HOW HARD CAN FLIPPING BE?
An exploration with Sunny Preston, Alana Tang, + Harry Stayt
There are a few cherished pieces in my home that’ve survived the move from my dorms through each of the rooms and apartments I’ve occupied up to now, but the bulk of my furniture is from when I first moved to Portland a few years ago. It wasn’t until then, finally finding myself in a space I planned on living in for longer than a year, that I finally turned to the world of Craigslist and F*ceb**k Marketplace for pieces to complement that which I’d already collected from local shops, estate sales, and the occasional Ikea trip. At first, the finds felt almost too good to be true; scrolling through pages that seemed endless, I was shocked at the amount of quality furniture available, and in my naive mind it felt ridiculous not to buy yet another side table. The high of each buy was a gateway into the next, and for a time I was absolutely slaying: a rosewood and leather Percival Lafer armchair, a stunning post-modern squiggle table in pink burl wood veneer, and a set of four Emu Rio armchairs are among my proudest finds. I’d feel such a mixture of confidence and impulse in the pieces I was uncovering that I sold myself on the idea I’d be able to simply flip the items if my taste ever changed, which with my new found investment in this space and congruently expanding awareness of designers and styles, it very rapidly did.
So selling online I tried, and the one time I profited 200 bucks from a pink velvet tufted armchair I’d only spent 50 on nearly convinced me that resale was the game meant for me to play. But as the basement collection of things that never sold and my dusty online listings would tell you, I never became a very accomplished seller. Not only that, but I’ve sensed the number of truly exciting bargains plummeting; the likelihood of successfully scrolling Craigslist for a reasonably priced Gainey pot feels less than somehow stumbling into Mugler at Goodwill. Certainly there are and always will be deals to be had, but seeking them out is real work. To fully commit to a life of flipping furniture and all it entails—knowing your history, getting there first, buying low and selling for enough to make a profit while maintaining an audience—would be committing to a full time job. And I already have one of those. So my attention has now mostly shifted away from the traditional resale platforms and more towards Instagram, where the listings I scroll are consciously curated by the tastemakers who’ve made the resale life theirs.
Even at the height of my days obsessively scouring Craigslist as if a murano mushroom lamp might appear at any minute, I found most of my inspiration (and most of my favorite things) from local sellers like Sunny Preston of Midnight Sunlight here in Portland OR, a shop she describes as a collection of beautiful and useful things. Its from this shop my girlfriend and i bought our fist couch, upholstered in a velvety geometric pattern of orange hues (Sunny thinks by Jack Lenor Larsen), where I’ve gotten two prized pedestals: one in travertine and one red marble, and also where I found my favorite mantle piece of the moment: a vintage ceramic goblet in powder blue.
What I was seeing Sunny do with her shop was really exciting. Starting out, what I (like many others, apparently) thought to look for was almost exclusively teak mid century pieces that I was sure would hold value, a phenomenon I remember Sunny telling me she was so over. With each visit to her shop I felt that sentiment more and more as the offerings kept evolving with experimental finds. Of her picking now, Sunny said: “I look for quality, good design, history and character- but I also look for things which speak for themselves. Like I want to be blown away by it. My focus has shifted toward the more extraordinary one of a kind pieces as the competition for middle of the road stuff has exploded.”
The increase of sellers on the scene and newfound scarcity of product goes unnoticed by no one. To Sunny it makes sense; she knows that the business is highly addictive. With the influx of sellers on digital platforms, where there’s no overhead for rent of a brick and mortar, she said “the cost of good merchandise has really gone through the roof.” And although she says that Instagram is the main driver of business and that most days her phone usage constitutes more hours than a traditional 9—5, there’s much more of a cost to all that’s done behind the screens. “It’s 24/7. Like it does not stop.” Sunny tells me, “I’m enjoying it for now but it is a constant evolution.”
“Buying a piece ‘cheap’ and flipping it for more might seem like an easy come up but behind the scenes the expenses add up. Just to name a few: gas, tolls, ferries, speeding tickets (lol), eating out while on the road sourcing, and restoration work,” Alana Tang, who runs In The Comfort Of out of the Seattle area, tells me when I ask what people would be most surprised to learn about the job. “There’s a lot of time spent driving, not finding anything, researching, cleaning, restoring, staging, photographing, responding to questions, coordinating delivery/ pick up, delivering, and tax season is a nightmare- I could go on.”
The idea behind In The Comfort Of sparked after a chance intervention: Alana took home a 30 dollar travertine and brass table base from Goodwill and, through a bit of research, discovered it was by the designer Artedi. Ones similar are listed on Chairish right now for thousands. “Realizing what I had found sparked the idea of creating my own vintage furniture reselling business where I could decide my own work schedule and use the profits to support my livelihood.” Only having started a couple years ago, Alana doesn’t feel entitled to an opinion on the new sellers on the scene. “Everyone has to start somewhere and I don’t believe in gatekeeping,” she said. “It can definitely get competitive but I always remind myself that pressure creates diamonds.”
Alana’s shop is a hybrid: she has a physical space she sells out of inside a SoDo antique mall from which I bought the brass and laminate arched mirror that hangs in my hallway, and she also sells directly through Instagram, where I once quickly snagged a set of four globe-based martini glasses before someone else’s DM. “I don’t just “sell” vintage furniture though,” Alana said, “I often try to challenge myself by creating inspiring set design projects that you can shop from for a unique and engaging experience.” This comes to life most through shoppable Instagram stories that feature stunningly curated rooms full of vintage furniture that Alana has set. Each item gets its shine, and the stage is often shared with select work by contemporary artists. The pieces go quickly, but Alana has archived each of the collections under @inthecomfortof’s story highlights. “I’d like to think that In The Comfort Of is what people may think of when they want to look for some home inspiration,” she said.
With so much more time spent in the home, Alana’s noticed people actively wanting to improve their environment. “They want to feel cozy, inspired, and happy to be home. I feel that’s where the saying, “in the comfort of your own home” comes full circle for the meaning behind my business. You can shop from ITCO to curate your perfect environment to live, exist, and relax in.”
I’ve certainly become more aware of the surroundings that have totally enveloped my day-to-day life. The furniture in my living room has been rearranged countless times these past 13 months and I feel myself reassessing the pieces themselves almost daily. With our circumstance changing so radically, of course it makes sense that this collective awareness would be the bedrock for a new breed of sellers to emerge. One of my favorites I’ve noticed come on the scene is Harry Stayt, the brain behind an IKEA-exclusive archive and online shop (BILLY.forsale) run out of London. “I had been collecting old IKEA products for about five years with vague intentions of doing some form of project with them,” Harry told me. “When we went into lockdown I felt very conscious that I was running out of space at home to store it all so with the extra time on my hands I started photographing everything to archive the collection.” His first sale this past November sold out in roughly 30 minutes.
Through our conversation, I learned that despite his interest in vintage shops and sellers online, Harry hadn’t initially envisioned this career path either. “I remember thinking it would be funny if one of these shops started exclusively selling old IKEA furniture. I’d heard stories before about people buying what they thought was an antique from a market then getting home and feeling ripped off after realising it had an IKEA label on it... after the success of the first sale I realised it could be a good platform for me to continue selling the items I’m interested in and also build other projects around it.” Harry uses his Instagram to share some of his research/ archival imagery, but dotcom is for prosperity. “My website is where I’m placing the biggest focus,” Harry said. “I want it to exist as an online archive of all of IKEA’s most interesting designs.
Within the world of IKEA design, Harry has identified some pieces like the Niels Gammelgaard JARPEN and Karin Mobring DIANA chairs that have become incredibly popular in vintage resale. His focus is more attributed to the less celebrated, lesser known pieces “like the postmodern style ULK mirror or VAJER drawers,” that were only sold for a couple seasons and don’t meet the same mass acclaim. This approach to discovery seems to be necessary in this new resale landscape. As names like De Lucchi, Aulenti, and Noguchi re enter the zeitgeist, hunting vintage furniture has shifted from a casual hobby to something that now can feel overwhelmingly cost-prohibitive—appreciating a piece for its unique qualities stripped from the clout of its namesake opens the realms of possibility.
The success of BILLY.forsale also proves that the value of furniture can be heavily influenced by its nostalgic and cultural weight. I asked Harry why IKEA products specifically, and the sentiment of his response was evident: its accessibility makes it widely relatable. “I loved watching home makeover shows like BBC’s Changing Rooms where they were really influenced by these designers but as they only had a £750 budget to makeover a room, all of the furniture was from IKEA or homemade out of MDF,” he said. “All of my childhood bedroom was IKEA and because it’s so affordable I was able to get pretty experimental with my room. In the end I had all black and white accessories and painted the woodwork silver.” Harry also noted IKEA as a meaningful lens through which we’re able to study the evolution of contemporary design: “Looking at the early 90s catalogues you see a sudden switch from the chintz and patterns of the late 80s to the Minimalist style that was about to take over. IKEA is just like the high street clothes shops where they produce an edited down, affordable version of what the biggest designers of the time are making.” Although he enjoys the more recent collaborative works, like the MARKERAD Mona Lisa Lightbox by Virgil Abloh, Harry remains mostly attracted to their vintage pieces. “IKEA is my favourite place for kitchen accessories though,” he added, “so I’m mainly just going there now for Tupperware.”
As the resale market continues to take off, the same rationale that’s boosted it has caused the boom of fast furniture to exacerbate in parallel. And while this more easily allows the masses to indulge in what’s trending, older pieces have already proven they can withstand the test of time. “Sustainability is one of the best benefits of buying vintage,” Alana told me. “That West Elm couch that you purchased not that long ago is more than likely going into the landfill in 5 years. [Vintage is] not only built to last but contemporary designs are often inspired from vintage styles.” Buying resale can also be a practice in building and supporting community. “It’s keeping money local and flowing through our economy,” Sunny noted.
Whatever your reason, the feeling of finding that piece is undeniable. Curating my space with intention and with items that, simply, I enjoy looking at has had unsurprisingly positive effects on my mood, and from the pieces I’ve collected as well as the new finds I see shared on IG, I continue to draw inspiration that manifests in ways beyond just the composition of my home environment. Understanding the constant evolution the industry requires, I remain content on the consumer's side of this resale Renaissance for now, but thanks to the accounts of these sellers and their contemporaries at least I get to witness.