Interview by Sarah Akwisombe, this article first appeared in her blog SarahAkwisombe.com on June 7, 2014.
I came across The HighBoy by accident on Instagram. What struck me straight away was their brilliant tone of voice, brand personality and style. I followed instantly. Yes, you do find a lot of 20th century or midcentury dealers on Instagram, but not so many 'traditional' antiques dealers, so a presence on there catches my eye. Plus, their bio read:
'... will change the way you think bout Antiques and Fine art. It's kind of a big deal.'
These guys, in my opinion, are the younger, cooler sibling of 1st Dibs, the renowned fine antiques online portal that's been creating ripples throughout the trade for the last few years. With a selection of some of the finest pieces I've come across online, a cutting edge website with modern design and a brilliant brand personality to boot, I just had to make friends with the founders and send some questions across the pond to husband and wife founders, Olga and Doug.
CAN YOU TELL ME A BIT ABOUT HOW THE HIGHBOY WAS BORN?
I grew up around antiques and decorative arts, as my father built his business as an antiques dealer in Miami. After college, I embraced the opportunity to apply what I had learned over the years and in my formal studies by joining my father’s business. Soon, I expanded the shop to include arts and ceramics and other objects I loved.
As my passion for art and antiques grew, I also became more frustrated with their limited number of admirers, especially among my peers. I felt my entire generation was missing out on such beauty and history and adventure—all because of lack of accessibility, poor presentation, and widespread misconceptions. I was also disappointed by the lack of technological advances available to antiques dealers. When my husband (and his background in consulting) joined our business, we realised we could solve for both problems at once: We would create a technology solution for dealers, which would simultaneously create a collective that would tell antiques’ story to a new generation.
YOU HAVE AN EXTREMELY FRESH, ALMOST DISRUPTIVE STYLE AND VOICE IN WHAT COULD BE SEEN AS A VERY TRADITIONAL INDUSTRY.
We live in a world of ubiquitous information, and the people who are heard are the ones who can cut through the noise and tell compelling stories in fresh ways. The good news is that antiques are rich with stories, woven through wars and expeditions and revolutions. We’re just telling those age-old stories with a 21st-century style. The antiques industry hasn’t always done this well, and we’re aiming to change that.
YOU’VE GONE FOR VERY CONTEMPORARY BRANDING AND AN ALMOST DESIGN MAGAZINE LAYOUT – WHAT WAS THE CHOICE BEHIND THIS?
We’re reaching an audience that includes people who relate to a sleeker, cleaner aesthetic, so it made sense to design the site to reflect that. And of course, we’re busting the myth that the antiques industry is uber-traditional and stuffy. What better way to do that than to represent our brand and create an online space that’s fresh and airy and hip?
YOU’RE VERY ACTIVE ON SOCIAL MEDIA. DO YOU THINK THERE ARE BUYERS WAITING TO BE ENGAGED WITH ON THESE PLATFORMS?
Absolutely. We’re living in an era when design is everywhere, and people are constantly gathering ideas for their own homes—or just collecting images of beautiful things. We know buyers are on these platforms, but we’re also reaching people who might not be buyers today but who are beginning to develop their own sense of style and their own ideas about what’s beautiful.
ARE YOU CONSCIOUSLY COMPETING AGAINST 1STDIBS?
As we told the Wall Street Journal, we’re so much cooler than 1stdibs! Joking aside, absolutely not. We have nothing but respect and admiration for the innovations that 1stdibs championed over the last decade. We feel we are telling a different story and providing services that are not part of their offerings. We also feel we have a different aesthetic and point of view that weren’t previously promoted in the marketplace. Lastly, we understand that one size doesn’t fit all, so its great to have options – for everyone involved.
I THINK THE INDUSTRY PERCEPTION IS THAT IT’S A WASTE OF TIME TO MARKET TO A YOUNGER AUDIENCE AS THEY DON’T HAVE MONEY TO BUY. DO YOU AGREE?
Not at all. Twenty and thirty-somethings invest in design and in beautiful things. We know plenty of young buyers. And plus, it makes sense to cultivate a younger audience because when they fall in love with the romance and patina and history of antiques, they become devotees for life. Every Baby Boomer was once a twenty-something!
IF YOU WERE TALKING TO A TWENTY / THIRTY-SOMETHING CONSUMER WHO HAS NEVER BOUGHT AN ANTIQUE, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THEM?
First, antiques offer a level of craftsmanship that’s quite high, certainly greater than mass-produced furniture. I think we’re returning to a time when people really value well-made things. I see a burgeoning appreciation for artisans and craftsmen, which aligns beautifully with the experience of living with antiques.
And finally, my favourite reason is that antiques add a layer of interest and history to your home. You take part in the story of that piece’s life, and the piece is a reminder that you belong to a continuum of human history. I find it fascinating and thrilling. As a side note, you can easily integrate antiques into a modern or contemporary space—we see collectors do it all the time—and that combination of old and new can be truly beautiful. It’s not all or nothing. It’s about layering and mixing.
AS A MARRIED COUPLE, DO YOU HAVE THE SAME TASTE IN PIECES? HOW IS YOUR HOME DECORATED AND FURNISHED?
We just celebrated our 11th anniversary and have three children! We’ve been lucky in that we usually agree on what we like. Our home is almost entirely furnished with antiques or vintage furniture, with a few exceptions such as a sofa. That said, when most of our friends come to our house, they can’t believe that our pieces are antique or vintage because our home doesn’t feel like a museum—which is what people sometimes expect from antiques. We live with three busy kids and a home full of antique, artful pieces, and I’m telling you: It works!
WHAT / WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE ERAS, STYLES, DESIGNERS?
That’s a tough one for me, and I’ll explain why. When you’ve been in this industry for this long, you’ve had the opportunity to see the best examples of every period, era, and style. Each one has its moments of absolute grandeur, a climax in artistic and intellectual output that garners so much respect that you can’t possibly compare it to another moment when a different collision of talent and opportunity came together to create a masterpiece.
IF SOMEONE IS INTERESTED IN BUYING ANTIQUES BUT DOESN’T HAVE A LARGE BUDGET, WHAT WOULD BE YOUR ADVICE?
Buy one thing you love when you can afford it. Maybe that happens once a year. Mirrors, small side tables, small pieces of art—these are a good place to start because you can move them easily around your home as your design style changes. I’ve collected many things that aren’t expensive over the years, such as drawings or small boxes or leather-bound books. They bring back memories from when and where I acquired them, which makes my day-to-day life inspired by where I’ve been and where I aspire to go.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY ARE THE CURRENT INVESTMENT PIECES?
I would say the best investment pieces are usually the ones that are undervalued for the moment. And a top-quality piece within any era and style is always a good investment. I like to remind people that it isn’t just age that makes something valuable; it’s craftsmanship and materials.
That said, I consider 18th-century European provincial furniture and antiquities to be good investments right now. The highest quality 20th-century and Asian pieces are really hot right now, which means the prices are a bit inflated. Unless you have to have it, I would wait out the trend on those pieces.
WHAT'S YOUR ONE FAVOURITE PIECE THAT YOU ARE CURRENTLY STOCKING, AND WHY?
That’s like asking us to choose our favourite child! Here are a couple of items we’d love to own personally:
I like the simplicity and intricacy of this table from the Aesthetic Movement. It would be easy to incorporate into almost any style of decorating, by using it as a sculpture in a more minimalist space to creating a layered vignette in a library or den.
I love the early 20th century, and I love the Art Deco period in particular. The early to mid-20th century was such a profound period for culture - art, music, literature and design. What appeals to me about these chairs is the form, proportion, and colours. I love the bold, large seat cushion, the low back, the clean-lined sloping arms different in colour than the body. And I love the fabric, although it's not original. This is the emergence from the 19th century. It's the cusp of Modernism, yet with elegance and formality of tradition. It's kind of the last gasp before mid-century takes over with new materials and forms.
I absolutely love the ethos behind The Highboy, and interviewing Olga and Doug has made me have even more respect for them and the company. I love that they really 'get' that it's worth investing in the future collectors, not just those who can afford to buy right now. I also love what Olga said about being a part of the story of a piece's life, not the other way round. Antiques are pieces that have the craftsmanship and quality to last hundreds of years, with the current owner purely being the custodian. It's hard to think of Ikea pieces that way isn't it?! In a world that full of instant gratification and throwaway goods, it's refreshing to hear someone share the same outlook as I do on the lifetime of a piece.
We are just tiny, tiny, parts of the larger world and lifetime. It really puts it all into perspective, huh! What do you think?
S x, Sarah Akwisombe