Viking Glass footed dish in Bluenique. Viking Glass seems to be popular among all ages of collectors. Photo by Erik G. Warner Decorative Salvage, 2016.
observations thought fodder

Who Needs 10 Sets of Dishes?

Thonet chair designed by Walter Gropius, refinished by Erik Warner in 2015.
Thonet chair designed by Walter Gropius, refinished by Erik Warner in 2015.

I read an article from the St. Paul Pioneer Press via the Brainerd Dispatch recently that I’m feeling the need to talk back to. The article is called “Antiques dealers find industry lagging, numbers shrinking – hope for eventual renaissance.”

It quotes a number of people in the industry discussing how antiques stores are going out of business and making comments about how young people just aren’t interested in old things anymore. One says the following of millennials:

“They shop online. They get groceries online. They come in here like this” — he mimicked holding a smartphone to photograph an item so it could be found on the internet.

“Most of them are” — he shudders at the word — “minimalists.”

Another person says kids these days “don’t support history.”

Working at a museum and co-owning a business that deals in vintage, specifically mid-century modern, furniture and decor, I have some relevant thoughts on what was expressed in the article.

First of all, from a business perspective on the inside of the antiques industry, there are continual fluctuations in what people want to buy. For a month or two, they’ll be all ga-ga about Fire King Jadeite mugs, which will command insanely high prices during that time, but once the fad fades, you might be hard pressed to give them away. Dining tables and chairs seem to have a season — just prior to Thanksgiving and into Christmas. This makes sense because that’s the time during which most people want to entertain. While there are particular markets that snap up furniture and decor by big name designers, like Adrian Pearsall and Milo Baughman, most of the vintage shoppers in Minnesota could care less about who designed their stuff. They look for the practical, nice looking stuff that makes them feel cool or nostalgic. Coffee tables and side tables made by Lane are a favorite.

Because of the large amount of antique, vintage, and used goods on the market, which can be found in antiques stores, specialty vintage shops (which we find only in the Twin Cities metro in Minnesota), garage and church sales, and the now ubiquitous thrift stores, people have many places to purchase these items, not just antiques stores. How might these other venues be affecting antiques stores sales?

The glut of used goods is the result of decades of conspicuous consumption, which was encouraged as a way to grow the economy. It was not uncommon for Baby Boomers and older generations to have several sets of dishes in the house, many of them resting peacefully in cupboards, unused except for a special occasion.

Well, the way trends move, there was bound to be a pendulum swing. Younger generations (Gen X and Millennials, primarily) grew up with ideas related to sustainability. “Reduce, reuse, recycle,” was the motto of Gen X. We were affected by the “Keep America Beautiful” ad featuring a Native American crying over the pollution caused by modern society. This shift toward sustaining earth’s resources has become even more pronounced among younger people because they have to live with what over-consumption and environmental negligence has wrought. (When we start seeing false articles about the Great Barrier Reef dying, but we believe them because the state of our natural environment is in such rough shape, we know we’ve got some work to do to improve the earth for future generations.)

When an antiques dealer says that Millennials are “minimalists” (with a shudder, no less), I want to shout “Hallelujah! They’re minimalists!” Who needs 10 sets of dishes collecting cobwebs and taking up space? Antiques stores are filled to the brim with dishes. They also have loads of knickknacks. Seriously, who wants to dust all that stuff?

Viking Glass footed dish in Bluenique. Viking Glass seems to be popular among all ages of collectors. Photo by Erik G. Warner Decorative Salvage, 2016.
Viking Glass footed dish in Bluenique. Viking Glass seems to be popular among all ages of collectors. Photo by Erik G. Warner Decorative Salvage, 2016.

And therein lies a difference between younger generations and older. Supposedly, they place more value on experiences than owning objects. That said, if you’re paying attention to what’s going on in society, you can easily see what has caused this shift, beyond digital gadgets, which get part of the blame in the article. Yes, computers and smart phones play a role in younger people not collecting certain things, like music, movies, and encyclopedias. Who needs to collect these items when you can access so many of them on a digital device? (Gen Xer’s had their CDs, mixed tapes, and vinyl for music; Boomers mostly had vinyl in their formative years. 8-track tapes were thrown into the mix between the two.)

But the explosion of digital devices isn’t the only societal force affecting the minimalist attitude of younger people. The rise in student debt and exorbitant rents for even the tiniest apartments discourage them from buying lots of stuff. How can they afford it and where will they put it? There’s also the tiny house movement and the sharing economy, which both hearken back to notions of sustainability.

It’s easy to assume that Millennials don’t want to collect anything. It was an assumption I was toying with for a while and then I talked to and observed my Millennial children. They do have collections, but they value different kinds of collections. One of my sons had a Pokemon card collection when he was younger. Now he is into Dungeons & Dragons and old hand tools. My other son is fond of military items and manga. Both collect books. (They take after me in this respect.) My daughter doesn’t seem to have any collections, although she does love shoes and photographs and all things Beyonce. The urge to collect continues on. We older generations just have to accept the fact that these collections are not necessarily going to match our collections.

When we hurl the accusation that young people don’t care about history, we are making this same sort of self-centered judgement. In my work at a museum, I see children constantly caring about history, but we have to help them make a connection to the history that is long past. We often use current items they are familiar with in comparison to older pieces to pull them back in time.

Each generation grows up in a different societal and cultural milieu, so their nostalgia triggers are going to be different as they become older. We see this with our vintage sales. When we say we refinish and sell mid-century furniture, some people automatically leap to Victorian-era furniture, assuming that’s what we deal in. Victorian-era items were popular for a long, long time, so long that many museums filled up on them and had trouble remembering to collect beyond that period. (Most museums have gotten past this and are rapidly adding artifacts from after the 1920s to our collections.) This concentration by museums on Victorian-era artifacts seeped into the general public, making them believe that only items from this era are historic. If young people don’t value these particular “historic” items, then they can’t possibly care about history.

That’s where antiques dealers are wrong and they need to do a better job of gauging the desires of potential customers, those Millennials. Don’t dis the A&W Root Beer mugs and Little Golden Books if that’s what your market is demanding. And find something creative to do with all those damn dishes.