from their own warehouses to fulfill online orders. Soon, the
online platforms realized even when it came to discounted
product, consumers were less hungry than they’d anticipated; the “retailers” were now sitting on a large stock of
In essence, they bit off more than they could chew. A
necessary shift in the buyer-vendor relationship reduced the
e-commerce sites’ roles to that of a laissez-faire middleper-son, ultimately transferring all the economic risk and all the
operational burden onto the brand.
To be clear, I am by no means making the argument that
e-commerce is not a successful model for selling, for sharing great design, or for brokering buyer-designer relationships. I am arguing, though, that the flash sale model in
particular—a result of the internet’s disruption of the way
that independent makers conducted sales—was unsustainable, and it screwed a lot of designers over.
Think of 1stdibs. It, too, is an online retailer of independent design, as well as other luxury-grade and vintage
design. 1stdibs is incredibly successful. Its digital audience
contains over five million loyal followers; Forbes reports that
its registered users exceed the 100,000 mark, and its dealers are in the multiple thousands, serving buyers from over
1stdibs’ model differs from other e-commerce platforms
in that only authorized dealers can list product. This makes
the listings tightly curated, unlike the free-for-all of the flash
Whereas 1stdibs, which began as exclusively to-trade,
behaves sensitively to the design industry it operates within,
While the recession was obviously a disaster, a new market-
place was able to flourish because of it. 1stdibs got design
e-commerce right by not undercutting fabricators or com-
promising the quality of its pieces and its promotion.
Now 1stdibs, as was recently announced, is opening
a brick-and-mortar store. It will be on New York City’s
west side, housed in the Terminal Stores building, an
already design-friendly location – it’s host to WantedDesign
Manhattan during NYCxDESIGN. The current 1stdibs
showroom in Manhattan’s New York Design Center will
phase out, substituted by this new ground-level and more
approachable retail store. For designers, industry trade, and
even for digitally native design enterprises, brick and mortar
is valuable. You can’t just sell online anymore: The “
experience” and touch-and-feel of design and its materials is all
the more important in a world reeling from a deep dive into
a digital-majority existence.
Some design companies were burned by some e-commerce endeavors during this fast and furious, initial movement into digital sales models. 1stdibs even faced some
criticism, as a lot of antiques or luxury design dealers were
peeved because the privacy of its product pricing was compromised. This meant its clients now had easier access to
elevated heritage design pieces. But there is a way forward
from all of it.
With a return to brick and mortar supplementing e-com-
merce and the lesson of successful online selling models that
start out with the industry’s interests at heart, design com-
merce will prevail. In fact, it is becoming stronger than ever.
Michele Varian is a textile, wallpaper, lighting, and furniture
designer and micro-manufacturer. In addition to running her
New York City shop, she is also founder of Detroit Built Co.
and co-founder and chief retail strategist of retail matchmaking
ABOVE 1stdibs, an online
retailer of independent
design, has an e-commerce
model that differs from
others in that only
authorized dealers can
list product, making the
listings tightly curated.
interiors | FIELD NOTES