Buying quality home furnishings has come a long way since the days when it involved traipsing to far-flung showrooms or trawling Google and Pinterest and bookmarking hefty catalogues. The process for discovery is now vastly improved with aggregate websites that offer homeowners a streamlined search of multiple brands and transparent pricing. Clippings, for example, is one of the UK’s top e-retailers. It has 3.5 million products for sale from 850 design brands, from Vitra to Hay, and offers quick delivery and an installation service. Founded in 2014, its sales have grown by over 400 per cent year on year since then, and it is the go-to website for interior designers, architects, property developers and savvy consumers looking for everything from tables to teacups.
But what of niche design – highly individual, difficult to source bespoke, customised and limited edition offerings that truly stand out from the crowd? There are, of course, independent designers’ own websites, but now we are seeing a crop of niche e-tailers that operate on a larger scale, selling unusual, often one-off products, sourced in original ways from a highly curated selection of makers.
Artemest, co-founded by New York-based jeweller and designer Ippolita Rostagno, specialises in handmade crafts and design from Italy. In 2015, after years spent witnessing the demise of ateliers and workshops in Florence (her birthplace), Rostagno joined forces with Marco Credendino, previously in corporate development and M&A at Yoox, and spent a year meeting makers, unearthing near-extinct skills and seeking out rare, handmade pieces from all over Italy. Artemest now works with some 400 makers, with products ranging from art deco-inspired cabinets (£8,000) by Monica Gasperini, a Reims minimalist desk (£15,160) by Giuseppe Rivadossi, and a sculptural Il Pezzo 2 coffee table (£5,600) by Pezzo Mancante, to the Semi Rezzonico Murano glass chandelier (£35,100) by Striulli Vetri D’Arte and the Mondrian glass and metal chandelier (£6,800) by VeniceM. “We learnt, for example, how Torre del Greco, a tiny commune south of Naples, became the capital of cameo carving,” says Rostagno. “In the 17th century, trade ships arriving from Africa used shells as ballast to weather storms. Before docking in Naples, they would dump their cargo at Torre del Greco. The locals used the free material to craft cameos and during the next century they became the de rigueur keepsake of the Italian Grand Tour.” Similar stories underpin most products on Artemest, and Rostagno selects them with a well-trained eye. “We look for traditional materials and techniques with a modern touch. We like to put classical pieces in a modern space and vice versa.”
“Many of our makers had no web presence, no idea how to generate revenue or deal with marketing, logistics, distribution and customer care,” says Credendino. Artemest takes care of all these, leaving its makers to focus on making. Credendino takes inspiration from his former employer. Since online fashion behemoth Yoox launched its design section in 2006, it has pioneered shops-in-shops (including with Italian porcelain company Richard Ginori in 2016), been instrumental in resurrecting heritage Italian brands (including glass tableware maker Carlo Moretti in 2013), kickstarted the careers of young designers (such as Giacomo Moor and Eligo) and launched countless capsule collections, limited editions and exclusives. Though considerably smaller, Artemest is adopting a similar curatorial agility. With such a wealth of talent and so many different regional specialisms at her fingertips, Rostagno has provided an environment where the likes of plate maker Laboratorio Paravicini and engraver Moleria Locchi can collaborate on a collection of plates and glasses (from £50), and more such collaborations will follow.
With no physical spaces to connect with clients, the humanising part of the online adventure, and Artemest includes maker profiles and sends customers regular photo and film updates from the workshops where custom orders are made. Together with boutique hotel reviews, it aims to offer an “Italian experience”. Next year, it will also offer bespoke tours of Italy with stays in under-the-radar hotels and villages and chances to meet the Artemest makers.
“Clients can’t interact directly with our products, and they always say they want to see and know more,” concurs Jessica Macias, the Venezuelan CEO and co-founder of Maison Numen. Macias pursued a career in finance in Caracas and New York before joining the board of Centre Pompidou, while her business partner Ana Caufman is a well-travelled curator. Together they seek out high-quality, handmade items from around the world – such as rugs (£536) by Venezuelan weaver Idanela Martin, hammocks (£510) by Latin America’s Yawalapiti tribe and sculptural made-to-order vases (£304) by Italian blacksmith Daniele Mingardo – and record their journeys and meetings with makers. Far from padding out flimsy notions of heritage with marketing spin, this grassroots-focused e-retailer, like Artemest, almost has too many stories to tell.
With the online spotlight on them in this way, designers need to be sure that the portal that presents them to the world is the right fit – for their product, personality and ethos. Like the other 40 designers who sell through The Invisible Collection, French designer Pierre Gonalons has multiple outlets for his work: Paris’s Gallery Yves Gastou sells his limited editions; he produces furniture and lighting under his own label, Ascète; and he also works for many brands. “But I don’t sell everywhere,” he says. “The person, the moment and the place have to be right. The Invisible Collection is a nice story, a strong concept and the best platform for my products.” Striking pieces by Gonalons on the site include the Sienna coffee table (€3,000) in Carrara, Marquina and Bardiglio marble, and the Sunset lamp (from €650).
Most of the items on The Invisible Collection see co-founders Anna Zaoui and Isabelle Dubern work with designers to sell either custom editions of their signature pieces or those designed for a private client project that were never ultimately produced. The idea for the site took hold when Dubern, former creative director of Dior Maison, wanted a custom version of a Papa Bear chair (from £10,000) by French interior designer Pierre Yovanovitch. “I called Pierre to order one,” she says, “but he said I would need to hire him to create an entire project, which wasn’t on the agenda!” Dubern discovered, however, that he was designing one for her friend Zaoui’s New York apartment and, as a favour, Zaoui added an extra one to her order. It became clear to the duo that although designers might be happy to make a one-off commission for a client, they often don’t have the administrative support to arrange elements like shipping, delivery and installation, and so the commission is turned down. “This is where we get involved,” says Zaoui. For the likes of India Mahdavi or Jérôme Faillant-Dumas, having another discerning outlet that promotes existing designs, liaises with clients and ships the final piece is a no-brainer. This autumn a selection of Up lights (from £2,300) in different finishes from French architect duo Studio KO and 12 pieces from French interior designer Vincent Darré, among them The Conversation armchair (£3,000), join the mix. “Clients say we have a very French viewpoint,” says Zaoui. “Very chic in terms of proportion and shape and less standardised than in the US or UK.” Almost all the 300 pieces for sale, such as the Eléphant chair (€5,500) or the Sofa We (from £6,665), are by French designers who work with their own craftsmen, but the aim, says Dubern, is to build an Invisible Collection network of craftsmen across Europe.
These sites are debunking the myth that online shoppers would happily spend £600 on a MaxMara trench coat, but would never lay down £10,000 on a bespoke console without seeing it. “It’s often harder for us to sell the simple things,” says Artemest’s Credendino. “The most complex pieces in the most unusual colours and finishes are the most popular.” This is partly because many Artemest customers are interiors architects or design aficionados who are at ease with shopping from pictures, and can customise with confidence, but also arguably because a new generation of shoppers is not intimidated by high prices online.
Rising consumer confidence online was partly responsible for vintage specialist 1stdibs’ decision to launch, in November 2016, a contemporary division. “At least 10 orders a day are above $10,000,” says Cristina Miller, senior vice president of seller relations. “A year ago it was about four. But so many people were asking for big‑ticket bespoke items, and as many of our dealers, such as David Gill Gallery and Salon 94 Design, sell contemporary design too, it was a natural progression.” To date, the division has pieces by 400 makers and represents 15 per cent of all furniture sales. New to the site are the Mr & Mrs Hybreed chair (£3,000) by Britain’s Charlotte Kingsnorth and the OCD Collection brass side table (£2,216) by Mexico’s Esrawe Studio. “People often don’t know how to look for unique pieces, but, partly because of our roots in antiques, we do,” she adds “We make sourcing really fast for interior designers, who traditionally spend a lot of time looking for items.” And who, in our time-starved culture, has a schedule that allows them to personally source beautifully made, unusual items from far-flung locations?
“World travellers love things that are difficult to find,” says Macias. “Most popular at Masion Numen are the WII Or baskets (from £40), by Venezuela’s Yanomami people. They are incredibly hard to source: not only does it take a month to make just one basket, but the Yanomami live deep in the Amazon, far along the Upper Orinoco river – only accessible when it has rained.” Maison Numen works with around 50 makers but Macias sees much untapped potential in her continent. “Latin American artisans are still rather undiscovered internationally; in Mexico there are remote places where makers who don’t even speak Spanish are using techniques passed down though generations. Tapping into them is costly and challenging, but it’s what makes us different. We don’t want to sell anything that is made in India but inspired by Brazil. We look for pieces that are authentic and traditional, but adaptable to modern life.”
Keeping products fresh and exciting is the biggest challenge for e-retailers. As larger sites like Yoox are often the first port of call for many design houses launching new collections (this November it releases exclusive versions of Achille Castiglioni’s bestselling Lampadina lamp, £72, in red, white and green; a previously unrealised Tema & Variazioni plate, £100, from the Fornasetti archive; and a Mouse lamp, £60, in gold and silver by Seletti), the boutique sites must refresh their offerings in original ways. Next year, Maison Numen is debuting a capsule collection from a number of its makers, inspired by the Spanish conquistadors, and The Invisible Collection is working with the family of late Brazilian designer Ricardo Fasanello to relaunch iconic pieces from the archive. “We see Fasanello as the Brazilian answer to Pierre Paulin,” says Zaoui.
“In the beginning, retailers were sceptical, but now they understand the differences and advantages the web offers,” says Marco Tonizzo, head of merchandising at Yoox. “Most journeys begin online with Google, Pinterest and so on,” yet when it comes to an actual purchase, we still order from a showroom or catalogue. But that first click of the mouse is everything: established physical retailers must seduce shoppers through digital windows that mirror the aspirational lifestyles conveyed in their physical spaces. And e-retailers need, instantly, to bring their products alive within the confines of a virtual world. Success is down to the selection, the storytelling, the concept. Says Tonizzo: “For any retailer, it’s point of view that makes the difference.”