the queen at $589 and the king at $699. Neither the Burrow couch nor the Floyd bed requires tools for their assembly. “Free shipping, no screws, no tools, fewer parts,” reads Floyd’s Web site — a direct dig at the myriad tiny metal bits often required for Ikea furniture construction.
Other companies are building out a more robust, but still carefully curated, suite of products. New York-based Akron Street specializes in exceedingly minimalist pieces with a Scandinavian look — think lots of blond wood — at an affordable price. The simple Schoolhouse Chair costs $195; a three-legged side table costs $150. All in all, it offers only 12 pieces.
At a slightly higher price point, Sweden’s Hem sells modernist furniture that mimics the even more expensive Design Within Reach. A sleek upholstered armchair by Eero Saarinen from Design Within Reach will set you back more than $3,000. A strikingly similar item from Hem costs $1,259.
Notably, many of these companies emphasize their products’ portability. “The bed frame that goes anywhere,” touts Floyd’s Web site. Burrow’s urges, “Take it [the couch] with you when you move.” Both products deconstruct and pack up easily — explicitly designed for a generation rejecting homeownership at record rates in favor of renting. Floyd calls their customers (perhaps optimistically) “urban nomads.” Akron Street’s “About” page reads: “They say millennials move on average every two years, so that sense of place is a fleeting thing … Akron Street is furniture for your home, wherever that may be, wherever you will go.”
Perhaps even more appropriate for the peripatetic millennial is a new company called Feather, which offers a range of West Elm-esque furniture — but to rent, not buy, for a “flexible, modern lifestyle.” For $229 a month, clients can have a three-piece “hip” bedroom set consisting of a queen bed with a tufted headboard and mattress, a wooden dresser and a wooden bedside table, all in the — you guessed it! — mid-century modern style. An Eames-style dining chair costs only $4 a month; an upholstered armchair, $19.
Feather’s founder, Brooklynite Jay Reno, 29, describes the frustrating process of furniture shopping for city life. “I spent an overwhelming amount of time at Ikea buying, schlepping and assembling furniture I didn’t exactly want,” he says. “To fix this, I would sporadically fork over thousands of dollars to buy lasting pieces from West Elm or Crate & Barrel that arrived six to eight weeks later. It was a vicious cycle of buying things I didn’t really want that didn’t really last.”
Kayla G., a 25-year-old researcher living in Williamsburg, recently opted to use Feather instead of making permanent purchases. “The total costs of renting [furniture] for the year plus the $200 pick-up fee is still costing me less overall, and Feather had exactly what I wanted,” she says. “So it was really the most logical decision, and I’m not stuck with the furniture.”
Like many young startups, these companies strive to promote their charming foundational “stories.” One new brand, called Article, describes its founders — Aamir Baig, Fraser Hall, and brothers Sam and Andy Prochazka — as software engineers and “industry outsiders” who built “a company founded on a shared appreciation of simplicity and efficiency.” They describe how Article was conceived on an “adventure” in the Arctic Circle, though the connection between igloos and, say, the $299 Mod Blue Berry Armchair is left to the imagination.
Like Everlane, Article emphasizes manufacturing transparency in its narrative. The company names five core beliefs: “Be direct. Be better. Be generous. Be genuine. Be adventurous.” Like Google’s famous tagline “Don’t be evil,” these dictums suggest a feel-good consumerism that delivers high-minded principles as well as solid products. In the millennial market, this has proved a winning strategy.
“Millennials want products that feel unique, like they have a story, but are also reasonably priced,” says Noa Santos, the CEO of Homepolish, an online interior design consultancy. “So while Ikea may be inexpensive, it doesn’t really say much about who you are. There’s little discovery there. Whereas a product like Floyd has an interesting story while also being affordable.”
Of course, some big corporations are canny enough to play the disrupter, too.
Last month, Target launched Project 62, a line of affordable furniture and home furnishings that scratch that never-ending midcentury-modern itch — indeed, the line’s name is a nod to 1962, when “modernist design hit its peak.”
A marble-topped, hairpin-legged coffee table sells for $80, while an elegant-looking wooden armchair with cream-colored upholstery is $170. The line’s sophisticated designs and low price points seem poised to woo potential Ikea customers.
For millennials poring over Pinterest, this is all good news. Thoughtful, stylish design for the home that doesn’t break the bank is finally a reality.
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