On a recent afternoon at the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene, Jake Spetalieri, the proprietor of Catskill Coydog Vintage furniture, was offering a few rainy day specials, including a blue nubby vinyl-covered late 1960s settee for $345 (normally $450) and a sleek, surfboard-shaped white-topped coffee table for $250 ($100 off). The sky was threatening to open any minute, but a crowd was still browsing the aisles of some eighty-five vendors selling everything from neon beer signage, fondue pots, jewelry made from vintage typewriter keys to vintage clothing, Ball jars repurposed as soap dispensers, and of course, furniture. Spetalieri is one of the regulars at the Flea, launched in 2008 by Jonathan Butler and Eric Demby. The market has become the primary venue and breeding ground for the handmade, vintage, artisanal, and small-batch culture that the world now understands as signifying Brooklyn. The Flea is now testing how well this sensibility plays outside the borough with the Brooklyn Flea Philly, which crashed the gates of that city’s antiques establishment when it launched in June.
The bearded, lanky, affable Spetalieri, counts among his customers interior designers and restaurant owners looking for names or standout pieces (such as the set of Adrian Pearsall dining chairs he had) but also twenty- and thirty-somethings eager to furnish their apartments with things their friends won’t have seen anywhere else and items that have lived longer than they have. Spetalieri says such younger buyers find the Flea approachable and more affordable than brick-and-mortar stores, and in the informal context, “their purchases can be spontaneous.” Case in point: after a trip to the cash machine, a young couple nabs that $250 coffee table and walks it home.
This spontaneity is just one of the components at the heart of a younger generation’s increasingly ardent pursuit of the old. People in their twenties to mid-forties and beyond are embracing the past in a self-conscious way as much for what it is as for what it is not: corporate derived, mass produced, and prepackaged. More than an interior decorating trend, it is an aesthetic manifestation of the generational resistance-some would say rebellion-against a disposable culture of mass-produced convenience in favor of the salvaged, the restored, the highly personal, and the local. It goes against the instincts of the stringent modernist minimalism that has been so ubiquitous for the past decade and embraces the romantic pursuit of objects with a story. This is not just furniture in a room, it’s a personal narrative.
The Brooklyn Flea has served as both witness to and catalyst for noticeable cultural shifts. “In a way, the Flea is riding the wave it helped create,” Demby says. “I’ve used the term ‘participatory capitalism’ to describe the Flea’s appeal. Folks feel some ownership over the specialness of the market and they feel that by supporting the vendors from the beginning, they’ve had a hand in the market’s success. I think that feeling of community, as overused as that word may be, is actually quite authentic at the Flea.”
Porter and Hollister Hovey, sisters who share a loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, were quick to be seduced by the allure of the vintage and have since made it their métier. About five years ago they would spend every weekend hunting for antique furniture in their neighborhood. They made their purchases at shops, stoop sales, and at the Brooklyn Flea, and hauled them home to the loft they were furnishing together. “We’d carry these heavy pieces up Bedford Avenue, sweating,” recalls Hollister, thirty-four. “It was a labor of love.” They started photographing their finds and, eventually, their apartment, and putting the pictures on a blog, which gained an avid fan base. Some high-profile media attention followed, and they and a few of their Edwardian era-loving, unapologetically nostalgic peers with an enthusiasm for taxidermy were dubbed the New Antiquarians.
The Hoveys didn’t expect that their highly cultivated interest in chinoiserie, well-traveled Louis Vuitton luggage, mounted animal heads, and ancestral portraiture would turn into a career. “We always thought we were a little weird,” says Porter, thirty. “Living with these things was just something we did, and we never expected so many people to identify with it.” But in short order, the duo has established Hovey Design, an interiors firm with a growing client list; written a coffee table book, Heirloom Modern, recently published by Rizzoli; and landed merchandising deals with retailer Anthropologie and the upscale decorating and housewares website One Kings Lane. Turns out vintage butterfly nets are big business.
It is tempting to think of this as a kind of retrograde neo-traditionalism, but there is much more to it, including an unapologetic fixation on reusing and recycling, not to mention conserving, particularly in a post-recession era. But it is also about cultivating a sense of individuality through one’s surroundings. The Flea was born out of the blog Brownstoner, the real estate-focused site that started out in 2004 as a chronicle of Jonathan Butler’s renovation of his Brooklyn town house. It quickly became a phenomenon, drawing together a community of new homeowners who derived a tremendous sense of self-worth from the preservation and renovation of their historic houses. The Flea was a natural extension. It now manages markets in Fort Greene (Saturday) and Williamsburg (Sunday) and two “Smorgasburg” locations that focus solely on food made with locally sourced organic ingredients-think of it as fast slow-food.
Its expansion to Philadelphia, in the up-and-coming Northern Liberties neighborhood, is a strategic one. “When cities don’t have a market, you create one,” declares Demby, forty. “There’s generally a demand for these things.” That Philadelphia is historically an antiques town was not lost on the Flea’s organizers. “That’s part of the appeal to us,” says Demby, who adds that of the one hundred vendors who signed up for the inaugural sale on June 2, roughly half focus on antiques, and most are from the region. “We’ve always considered antiques vendors to be the heart and soul of our market,” Demby affirms. “To us, the other stuff, like the food, is fun and cute.” He will not dispute, however, that the availability of trendy fare like pork belly sandwiches, organic doughnuts, and cold-brewed iced coffee is a draw (besides, nobody likes to shop on an empty stomach). Demby cites a “general cultural shift away from mass-produced goods” and acknowledges that “the Flea and other markets of a similar mindset that have popped up are definitely responding to that.” But, he adds, “I wouldn’t want to get much more deeply into it than that. There’s a more mundane explanation for the Flea’s success: There’s good stuff to buy there.”
It’s not all about the Flea, however. New shops selling old things have cropped up around the country. In Los Angeles there is Inheritance (formerly Zelen Home), which offers antiques, taxidermy, and other curiosities. While in Brooklyn, places like Holler and Squall, the four-year-old Brooklyn Heights emporium owned by husband and wife Gillette, thirty, and Zak Wing, thirty-three, are thriving. “We don’t call ourselves an antiques store because we’re not,” Zak says, noting that the current inventory includes a pair of nine-foot vinyl Chesterfield sofas from a Connecticut hunting lodge, a side table with water-pipe legs, a life-size anatomical model of a human torso, a massive early twentieth-century curved-glass terrarium, and luggage racks salvaged from French trains. Wing describes his clients, the youngest of whom are in their mid-thirties, as people who “have money and know what they want. They own a brownstone; they’re doing the whole house in their look.”
Whatever the demographic, the Holler and Squall shopper is looking for a one-of-a-kind item. “Everyone should have a few standout pieces that have a story to them,” Wing says. “People love a story.” For their part, Wing says he and Gillette, who have two young children, “don’t live with a lot of nice stuff.” They have a pair of “not overly appealing” 1970s velvet love seats and some old worn French bistro chairs, and a lot of artwork from friends. “Our house is not a show piece,” Wing says-rather the opposite of the much-photographed Williamsburg loft that his regular customers Porter and Hollister Hovey call home.
“We love that all of these great objects usually have a story behind them, which makes them all that much more interesting,” Porter says. Will it be long before the Hoveys are bidding at Christie’s Americana sales or shopping the Winter Antiques Show? It remains to be seen whether the antiquarian enthusiast becomes a patron and supporter of the field, but in the meantime, out in Brooklyn and New Hope and the Catskills and Pasadena, the taste level is high and the acquisitive impulse is strong. “I think we’re all striving to have these unique living experiences and the antique is one way to do it,” Hollister says. “It wasn’t ‘we hate the new and we just love the old,’ it’s just what we happen to find beautiful.”
Meghan Dailey is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor with expertise in art and antiques.