Why Young Collectors Are Buying Fussy Antiques

The 20th century has had a near-total grip on design trends for the past few years if not longer — mid-century modernism, Memphis maximalism, 1980s cocaine decor. But recently, much older things have been flooding new design galleries and TikTok and Instagram feeds, from medieval and 19th-century tapestries to Regencycore (a revival of highly ornate early-19th-century British design) and found objects from the 1800s. However, this renewed interest in antiques, which are by definition at least a century old, isn’t so much a trend as it is a worldview. Millennials and Gen-Zers are more open-minded about a variety of styles and being fascinated by the history and provenance of items that catch their eye. The New Antiquarians: At Home With Young Collectors, by the art historian and designer Michael Diaz-Griffith, lets us look closer at this cultural shift through home tours of 22 collectors across the United States and England. We spoke with him about that landscape today.

New Antiquarians focuses on younger antiques collectors, and while your collection isn’t featured, you’re part of this group. Where did your obsession with old furniture come from?

Many people think of collecting as an elite preoccupation, and it certainly can be, but my interest in collecting emerges from a different place — rural Alabama. I grew up in the depths of the Bible Belt in a series of Sheetrock-clad, air-conditioned interiors without a stick of antique furniture. There was a reason for this. My adoptive mother’s mother, who died before I was born, had been an antiques dealer — really, a “picker.” She was also an alcoholic who abandoned my mother for long passages and physically abused her when she did happen to be around, nearly killing her on several occasions. The second she inherited her mother’s things, my mother liquidated them at auction. But growing up without anything old in the house made me curious about these things.

Years later, when I expressed an interest in antiques, my mother must have been horrified; they represented a sinister aspect of her past. But over time, my parents came to be wonderfully supportive of my interests, allowing me to haul the family around to historic houses and museums all over the South and helping me get to Maine at 17, where the life I lead today began. Collecting is ultimately, for me, about the love of objects.

As you write in the book, there’s been a noticeable shift in how younger generations are approaching collecting and antiques, and it wasn’t what the industry expected.

I’m seeing a widespread recognition in the art and design worlds that a revival of interest in antiques is happening. It’s a reversal of how the market was perceived. Post-recession, all that antiques dealers see is decline. 9/11 is a marker used in the antiques world to describe the beginning of a waning of interest. And then it really falls off after 2009. The news in the antiques world was, Young people are finished with this stuff, they’re never gonna like it again. We’re screwed. We’ve got warehouses full of material that we’ll never sell, we’ll never make our money back on. It was an apocalyptic time.

It was hard to point to what was happening in the antiques world for the simple reason that millennials started off on the wrong foot economically. As they came of age, they had less buying power than previous generations. And collecting is not a young person’s game. It never has been — except for a lucky few.

At the same time, millennials were obsessing over color and pattern and old things and Sofia Coppola films. And this is when Lady Gaga appeared on the scene. I could see that the sort of ingredients that were contributing to this generation’s taste were not minimalism, or, at least, not solely minimalism. My peers weren’t high modernists. They didn’t think that it was wrong to have old things around. They didn’t have an almost ideological narrative about the goodness of modernism and the badness of traditional things. It was a much more well-rounded sense of taste.

And what do these new collectors look for? Is it the same stuff as in previous generations?

Younger people are going to inevitably be interested in different things than previous generations. That’s always been the case. You’ll go through a period in which Victorian furniture is reviled, and then in the 1930s, there’ll be a Victorian revival, and then the stuff will go back out again, and then comes back again in the ’70s.

Walk us through how the pendulum has swung for different generations.

For baby-boomers, the Americana market and English furniture became very strong. Competitive collecting was certainly a reality for that generation — your collecting practice and the interior in which you displayed your collection could place you in and help you maintain your status within a certain class system. The classic example of this is if you were a titan in business in the 1980s, there was a short list of interior designers you would use to decorate your floor-through apartment on Fifth Avenue or Park Avenue, and it would be an English country-house look.

Gen-Xers are typically mid-century collectors. They didn’t want what their parents had. There was a sentiment of: It feels stuffy. You’re more conservative than I am. You lead a more formal lifestyle than I do. There’s a presumed radicalism in what they were doing in the ’90s because they were rejecting their parents’ style by choosing modernism. It’s kind of like a Kendall Roy mood, you know? I’m rejecting you by doing this, but actually, it’s reinstating the same pattern of competitive collecting.

Younger people today aren’t really making a choice between styles. They’re mixing everything — new, old, vintage, contemporary, antique. Millennial taste has embraced old, historic, complex things. Emily Adams Bode and Aaron Aujla, who are featured in the book, are figureheads of this. And Alex Tieghi-Walker, who will place a Shaker chair in an interior with great intention and doesn’t overwhelm it, also represents this vibe.

With the emerging Gen-Z taste, things are displayed in such clear and vivid ways, kind of in the spirit of Axel Vervoordt. Everything has to have a great line or a great detail, like sculpture. Camille Okhio, who is in the book, represents this. These are not like archconservative socialites who are trying to keep up with the Joneses with their fancy furniture. They’re wildly independent spirits who are spending time and money — and maybe not even that much money, but whatever disposable income they have — to create these stage sets or these environments that just make life richer and more interesting.

What’s behind this omnivorousness?

There is a slightly more open-ended pursuit of individual taste. For those of us who are interested in the material world now, collecting doesn’t implicitly say “I’m cool” or “I have a lot of money.” There were fewer ways to be in society for Gen-X and baby-boomer collectors, and fewer slots to fit in. Now we can all make these slots for ourselves, and in an age of social media, it’s just so much easier to find other people who respond to the same things. We obsess over each other and each other’s taste.

Trend cycles also move so fast. Your eye is constantly trying to find something that will surprise and delight it. Part of this is scavenging the past. Emily Eerdmans, who is in the book, is one person who does this. She’s reviving a very traditional taste but doing it in a fresh way, in the spirit of Mario Buatta. When I show her interiors — she has Regency furniture set against lime-green walls and leopard-print carpets — to a Dimes Square fashionista, they’re shocked because they don’t know anyone who’s collecting English furniture and really living with it. I love that when you position material that’s been considered fussy or out-of-date a little differently or show it to someone in an unexpected context, the radicalism of the design comes through.

What are some of the styles or periods that people are now drawn to?

There’s an emerging taste for found objects with visible repairs and interventions. These dealers and collectors are only fascinated by things that are disrupted by the novel effects of time. They don’t just care about original surface; they want something to have been fucked with, which I love. A clear example of this is @oldasadam. I recently bought a postcard from him, and the note written on the back is marked through violently. Adam really appreciated this as an ephemeral artifact made by a heartbroken lover.

English furniture was like the least fashionable thing on earth among Gen-Xers — and it’s also what their parents often collected. There is a taste now for this quote-unquote brown furniture that I see only increasing in the coming years. That’s almost another act of rebellion, right? Like, You think this stuff is so lame, we’re gonna make it cool again.

And I think there’s a vein of working with material that’s been traditionally popular, but collectors want to acquire the best of what it was. Like Samuel Snider, a collector of 18th- and 19th-century Americana who is taking a full-on, almost period-room approach to his home, which is featured in the book. I think it’s a chic maneuver for people like him who can exist at the top of the market.

There’s another interesting dynamic: As people have been reevaluating and challenging Eurocentric history in recent years, design and decorative arts collectors have expanded their scope too.

There absolutely is a reappraisal of history in different ways. New objects are coming into view that were not focused on in previous generations. In America, there has been a consistent fascination with quilts. But wider appreciation for Black craftspeople and communities that make quilts has certainly contributed to that material being broadly more popular. The knowledge of who made a thing was either lost or ignored or just not in view in any way before. We care more generally now about provenance and who owned objects. Now we can say, Oh my gosh, this incredible activist or this incredible thinker owned this piece. That didn’t matter in the past. It really matters now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.