Home stager Meridith Baer says after the recession, people looked for clean, simple home design. Courtesy of Meridith Baer Home
Divided Decade

How the financial crisis changed the way we think about home

Reema Khrais Jun 29, 2018
Home stager Meridith Baer says after the recession, people looked for clean, simple home design. Courtesy of Meridith Baer Home

Jan Ashford is going through a bit of an awkward phase with her parents. Every now and then, her dad, who’s trying to downsize, calls her to offer up his old furniture, as if she’d won the lottery.

“I’m, like, ‘Dad, no, we don’t want it,’” said Ashford, who’s 34. “I don’t need the gilded frame.”

Or the brass bed. Or that old oak chest from Ethan Allen.

“He thinks of it like an investment because he knows what he paid for it in 1985,” she said. “And it’s just not an investment anymore.”

Ashford, who works in sales, has done the formal dining room, expensive dishes and showy art.

But she said she unloaded all that stuff when she and her husband lost their jobs in 2012 and were forced to move around. Now settled in Colorado, Ashford said she doesn’t want to go back to the old way. She wants furniture that’s light and inexpensive, and she wants her home to feel homey.

“We don’t purchase art anymore,” she said. “We make art and use Pinterest and Ikea hacks. It’s cheaper. It looks cool and it’s more representative of us.”

That shift toward simpler and cheaper design is more representative of a lot of people who were all about their homes before the recession, then scaled back and learned to live smaller. And makers of inexpensive, mass-produced furniture — like Ikea — were in a good position to cash in on that transition.

During the housing crisis, the $169 Bjursta table and the $149 Malm bed were among Ikea’s top-selling items.

During the early 2000s, the Swedish company was making a big push into the U.S., building larger stores in more cities. Then, when the housing crisis hit and millions of people lost their homes and their jobs, “We could say that our original concept was even stronger,” said Lars Petersson, president and CEO of Ikea U.S.

Ikea doesn’t break out sales by country, but Petersson said during the early years of the financial crisis, store traffic slowed briefly.

But the company didn’t take nearly the hit that the rest of the home-furnishings industry did. From 2006 to 2009, furniture and home furnishings store sales in the U.S. dropped by nearly 25 percent.

“I think people didn’t want to spend extra money,” for a label or prestige, Petersson said. 

Since the recession, the desire for cleaner, simpler looks has stuck — even for people with thicker wallets, said Meridith Baer, founder of the largest home staging company in the world.

“I do think that many, many people like to live more minimally now,” she said.

People who are about to put their homes on the market pay stagers like Baer tens of thousands of dollars to fill them with just the right furnishings and personal touches to make would-be buyers want to move in as soon as possible.

Her 200,000 square-foot warehouse in Los Angeles is a sea of simple white couches, glass tables and contemporary art. Tucked away in the edges of the warehouse are the kind of bulky furniture that Ashford’s dad has been trying to get rid of. 

Baer uses the old Italian dressers and French armoires to store crisp white and gray pillowcases and sheets. She said those heavy pieces “used to be prized possessions among designers. Now we use them for storage.”

Those pieces used to fit nicely in so-called McMansions, which proliferated across the country in the early 2000s.

New homes today are smaller and the layouts became more flexible, according to Kermit Baker, chief economist for the American Institute of Architects. Wine cellars, media rooms and exercise areas have taken a back seat to home offices, which are bigger and more elaborate.

Baker said the recession changed the way we work. More people telecommute now and work at home part time, so design is “more supportive of the gig economy.” Additionally, people are spending more money than before on outdoor living spaces, Baker said.

“It’s a kind of reflection of this informality that followed the recession, getting away from the formal living and dining room, and using your house more flexibly.”

The recession also drained the color out of the way many lived. Literally.

In the early 2000s, people were covering their kitchens and living rooms with colors like Circus Red and Laser Lemon, said Erika Woelfel, vice president of color and creative services at Behr Paint.

Then, “in about 2008 and 2009, we started to see the rise of the color gray,” she said. “People might be preparing to sell a house, so they were looking at these very safe, kind of conservative colors that were easy to decorate around.”

And what was safe slowly became style. People love their grays today. Behr paint has added 70 new shades of gray in the last couple of years alone.

“It’s a macrotrend that’s really lasted the past 10 years,” Woelfel said.

Another macrotrend that’s held on? A preference for doing things rather than buying things, especially among millennials.  

“The American dream has changed,” Petersson said. “It’s not so much the original status symbols that are important — it’s very much about experiences.” Buying low-cost furniture, Petersson said, allows people to spend their money on things that matter more.

For 30-year-old Suzy Higham, who buys furniture mostly from Craigslist, the money she saves on her home goes toward vacations. Just last year, she went on a trip to Costa Rica, where she picked up what’s become her most cherished piece of furniture.

“It’s a pillow that says ‘Pura Vida,’” she said (Spanish for “pure life”). “It’s really meaningful because I got it after getting engaged.”

This story is part of Divided Decade, a yearlong series examining how the financial crisis changed America.

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