Vintage furniture and home decor have always been highly sought after on eBay. From Victorian-era chesterfield couches to mid-century Eames chairs to modern furniture from makers like Roche Bobois and Cassina, eBay’s marketplace allows buyers to browse, search and collect the perfect piece. While those items are widely prized, hand-crafted designs, you might be surprised to learn that not all of the most valuable housewares on eBay are. In fact, some of the most prized houseware items selling today on eBay were not actually seen as prized when they were made.
Instead, they were functional, utilitarian, mass-produced, and not necessarily built to last. These products – Corningware, Fiestaware, cast-iron competitors to Le Creuset, and even vintage IKEA – may have been made with the bottom line as the first priority. But it wasn’t the only priority, and buyers have come to appreciate the beautiful design work of these products. After decades, these items have attained vintage cachet — and supply is hard to find. That’s where eBay comes in, and why vintage enthusiasts continue to flock to the marketplace.
“Buying vintage furniture on eBay is a great value proposition for the buyer even if they’re spending a little bit over retail,” says Sami Reiss, a design researcher and the author of Sheer Drift, a book about eBay auctions. “It’s not like a car, which devalues once it’s off the lot. Used vintage furniture has been chronically undervalued until very recently.” That’s changing, and not in a small way. The average sale price for vintage IKEA items has more than doubled since 2015; the average sale price for an Eames product has, in the same time, gone from $122 to $200.
The enthusiasm for buying vintage products can be easily seen in the revival of the mid-century modern aesthetic. The mid-century modern trend has transformed much of the original ethos of the design. While original mid-century pieces can be wildly expensive these days, much of the goods from that era were actually designed to be affordable, widely available, and accessible for a range of income levels.
Mid-century modern, as a phrase, only dates back to 1984, some 15 years after what’s widely acknowledged as the end of the era itself. In recent years, the style — clean, simple lines, classic shapes without unnecessary frills or ornamentation — has become almost the standard. Try to buy a new couch, and you’re very likely to end up with something heavily inspired by mid-century modern, whether it’s from a direct-to-consumer company advertising on social media, a box-box store, or a designer showroom.
It has been argued that the iconic molded plywood, leather, and plastic furniture of Charles and Ray Eames never went out of style, but their work has been rediscovered and newly prized. Their chairs were initially expensive, but not horrendously so; today, somehow, they are worth even more than they were 50 years ago. Original Eames chairs, benches, and loungers are routinely listed for thousands of dollars on eBay. This is delightfully incongruent: The famous molded plastic chair was even originally designed for the Museum of Modern Art’s International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design. These were never intended to be the height of luxury. But that’s how they feel today.
Reiss also attributes the new appreciation of products like these to the democratization of design. “Because of Instagram, there’s a lot of increased design literacy,” says Reiss. Where earlier generations might have needed to study interior design in school, or just shell out for pricey design magazines, social media users today can easily follow a few interior design accounts to learn about contemporary trends and discover their own tastes.
Fiestaware, for example, dates back to the 1930s, but has been the subject of repeated revivals as new generations discover the joy of its solid, brightly colored, glazed ceramic dinnerware. Fiestaware was a pioneer of Art Deco design, but by the early 1970s, the company found itself out of fashion and, as a result, out of production. Then, in the 1980s, the new owner of the company discovered that its products were back – on the secondary, used market. In 1986, production ramped up again. Though Fiestaware has never been expensive, it has been a major presence, both intentionally and not, in the secondary market; today, there are over 200,000 annual listings on eBay for Fiestaware, up significantly from 189,000 only a few years ago, in 2020.
Initially, this popularity was due to the company’s shutdown in 1973. In its modern era, the company has released many limited-edition colors that become prized for collectors – or just people who need dinnerware and recognize the bold beauty of Fiestaware. eBay remains one of the only markets where buyers can find both the old and the new stock.
The enameled Dutch oven – a large pot, ideal for making just about anything, and beautiful enough to retain a permanent place on the stovetop – is a classic gift for weddings, housewarmings, and other big occasions. The classic brand is, of course, Le Creuset, but Le Creuset is, whether vintage or brand-new, pretty pricey. Collectors have lately been delving into the rarer corners of the Dutch oven world, and finding that these items, so often forgotten and placed in back cabinets or garages, have actually survived in great shape.
Dansk, despite its European name, is actually an American company, based just outside New York. Starting in 1954, it was founded to bring Scandinavian design – at the time handmade and very expensive – to the masses. Dansk’s silverware, casserole dishes, salt and pepper shakers, and more were designed in Copenhagen, but produced for the wider American audience. Like Fiestaware, Dansk went through phases of trendiness and obscurity. But all of its history can be found on eBay, where it’s more popular than ever. In 2015, there were just under 38,000 listings for vintage Dansk; in 2023, it’s up well over 73,000. Vintage Dansk is often highly affordable on eBay, and clever, too: the iconic lid of its Dutch oven can be used as a trivet.
Those kitchenware products were mass-produced, but still made of durable, classic materials like ceramic and cast iron. Some materials that arose during the post-World War II era were billed not as classic, but as convenient, new, and inexpensive. One example would be Formica, a material made of layered paper and resin that was originally designed as an electrical insulator. Formica has some interesting properties, but foremost is that it can be made in any color and that it is very cheap to produce. As mid-century modern furniture tailed off in the 1960s and 1970s, Formica was sort of a last gasp: cheaper versions and revisions of those items. But Formica has also been rediscovered and prized for its good qualities: its perfectly surreal colors and shapes, its unlikely smoothness, and how those qualities, along with its affordability, allowed for wild creativity. But where do you find what is, effectively, much-maligned plastic furniture?
Perhaps the king of the vintage mass-produced design world is IKEA. Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, has referred to the company’s approach to mass production as “democratic design,” defined by five dimensions: function, form, quality, sustainability and low price. This sort of design became wildly influential; you can see the imprint of affordability paired with high design on fashion brands like Uniqlo and H&M; on warehouse-style shopping in Costco and bulk food stores; and on do-it-yourself direct-to-consumer products advertised on Instagram. Designer collaborations like IKEA x Panton are now some of the most coveted vintage IKEA pieces on eBay, says Victoria Holly, an interior designer based in Beverly Hills. Vilbert chairs can easily fetch a few thousand dollars. Items from the Niels Gammelgaard collection are also quite popular, adds Reiss. (A few years ago, Gammelgaard told Reiss he was furnishing a summer house in Sweden with his own designs, some of which he forgot he made.)
Though vintage IKEA is now prized, and can be expensive as a result, Reiss considers its collection a worthwhile endeavor. Among the thousands of eBay listings for vintage IKEA are geometrically unusual chairs, vintage lighting fixtures, shoe-shaped chair leg protectors and even IKEA catalogs from the 1990s. Lighting fixtures in particular are popular on eBay; searches for “vintage Ikea lamp” have more than doubled since 2021, and the average sale price on the online marketplace has increased from only $27 in 2016 to $44 in 2023.
For many years, IKEA’s low prices, as well as its furniture’s transportability, contributed to a perception that its products were disposable, which is part of the reason why older IKEA products are so hard to find, says Holly. In other words: people end up throwing out a lot of cool stuff, making what’s left more rare and collectible. IKEA’s back catalog is full of items that would fit in on any Architectural Digest tour, either real or dreamed of. But in lieu of re-releases, eBay is one of the few marketplaces where vintage IKEA can be treasured, found, and sold by and for enthusiasts.
Reiss sees this as a paradox. “Folks are realizing there’s more to IKEA than the college freshman furniture I bought for myself,” he says. “So much of the stuff made back then was pretty well-constructed and well-designed. There’s an incongruity between IKEA as we might currently interact with it and the actual furniture, which is quite good, well-designed furniture.”
Holly says recent interest in vintage IKEA is part of a growing interest in vintage furniture overall, sparked in large part by a desire for unique design. “Right now we have access to so many home and decor retailers online, so you see a lot of the same stuff everywhere,” she says. In a world where every other house is furnished with mid-range mid-century modern, a rainbow-colored, blocky ‘Vilbert’ chair — created by Vernor Panton for IKEA in 1993 — is a surprising delight.
Indeed, all of this attention to vintage presents a thrilling moment in design. “For me to see something I haven’t seen before is an exciting experience,” Holly says. “This trend is a nod to the Andy Warhol aesthetic: the idea that you can take something that was commonplace and make it art.”