Business Conditions

Is publishing a price always "Transparent"?

Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend the Future of Home (FoH) conference, sponsored by the Business of Home. This sort of conference is certainly needed in our industry and one of the topics which kept coming up was Transparency.  There has recently been an emphasis to increase the transparency of industry practices in order to adapt to doing business in the online world. The internet has increased awareness and transparency across all walks of life, and the lack of transparency breeds mistrust, which is unquestionably hindering our industry. However, most of the time, the transparency effort has focused on pricing in our business. I cannot speak for interior designers’ pricing models, but for a manufacturer, or maker, what if being transparent means not publishing a price? 

The Transparency panel at FoH consisted of the CEOs of Artsy and 1st Dibs (insert ironic emoji here). Unsurprisingly, both leaders of these e-commerce platforms were in favor of pricing transparency and advocated for it. Of course, this is how they make commissions (I do not recall their own dealer pricing, fees or commissions being discussed). And this makes sense for pieces that are existing and readily available. We have, in fact, published pricing on our own website for pieces that are extant, like our antique collection and quick ship items. But for models we make to order, there is always some customization that impacts pricing. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. But regardless of the degree of customization, my concern is that a published price can create a false sense of what something “should” cost because people tend to think about pricing in linear terms. For example, if you want to make a parchment covered table a little bigger, sure a couple inches might not have a huge impact. But once you hit a certain dimension, you need to add another skin, which involves more material and more labor (both for laying the skin AND making the seam now). So the pricing around that dimension threshold is going to be much different (not linear). There are countless examples of this; most plywood comes in 96” lengths, so if you want shelves that are 110”, guess what… and so on.

I completely agree we, as an industry, need to drop the “iron curtain” and show the online world what we are about. This is how we will communicate our value.  But as I believe Chad Stark said on the “Future of the Trade” panel at FoH, there are a lot of ways to be transparent. We need to be transparent about business practices, where and how we make things, and, most importantly, what we make. We also need to be transparent about pricing – but when it comes to making something to order, in my opinion, nothing is more transparent than a quote. This may be overly poetic, but the quotation is where the creative process starts – working with the designer on what it is they want for a project and then figuring out how to turn the concept into reality. And once we figure out what goes into a piece and have a quote, knowing the details of a project and what sort of pricing thresholds are in play, we can then advise the designer how we could adjust the piece so as to fit the reality that they are dealing with without losing his/her vision. I fear, however, that this dialogue would go out the window with a published price. 

Perhaps my favorite takeaway from the FoH conference was when David Sutherland said, in regards to selling retail in his showrooms, “you can’t get more transparent than ‘No.’” We can open our process up, open our catalogs, works shops, design centers, and just about everything we do to illustrate the value of small, high-end, niche craftsmanship and design. But isn’t putting a price on something that doesn’t exist yet a bit like putting the cart before the horse? Our clientele are interior designers, and we are not a direct-to-consumer company, or brand. Publishing a price for an e-commerce, DTC brand is vital. Even if you are a trade company that offers the same product in a limited number of finishes, I can see the value of publishing those prices. But when we work with an interior designer, what we create is tailor made to fit their project. Dimensions, finishes, uses and function are all specific to it,…as is the mock up that is sometimes also required. - my point is that each job is different and to try and reduce this to a single price, or a “starting at” price, undermines the value of what we do and what interior designers do. The “service” component of the price related to a particular job is not something that can be easily transacted online. This is why a quote is, in my opinion, the most transparent summary of what’s going into making a bespoke piece. While it may not be immediately available online, I nonetheless do not believe this makes it less transparent.


18th Century Room Heaters - From Post-WWII Vienna to Brooklyn

Antique dealing has changed completely in the last 10-20 years. That’s not news. But recently, we were fortunate enough to be reunited with a large, Louis XVI style Room Heater, which we had in fact previously owned and sold in the 1970’s. These large, sculptural works of art are perhaps what I find most engaging about antiques - works of art which offer a window into how people used to live, created with knowledge and craftsmanship that usually doesn’t exist any longer. Its acquisition also prompted my Father to share the following story with me regarding his and my Grandfather’s love for these anachronistic objects. And besides being a great story, it also exemplifies the sort of antique dealing that doesn’t seem to be possible any longer - one of discovery, and the physical process of discovery, of rare and forgotten things (beyond rediscovering a long forgotten Pinterest Board). As recounted to me by Tony Victoria:

“After the war my Dad [Frederick Victoria] went to Vienna during the period when it was divided between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. I am not sure of what led him there, but one attraction was what could be found in the Soviet sector. There was, for example, the warehouse containing the collection of Count Potocki’s Lancut Castle. Potocki was closely related to the Russian Czars and through machinations I am not entirely familiar with, he was able to get permission from Hitler’s regime to take his possessions out of Poland to Vienna by train. There this vast horde sat after the war - you just had to find a way into the Soviet Sector! Yet my Dad, along with his good friend, Albert Nesle, would somehow manage to gain entrance to it and buy, buy, buy. I am sure it was an antique dealer’s dream.

Another attraction may have been his love of the decoratively monumental  heating stoves which were used in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. I am sure that he had been bitten by this bug in France where he must have been captivated by the Louis XVI examples he encountered with their commode like fireboxes and palm form flues. In fact, I also remember being struck by the first in-situ example I saw at the chateau built by the Marquis de Contades in the Loire valley at his Chateau de Montgeoffroy (image below). There, in what was reputed to be the first dedicated dining room in France, the Louis XVI period dining table was paired with a heating stove of that commode/palm flue design which was positioned behind a protective iron railing.

Anyway… back in Vienna after the War, my Father came upon the more baroque examples which were produced in southern Germany and which not infrequently incorporated color into their designs, something not seen for the most part in France where these heaters were pretty uniformly white. My Dad’s visits to his favorite dealers for these things yielded, in addition to a collection of stoves which he dealt in for their unique decorative and architectural character, a large number of photos which he took or was given to keep on file.

These records turned out to be especially useful once in the 1990’s when, out of the blue, I [Anthony Victoria] took a call from someone in Brooklyn who said they had a stove they wanted to sell. I am not sure of what led me to follow up on this call. I mean: Brooklyn, Viennese heating stove: who would have thought? Anyway, in a relatively small apartment I ended up finding a wonderful, probably 8’+ tall white example whose baroque design resembled the swirling shape of a Dairy Queen soft serve cone. What it was doing in that apartment, I have no clue. But, not only did I end up making it the center piece of one of my last exhibits at the Winter Antique Show, but I was also able to sell it with documentation which I found in those files that my Dad had created in the late 1940’s! He had seen and photographed this same stove on one of his visits to Vienna. It just took 40+ years for it to surface in Brooklyn and for me to close the link of its acquisition.

Montgeoffroy Dining Room, showing a Louis XVI style room heater on the left with a Palm-form flue and commode-style firebox.

Montgeoffroy Dining Room, showing a Louis XVI style room heater on the left with a Palm-form flue and commode-style firebox.

Our recently acquired Louis XVI style Room Heater example with Terracotta Putti figures adorning the Palm-form flue.

Our recently acquired Louis XVI style Room Heater example with Terracotta Putti figures adorning the Palm-form flue.

An old inventory photo of available ceramic room heaters taken by Frederick Victoria in Vienna circa 1948

An old inventory photo of available ceramic room heaters taken by Frederick Victoria in Vienna circa 1948

Original file photo of the “Soft Serve” Room heater as seen by Frederick Victoria in Vienna circa 1948

Original file photo of the “Soft Serve” Room heater as seen by Frederick Victoria in Vienna circa 1948

The “Soft Serve” Room heater filling up a Brooklyn apartment and discovered by Anthony Victoria in the early 1990’s

The “Soft Serve” Room heater filling up a Brooklyn apartment and discovered by Anthony Victoria in the early 1990’s

Frederick P. Victoria & Son, Inc.’s booth at the Winter Antique Show circa 1995

Frederick P. Victoria & Son, Inc.’s booth at the Winter Antique Show circa 1995

“Soft Serve” Viennese Room Heater discovered in Brooklyn and presented at Frederick P. Victoria & Son’s Winter Antique show booth circa 1995

“Soft Serve” Viennese Room Heater discovered in Brooklyn and presented at Frederick P. Victoria & Son’s Winter Antique show booth circa 1995

More Craziness at 1stDibs

This post is a follow-up to our previous post, "What's going on at 1stDibs?"

About two weeks ago, 1stDibs sent a letter to design trade users defending their removal of dealers names from listings and their moves to control the interaction between clients and dealers. 1stDibs also announced a "trusted partner" program in which trade users would get additional "editorial" coverage in their blog/social media and be able to see dealer names (in some cases) - the requirement to be a trusted partner would be doing a minimum of $50000 worth of business on the platform.

In defending their actions, 1stDibs claimed they had not "removed seller branding". This is simply delusional. If an image of an interior designer's work had the designer’s name removed, would the designer consider that a removal of his/her branding? Of course. Creators, makers and dealers are defined by their pieces the same way a designer is defined by his or her work. It is their brand.

1stDibs may be referring to the fact that dealer store-fronts are still on the site - that's great; except how do they expect users to get to a store front if pieces aren't attributed to dealers and there is no link? The only way for a client or user of the site to get to a dealer’s store-front is if they search specifically for that dealer on the site. I think it's safe to say the vast majority of the users on 1stDibs are looking for objects and pieces, not particular dealers.

In their letter, 1stDibs says these changes are part of their efforts to “facilitate the transition of the luxury design industry to a digitally driven world.” The implication is that the only way for this to happen is to keep dealer and client information from one another, and protect their commission in the process. Yet their mission, in their own words, is to connect “the most qualified buyers to the best design product in the world.” The design business isn't one you can pretend to promote by hiding one half of it from the other. More importantly, the idea that an online luxury design industry, and the idea that having pieces attributed to dealers, with unfettered communication with clients, are two mutually exclusive concepts is false. See Houzz, InCollect, Decaso, Dering Hall, Etsy and even Amazon - all of which attribute pieces to their dealers.

Then we come to the trusted partner program, which is basically a pay-to-play scheme. The more business designers give 1stDibs, the more perks they will offer. But why on earth should a designer, or anyone, have to pay $50000 to know who is on the other side of a trade? All it takes is some extra keystrokes, or using another site, and they would more than likely be able to find that information online anyway. And say a designer joins this program, what happens when they raise the bar to enter this program to $75000 or $100000? Is that the annual fee for having the basic information you are entitled to? Making trade users have to pay for basic information about the dealers they are buying from is the opposite of transparency, and one that made 1stDibs great in the first place - bringing dealers and clients together from all over the world.

So, what are we doing about it? Well, my father and I came to the decision that being on 1stDibs, under the current listing regime, is detrimental to our business and, in our opinions, to the industry. We have tried to end our membership but were told that their Terms & Conditions are essentially a contract and when we accepted those Terms (which we had to do in order to access our content on the site) we agreed to another year of membership. 1stDibs intends to keep us on the site until June when our “contract” is up -  Apparently they want all possible dealers on the site, even those who don’t want to be there. So, while we wait for June to arrive, we are increasing our presence on InCollect and Dering Hall and possibly Decaso. We are also investing in our website; specifically in the ecommerce function and the ability for clients to get quotes through the site.

What can you do? If you are a dealer, find out when your “contract” with 1stDibs renews. If you are considering not renewing with the site, you will need to notify them in writing 30days prior to your renewal date. If you are a designer, let 1stDibs know how you feel about their new policy. I believe what 1stDibs is banking on is the idea that designers don't care anymore where a piece comes from. That as long as it arrives on-time, fits the project etc, they do not care who the dealer is. But, if you like supporting small businesses and craftspeople, and appreciate knowing who you are dealing with, please let 1stDibs know. If you haven’t already done so, check out some other sites like InCollect, Dering Hall and Decaso to see if they work for you. If they don’t, tell them how to improve their site. The same goes for your favorite dealers - if you find their websites unusable or in need of improvement, let them know. I know I would appreciate that sort of feedback!

The follow-up post on this topic; "Why We Left 1stDibs"

 

Whats Happening at 1st Dibs?

When I first started working with my father in this business +10 years ago, he told me that the most important thing is your name. If a client could not trust an antique dealer, all the provenance and documentation of a piece is worthless. This may seem anachronistic, since instead of going into a shop, most sales are now done online but a dealer needs to stand behind their pieces regardless of how it is sold and regardless of whether their pieces are antiques, textiles or custom furniture. It is their “brand.”

But now, apparently 1stDibs, wants to take the dealer out of the equation - they have removed dealers names from the individual pages for all pieces as well as the general list-view pages. Have they assumed the responsibility to stand behind all the pieces on their website? No. Are they finding, buying and holding the inventory? No. Are they answering questions about the pieces? No. Are they designing new pieces and making them? No. Dealers are now referred to as “sellers” on their platform which may seem inconsequential, but I believe speaks volumes. 1stDibs seems to be more concerned with protecting their commissions rather than promoting a healthy design industry. To put it in perspective, you will now find it easier to know who you are buying from on Etsy than on 1stDibs.

A little background:

We have been dealers on 1stDibs since its early days in 2003. Coupled with the internet in general, it is impossible to overstate the impact it has had on the Antiques, Interior Design and Furniture trades. Whereas designers used to physically go to showrooms and galleries to “shop”, they now peruse 1stDibs, and then perhaps go to see something specific in person. It was a game changer for our industry and helped start and prolong many businesses.

The Good:

Creating an online collection of the world's best dealers was huge. Users could find high quality pieces on the site bringing together clients and dealers who had never worked together or even known of each other. The art and antique trade is highly fragmented, and dealers tend to be the opposite of early adopters of technology. So, websites were not so great in the early ‘00’s (or still…). 1stDibs changed that and made it possible for a collector in the UK to find something in Florida. Huge.

More recently they also introduced an ecommerce component which has, in my opinion, been a major positive for dealers, many of whom do not have ecommerce enabled websites. Most significantly, they have become a trusted intermediary of exchange - the buyer might not be very familiar with the dealer, but they knew 1stDibs and felt more comfortable purchasing through them. Given the fragmented world of dealers, dispersed geographically but accessible online, this was a major boon to the industry and worth every penny of the commission cost.

The Bad:

When the current owners bought 1stDibs, other aspects of the platform changed as well. Dealers (“sellers”) on the site increased significantly. They expanded to hosting “sellers” for currently produced items as well as art and fashion pieces. There was now a much larger selection, but of varying quality.

The downside of the ecommerce function was that it now placed 1stDibs’ interest at odds with both dealers and clients. 1stDibs’ commission revenue is now directly related to volume of transactions, very similar to how the auction houses’ pricing evolved in the early 1980s. The volume aspect works well with their expanded number of dealers. Perhaps as a reflection of this, they have created a “highly rated seller” distinction which you will find on some dealers items (but not the name of the dealer...). This has nothing to do with the quality of the dealer, their qualifications, or their position in their speciality - it only reflects the volume of sales they generate on 1stDibs.

1stDibs also now has to“protect its commission.” Presumably to this end, a few years ago, they started controlling how clients would contact dealers. Messages via 1stDibs were anonymized and monitored - if private emails were exchanged they blocked the message - and calls via pseudo-numbers are routed through its call center in a similar fashion. Dealers were very upset about this, rightly so. It impeded the flow of information (working against efforts of trying to increase knowledge and appreciation of a craft or art) and had a "big brother" feel of a third party trying to control something beyond their purview. The latest step, of removing the dealers names from all listings, is surely towards this end as well.

So what do we do now? Frankly, I wish we didn't have to do anything. I am more than willing to pay 1stDibs its commissions on sales. But commissions on top of a monthly fee for anonymous listings? I used to be able to justify this as a marketing expense but now is it just for the privileged of being on 1stDibs? That seems hard to justify. What's the point of holding a beautiful inventory or creating wonderful pieces if we are not identified? It erodes the role of a dealer and of my business. And as a creator, it gives me great concern about the ability of knock-offs of our pieces to go unchecked. 1stDibs now becomes just a means to move inventory anonymously. We plan to bolster the ecommerce function of our own website and expand our presence on other third party sites, specifically InCollect and Dering Hall, which both seem to be more interested in promoting the trade and all its participants. Will we continue to use 1stDibs? We’ll see. We will probably change what new pieces we put up there, if anything. Hopefully something changes but it doesn't feel like it's headed in the right direction.

*There is a follow-up to this post HERE and Here; "Why We Left 1stDibs"