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Essay

Where We Shop: Making Room for Indie Shops and Box Stores

by Grace Bonney

Last week we had a community discussion about trends. I wanted to talk about why my thoughts on them had changed and what that shift taught me about judgement in design. More so than any other post in the past few years, people joined in the conversation in a big way and the viewpoints and feedback you all shared (both in the post and on ) opened my mind and renewed my faith in talking about deeper issues here. Hearing everyone share their thoughts in such open, vulnerable, and constructive ways was powerful.

Several important issues arose in those conversations that we’ll be addressing in posts over the next few weeks, but one in particular stayed with me because it’s a conversation we’ve been having internally here at Design*Droits-Humains for a long time: can we ethically support handmade/independent work and big box stores at the same time?

For me, the answer is complex. And it’s one that’s still evolving because we are always discussing this issue amongst ourselves at Design*Droits-Humains. Whether it’s related to ad campaigns with large retailers, sourcing shopping posts, choosing where to host events, or finding new and better ways to support handmade and independent work that allows us to still stay afloat as a business — this topic is always on our minds. And no matter where you fall on the spectrum of feelings about retail, my biggest hope for this discussion is to understand each other better and then work together to unpack and clear away the judgement that happens when we talk about where and how people shop.

For the past 10 or so years, we’ve been hearing from readers who are very concerned about retail choices and how they’re presented. Their points of view are best represented up by four comments we get almost every week at Design*Droits-Humains. They sound like this:

Behind these comments are some very important points and concerns and I want to unpack them a bit (and hear your points of view on them) so we can look at things more closely and try to understand everyone’s concerns.

Cost

The single biggest concern we hear about retail here is cost. The vast majority of comments we receive are a strong and passionate request for more affordable design options. Things under $100, under $25, and under $10.

When it comes to cost, it’s important to remember a few things:

  • High-quality goods and handmade work typically come with higher price tags.
  • People need things for their home and life that they can afford.
  • People who produce things (which includes indie makers AND people working for and producing goods sold at box stores) deserve fair wages and safe working conditions — which come with a cost.

I completely understand why a lot of people want, say, sofa options that are under $500. But I also understand why most people making and selling sofas can’t afford to sell them for that price. But does that mean that the people who need someplace to sit don’t deserve to have options? The answer is complex, because I want to work hard to provide resources for everyone, but I also don’t want to promote and provide resources that are connected to companies that don’t pay workers fair wages so they can ensure low low prices.

So what should we do? For me the answer is to work harder to provide a wider buying (and non-buying) range of options for as many people reading as possible. That means options from independent designers who make things by hand, things from mid-range stores that produce in factories but offer more specification, things from box stores that offer lower prices and resources for reused, thrifted or upcycled pieces that don’t require purchasing necessarily or, if they do, come with reduced price tags (which is something I need to work harder on).

Accessibility

One of the issues I overlooked for a long time was accessibility. I spent most of my life living in a large metropolitan area and failed to think outside of my own bubble to consider what everyone in our broader community has access to. This is a concern so many readers (and our own team members) discuss regularly. So let’s look at some of the issues to consider when talking about accessibility:

  • Regional availability: Not everyone has access to small studios, indie shops or retailers that provide a broader range of options, both style-wise and financially.
  • Accessibility: Not everyone is able to travel and and use stores (of any kind) because of mobility issues or financial concerns.
  • Financial accessibility: Everyone has different budgets, which means that even if a certain type of retail IS available in a given area, it may not be financially accessible.

 

This issue has really opened my eyes to the wealth of accessibility in my life and how much I’ve taken it for granted. On most days I can leave my house, get in my car, and drive somewhere to pick up something (be it groceries or a home good) that I need at a small range of stores, from small local to big box brand. This isn’t the case for everyone in our community and I want to do better to think about what sort of stores are truly accessible (in all the ways described above) for all of us and how to better represent and provide those resources here.

Ethics

This issue is probably the most “hot button” topic in comment sections when it comes to retail and it’s honestly quite sticky. Because questionable ethics are not limited to the decisions of “faceless corporations,” they’re something we unfortunately see in the world of indie design, too. The primary concerns I hear most about are:

  • Environmental impact: People’s concerns about environmental impact are most often mentioned in relation to big box stores and their effect on the environment from shipping and production to the ethical sourcing of materials. And while their scale of production definitely makes their decisions have a larger impact, it’s important to remember that not all independent makers source things in a low-impact way. For me, this is an issue to examine in relation to transparency and how important that is in retail.
  • Labor ethics: This is my biggest personal concern and one I struggle with a lot. From how workers are paid to their working conditions to how the brands that are carried in a store are treated, the concerns about labor/production ethics in retail are real. Again, this falls into transparency for me and means that I’d really like to see more honesty and openness from stores about how their employees and brands are treated so we can make informed decisions about how and where we choose to spend our money.

Like so many issues related to retail, I think greater transparency is an important step for all brands, big and small. To better explain their methods — from hiring and worker support, to sourcing and environmental impact — would be helpful in making sure anyone that chooses to shop at their store knows what practices that shop uses.

Originality

One of the comment threads that’s started to appear a lot is the way in which retail is perceived as being more or less “original” – with indie design being assumed as the inherently more original option.

I think a lot of the concern comes from the all-too-frequent examples of indie artists being copied by some larger brands. I share that concern whole-heartedly and spend a lot of time behind-the-scenes talking with designers about options for handling this. (Note: please don’t call out a brand publicly before addressing the issue with counsel. It can save you from a counter-suit and can also help with settlements if things come to that. I’ve seen too many artists counter-sued for calling out brands, even when they’ve been copied and the case is clear.) While the scales definitely seem to tip in the direction of large brands knocking off smaller brands, indie design isn’t immune from copying either.

The bottom line is this: “originality” in the larger sense is hard to pin down. So many trends and styles have their roots in pre-existing looks/designs, both past and present. That type of trend-adjacent design doesn’t bother me in the same way that copying does.

So for me, the bottom line comes down to supporting artists who aren’t copying from other designers (that topic could be its own post and has way too much nuance to go into in detail here) and trying to avoid some of the judgement that surrounds comments about box stores’ styles being “unoriginal.”

Quality and Quantity

Last but not least, the issues of quality and quantity are always present when we discuss indie and box store design. The prevailing perception seems to be that indie stores are inherently higher quality and that smaller quantities are inherently “better” than larger ones.

But let’s break the issue of quality down a bit. We’ve all seen indie work that isn’t high quality and we’ve all seen box store work that isn’t high quality. So while I don’t think either retail form has a monopoly on goods that aren’t made well or with high-quality materials, it’s of course important to be concerned about quality because we all want to make sure we get the most for our money.

When it comes to quantity, I’ve seen a lot of discussion around the idea that higher quantities of goods somehow equal “bad” design. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. One thing I think about a lot with this issue is how many designers who would love to be able to make a living selling their work through their own company. And part of making that possible (i.e.: paying yourself a living wage and being able to afford healthcare) is scaling your business (or, alternately – but less popularly – your prices) to produce more that can be distributed more widely. So when I think about supporting indie design, I think about the importance of supporting those designers at all chosen stages of their career, whether that’s producing limited quantities at a local makers fair or taking the leap to expand to hiring more employees and producing larger quantities that get sold at larger stores around the country.

Final Thoughts (for now…)

This topic is one we will probably always be thinking about, discussing, and evolving our feelings and decisions on. Because ultimately we all care about independent design, it’s the reason we write here and the reason I started Design*Droits-Humains in the first place. But we also care deeply about offering inspiration and resources that are accessible to everyone in our community, regardless of budget, location, or accessibility.

I’d love to know how you feel about this topic. Do you have a strong feeling about retail options? What are the options where you live? Have you ever felt judged by the way you shop? Have you ever judged the way someone else shops and now understand that issue a bit more clearly (I know I have, unfortunately). Do you see retail evolving or do you feel like options are becoming more limited? Do your decisions about retail have more to do with budget, location, accessibility or ethics? Or all of the above? Let me know in the comment section below. I would love to hear YOUR thoughts and stories so we can all understand each other better and learn to talk about retail options with less judgement and more compassion and connection.  xo, Grace

*Note: I know there are some people who feel any and all retail is negative and don’t like or want to support that in any way. I respect that decision as well, so please understand I know that is a choice for some people. But the overwhelming feedback I’ve received over the past 14 years from our readers here is that people want to talk about how and why and where they shop. 

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Comments

  • This is something that I struggle with in all aspects of my consumerism. The first and easiest fix for me was with my food purchases. I live in a very progressive community with access to great grocery co-ops and local foods. My co-op even lets me know every year how much of my purchases were local vs not. I love it and it helps me make better decisions. I only go to the “big” grocery nearby when I need something that my co-op just doesn’t sell…and I always question if there is a reason for that.

    Other areas have been harder to adjust to and home furnishings/design definitely fall into that category. I’m putting more of a focus on sustainable business and fair labor practices. I already do tons of research before I buy “big” ticket items, so adding this additional piece to the decision process has not been hard. I also gravitate toward brands that make this information easy to find and transparent.

    • Kate

      I agree – the design world hasn’t made the same effort to discuss transparency in the same way the food community has been trying to do. I think because we don’t put these design objects IN our body for sustenance (although we sleep on them and wear them and use them to eat sometimes), it doesn’t seem like a big priority yet. But I think it will be as time goes on, for sure. One group in particular () has connected these issues to furniture (and sofas in particular) that are made and treated with toxic flammable chemicals and aren’t open or transparent about it.

      Grace

  • One thing that has stuck with me over the years, is we had friends in town visiting from Arkansas. They both work at Walmart corporate. And after spending a fair amount of time in Portland, they asked “Where do the poor people shop”? We are SO proud of our local artists and local food chain (shout out to New Seasons!) But, we are also financially privileged to be able to support that. Of course, we also have Winco and other big box stores, but they are on the outskirts of town, nowhere near train lines, and difficult for people with limited access to transport or disabilities to get to. IMO: if you’re able to support the artisan, DO IT. But please, please don’t begrudge those who cannot and who NEED those big box stores and the discounts and accessibility that comes with them.

  • There is a time and a place for everything. In my lifetime I have had to take any sofa I could get in order to have a place to sit, AND I’ve had the luxury of buying an expensive sofa that I take very good care of to this day. Ideas are everywhere, sometimes I need to create something similar on my own and other times I need to spend a little more and buy the finished product because it speaks to me. Buying food is no different. Sometimes I go to the Farmer’s Market and/or local farm stands. But if I am in the local supermarket and need one veggie, I do not drive out of my way nor take the extra time to hunt down the purest most organic form of that veggie. Why does everyone have to be such fanatical purists?

    I am almost 70 years old ( Baby Boomer, people, not an old lady) and I still love to decorate. Magazines/publishers are showing you an idea, an example, a look. Some things call for more expensive ingredients but if you can find something less expensive, go for it! One thing, for sure, has been true for my entire life, so far, and that is: you get what you pay for and it lasts as long as you respect it.

    • Carol

      Thank you so much for sharing your point of few. I agree, there seems to be a real desire for purist ideas these days. But your phrase, “There is a time and a place for everything” feels spot on.

      Grace

      • Thank you both Grace and Carol. I grew up blue collar and now live a middle-class lifestyle. I have always struggled with people who have had “purist” ideas about how they would never shop at (name any big brand/big box store) and have wondered if they have ever had to make due with limited access or resources. I mean, if you can afford it or get it, certainly go for it. But for some this type of thinking and judgement is just oppressive.

        Loving the essays and think pieces on the site. Great job!

  • Thank you for this post. I use both – I use slow design at my home because I’d rather shop independent or vintage and I save up instead of purchasing impulsively. I also have the money and time to be able to do that.

    Not everyone has the means financially to purchase at independent shops. I live in Detroit where there are not really any big box furniture stores at all in city limits. The closest strip malls that have them would possibly be 15 minutes outside of the city in Dearborn. There is one Meijer on the north side of Detroit, which would have some home goods. There are some Salvation Army stores and such in the city. This is why online shopping does come in handy as well. If you really need something you can order Amazon and get it pretty quickly.

    That said, sometimes friends make me feel uncomfortable if I do spend money on certain things. But what I say is – this is what I like, I like how it’s made, etc. whatever the reason is, and I’m willing to wait a while and pay more if it makes me happy. We all spend on different things.

    • Amanda

      Agreed- we all spend differently. I hope we can all open up some dialogue here to discuss those things and reasons and listen without judgement (as I personally have done all too frequently in the past, sadly).

      Grace

      • Yes for sure. Design Droits-Humains is one of my favorite blogs and I look forward to reading it every morning at 10am especially because of articles like these!

        I love the wide array of homes that have sometimes have majority items from Target/Ikea/Amazon, homes that have majority Craigslist/Vintage/Etsy, interiors with DREAM items from more expensive items from like Restoration Hardware or that are custom made, and everything in between! It shows people making their homes their own, however they can!

        • “However they can” – thanks for that phrase Amanda. It indicates both power & strength that’s not necessarily dependent on money AND the fact that the majority of folks are simply getting by however they can.

          Thanks for sharing!

          Caitlin

  • Some thoughts on originality- there are small and independent brands who copy the work of indigenous people around the world. It’s challenging to hold designers accountable when they use sacred motifs or straight up copy the work of artisans who may not have access to global markets.

    That’s a discussion that I’d like to see happen with people on all sides of the issue.
    Thank you for including access and affordability into the equation. They’re important to keep in mind. I fear that industrial design and product design are becoming too much like boutique architecture, totally separated from functionality and kind of uninterested in making useful objects that are accessible to people who are middle and working class.

    The aesthetics of rural poverty are in vogue right now, which is crazy. What’s the difference between a tiny house and a shotgun cabin? What’s the difference between an artisanal jam and canning for survival? The economic status of the maker/consumer behind the product

    • Hi Jennifer,
      I’d also like to see more discussion around cultural appropriation and creative theft in design. Such an important topic, but really important…I think a lot of people don’t understand appropriation vs. appreciation, and how insulting and financially detrimental the former can be to certain artists and cultural groups. (I could FOR SURE call some retailers out on this…but I won’t… :)
      D*S: if you feel ready to tackle this topic…please do!

      • Whoops, that was a typo, didn’t mean to say “important” twice. Should read “such a complex topic, but really important.”

      • Hi Kat!

        We have a much bigger post coming on this– stay tuned. It is a very nuanced and complex issue so I’m interviewing some people so it’s not just my voice for that piece.

        Grace

    • Very excellent points. I would love to see more discussion of them all. I am fascinated by your framing of the aesthetics of rural poverty, which can also be exemplified by such trends as barn board and other farmhouse decor, knitting as a hobby, and raising backyard chickens. Thank you.

  • Thank you for sharing this! This is something I, as a consumer, have recently become more conscious of. I live in rural Alaska and this is especially an issue here. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, is shipped up here on a barge. While we do have loads of artists and makers here, even their materials are shipped here! And on top of all that we are still very limited in access to necessities up, so we rely very heavily on Amazon. EVERYONE does. Amazon is cheaper, the shipping is cheaper, and they have everything you could ever need a click away. And it’s only getting worse as independent stores close down, unable to keep up with the demand for cheaper goods. I don’t know where to begin in changing the issue, so I would really appreciate more insight and thoughts on this topic!

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective, Jess! That’s such a unique way to look at accessibility when everything has to be brought in to begin with.

  • If you are reading this on an iPhone or other such device, you shouldn’t complain about people shopping at target or the “big” grocery…based on how those iPhone factory workers are treated.

    It’s very rare to find someone who shuns all of it or is able to. Yes, you can say “we support the indie” whatever when we can…but ultimately, almost all of us are supporting the big guys in one way or another.

    You might shop at the co-op for groceries, but was your car artisan-made in a small indie factory in Detroit? No? Well maybe your $1000 Shinola Bike was. My kids’ new schwinn wasn’t, but for $150, that’s what we could afford.

    Look, you do what you can, when you can.

    We live about an hour and a half from a major city. We shop locally for groceries and things like that, but with no easy access to retail chains like West Elm, etc…we do a lot of shopping online.

    Our “Big” grocery is a regional chain who gets produce and meats locally when possible and in season. Everything is delicious, they offer all the organic stuff if we want it, and it gets so much business that the prices are the cheapest around. So it’s great for our family.

    We shop at Target for everything from kids clothing to TP to dog food and home decor. But I’d never buy a big piece of furniture from them (I don’t think). I wonder if the quality would be great? Some of their decor really catches your eye. Is it original? No, but I honestly don’t see a lot of that lately.

    Big furniture (and small items too), comes from IKEA- IF, it’s something we need right now, but can’t afford top notch quality (our Karlstad sofa- going strong at 8 yrs old). You can actually get solid wood pieces for very reasonable cost. I got a great sideboard cabinet from them recently, solid wood for around $400. Equivalent use piece from Room & Board? At least $2000. That’s just not where we are right now. Maybe one day? But for us, having that piece by the door when you come in, to put things away, keep my bills, kids schoolwork, etc. organized, we needed that piece.

    West Elm and CB2 for styles I like and when I want to splurge on something we’ll have for some time (15-20 yrs?). Last is a local furniture maker- when we can afford it and want something special and custom and that might be handed down- this we’ve only done for our dining table.

    Other decor- I purchase a lot from Etsy, usually from other countries where the items I like come from…and the items are often 20+ years old.

    As a family of 4 with 2 kids under 10, my main concern is for ourselves, and having the things that we need, make us happy and comfortable. We live how we can, and don’t beat ourselves up about it.

    Ethics- sometimes hard to avoid or even know
    Budget- major concern
    Location- not a huge concern. Most things can be bought online. I might shop local, artisan type stuff for gifts and whatnot, but I never really NEED something from them. Rarely will I look to indie artists for major purchases (furniture), primarily because of cost.
    Quality- try to get as good as we can afford at the time…and I actually hate to buy things of poor quality- so I might wait on a purchase until I can get something decent.

    • Ah, MP – so true re iPhones. Thanks so much for sharing how, where and why you shop. It sounds very similar to my own patterns here in West Virginia as a single mom.

      Caitlin

  • Thank you for this post. These are issues I consider regularly, in both my role as a consumer and a maker. Growing up in rural Kansas and now living in rural southern Colorado, it is often difficult to source “local” goods. Even the Amish in this region shop at the standard grocery stories because the growing season is so short that little produce can be locally sourced. My husband and I love visiting antique stores, auctions/estate sales, and scouring Craigslist for unique used items and furniture for our home, but this requires time, dedication, and patience, (which we are privileged to have) and you’re not always guaranteed a good deal. Sometimes I just want to walk into Target, buy the exact lamp that I need, and go home. As a quilter, I love purchasing fabric and materials from my local shops, but it’s also so convenient to be able to simply purchase the couple of yards of fabric that I need for a quilt from Walmart while I’m already there doing my grocery shopping. If I have to drive an extra 15 minutes to purchase something “locally”, is the positive impact that purchase may have had cancelled out by the negative impact the use of my vehicle has on the environment?

    I’ve always enjoyed thrift stores for clothing and home goods (such as milk glass and ceramic containers that make the perfect planters), but it seems like nearly every week there is some other store added to the list of places we should avoid due to some ethical infraction. For example, Goodwill and Salvation Army are stores available in many towns with reasonably priced used items, but both have come under fire for issues involving discrimination and mistreatment. These are issues that are important to me, but it makes it nearly impossible to make “ethical” shopping decisions when I can’t keep up with which stores are “okay” to support. There are locally owned and operated thrift stores within 45 minutes of me, but these are “trendy” thrift stores which carry only name-brand clothing and therefore are often still charging $40 for a flannel shirt. To confuse the matter further, the buzzwords of “ethical” and “organic”, “local” and “artisan” have reached a point in their usage where they really don’t have any meaning anymore. People will purchase an item based solely on the use of this label, often not understanding that nothing about the product is different from the product lacking the buzzword label.

    I recently lived in rural Tanzania for two years during my Peace Corps service and it was an incredibly eye-opening experience in regards to our consumerism. Donation bins, such as the Planet Aid bins that I often see, are essentially a crutch for Western consumerism, as we feel we can justify purchasing new clothing by donating items we no longer use or want. While donation is a great alternative to disposal, these items are typically shipped overseas to developing countries where they are sold in giant piles on the streets. In Tanzania, for example, used sneakers are sold for very reasonable prices, which is great since very few shoes are produced within the country, but cheap clothing typically competes against local tailors, who make beautiful clothing using East African material. So, while these donated materials are cheap and accessible, they also are holding back the local clothing industry.

    This is not a black and white issue, therefore I don’t think there is an easy answer to any of these questions, nor a “right” or “wrong” way of consuming. Regardless, however, as you have stated, I would like to think that we can all agree that demonizing people for their shopping choices is unfair and inappropriate. I apologize for such a lengthy post! Thank you for encouraging constructive conversation.

    • Thanks to you Genna for contributing to the conversation! I always wondered about those bins scattered across the parking lots of America. I did have a feeling that it might be like some electronic “recyclers” who simply sell the “donations” to poor countries who strip them for metal or other things to sell, then fill up the landfills where the extreme poor scavenge for any missed metals to sell themselves. I’ve read that, in the process, those who pick in the landfills develop heavy metal poisoning from prolonged exposure :(

      Caitlin

  • Oh my, there is SO much here! Great conversation and so happy to see a design site start to tackle it. First and foremost, Grace, there is no need for so much apology in this post. You and the Design Droits-Humains team have taken the time to 1. read, 2. review, 3. analyze the biggest questions you receive on this topic. You started the conversation. I wanted to point to something that is behind this topic in the first place. As a kid, interior design and pretty rooms were something only rich people did/could afford. There has been an incredible surge in interest, love and desire to create beautiful spaces at home for ourselves; and it has all happened in a matter of about 15 years. Starting first with blogs that made it seem possible and then with social media it all exploded. This demand for beautiful, comfortable, happy spaces is behind the question of independent vs. retail. We are bombarded daily with all these images and we want it all, and we then try to consume it. This break down of this post would make a wonderful thesis for an aspiring graduate student.

    • Thanks Vanessa! This is a big & frequent conversation here with Grace and our team members. You’re so right regarding the internet, tv and blogs increasing demand and therefore more products and faster trend/manufacturing cycles. Once upon a time, we had 10 – 12 print magazines to choose from until those couldn’t be financially viable. Now we have thousands of blogs & sites simply out to monetize traffic with content taken from from primarily from other sources. Sadly this makes it difficult for legacy, still small businesses like ours to keep going. Between the two large companies that rule the internet & low cost or advertising for product only sites, advertising dollars either go to huge entities with questionable ethics or are spread out to hundreds of small one-person blogs who can accept lower compensation because they aren’t paying writers or providing health insurance to a small team.

      Caitlin

  • This is such an important topic. I have really enjoyed using the various Facebook pages, apps, and websites where people can give things at no cost to their neighbors. Most items are decent quality, and people are open about problems or flaws in a used item. This sort of thing (and charity donations) addresses a problem at the other end — what happens to the things we buy when we no longer want them? There comes a time when something needs to be thrown out, but many things can be kept out of the landfill for quite a while longer.

    • I agree completely Leslie. I’ve been thinking so deeply about what I bring into my home and how long I foresee having that thing, and past that, who else would want it in my family, or other circles where donation would be welcomed. We use OfferUp a lot in my household!

  • I love this essay and honestly, these are all issues that I struggle with everyday. I am someone who is on a pretty tight budget and I think there is a time and place for all of these retailers. I do my best to shop small or local when I can, but sometimes it’s not possible or completely out of my price range. In which case I think it’s important to try and shop at big box stores that we know treat their employees well.
    That being said, even on a modest budget, I still feel like it’s more important to me to save up for certain items and spend a little more on them (like a couch for example) because I know it’s well made and will last me 15-20 years as opposed to 5 years and then ending up in a landfill.
    One of my biggest issues with a lot of design blogs is seeing what often feels like waste, when people decorate their homes from top to bottom for every holiday or season change and I’m sure a lot of those items aren’t being held onto for too long, which is just creating more waste.
    I think if a lot of people were more thoughtful about how they spend their money and hold off on those temporary items and save it for the things that really count, that could make a huge difference.
    Of course, there is so much more to it. Just being conscious of the repercussions of where we spend our money and considering our options thoughtfully is a huge step in the right direction.

    • Hi Rebekah

      Totally agree on the couch issue. I’ve always saved for a new couch and something always came up that had me funnel the savings into a car repair, well pump, etc. So to this day at 50 years old, I’ve never owned a new couch. I’m in West Virginia next to western Maryland & Virginia and have always been lucky to have access to second-hand furniture stores who primarily carry extremely well taken care of pieces from families of the 1950’s – so they’ve been covered in that bubble plastic and are in great condition.

      We do know a lot of bloggers who donate props or holiday decor to local charities and that always makes us happy.

      Thanks so much for having this conversation with us!

      Caitlin

  • Thanks for writing this Grace, and thank you for being so open about your own changes in perspective! I’ll admit I’ve also sometimes judged people for their shopping habits, but I really don’t have that right! I’ve recently become tired with fast fashion – even if I find something nice in a high street shop, I can rarely bring myself to buy it because I would rather buy second hand. Same goes for things for my home, I often think that items bought, or perhaps the operative word is found, in charity/vintage stores are more “precious” or valuable (not necessarily monetarily) because they’re not mass-produced, even if they started out life that way; second-hand or “vintage” feels more special and unique in a weird way and I guess the same goes for hand-made/indie items. Speaking for myself, I’m always more happy, perhaps proud even, to receive compliments for items (be they clothes, accessories, home wares, etc.) that I found for free, or used to belong to a family member, or are handmade. THAT said, I’m also a recovering Amazon Prime addict and eBay is still a weakness. I know Amazon is basically evil (I had a rather illuminating chat about it with one of the drivers when he delivered a parcel for my neighbour), but it’s hard to resist the lure of online shopping when it’s so easy and affordable. Although I try to justify my eBay shopping by buying mostly second-hand, it still doesn’t feel quite… pure? for the lack of a better word.

    I suppose that the biggest issue is not necessarily the line between indie vs. mass production, but rather the quantities at which we are consuming THINGS. That is probably where my inner judge rears its ugly head, when people mindlessly buy poor quality items for cheap and then complain when they don’t last, or think that because it was cheap it is disposable. I know for some people spending a lot of money simply isn’t an option, and that price definitely doesn’t always equal quality, but I think if we weren’t so obsessed with owning and always buying new things then we wouldn’t always feel the need to replace these things with even more stuff. Respect I think is key, not only towards the items themselves (taking good care of them), but also for those producing/selling/transporting these items, regardless of where they are bought.

    Apologies for my rambling (and perhaps slightly off-topic?) comment, you’ve given my mind a lot to chew on! Looking forward to reading more comments on this, and also the future discussions! I’m yet to read the post on trends but am going to jump on over to the open tab now. Thanks!

  • As an artist (I paint original abstract landscape work) I have noticed that inexpensive prints have taken over to the point where the average consumer doesn’t see the point of purchasing an original piece of art. Many are too intimidated by art galleries, and most home decor places that are more accessible sell reproductions and not originals. Also, the art market is getting saturated and it is very hard to get noticed in the sea of people copying each other…you have to work even harder to have a unique voice. I wish the art market would get more democratized with boutiques and shops selling more original work…teaming up with artists rather than purchasing mass-produced prints from a manufacturer. Communicating the VALUE behind a piece of art or furniture is key and in this fast world, that message gets lost. Some won’t hesitate to drop big bucks on a sofa, but not for an heirloom piece of art that will last for generations. Again, value is at play and everyone has different priorities.

    • Thanks for your perspective Megan. I agree that a fair amount of people are intimidated by art galleries and that viewing and buying process, especially outside of major cities. I hesitate to drop into galleries, or even openings at galleries, because I feel awkward knowing most pieces are way out of my price range and I feel bad adding to the number of “lookers” who don’t or aren’t in the position to buy. I always feel like that puts the artist perhaps in a disappointed mood. I’d be curious to know how you feel about that! I’m sure I’m overthinking the experience + over-empathizing, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

      I did once read about the evolution of mass produced art & how it made it possible for folks who would never be able to afford original art to enjoy pieces in their own home. Is it simply like the indie/handmade work we discussed here? The idea that most people can’t afford original art?

      Caitlin

    • I also wish original art was more accessible. I’m guilty of buying mostly mass-produced furniture, but art and accessories is one area where I try to buy original and independant work. So far I’ve only been able to find that kind of stuff online, where it’s difficult to really judge what it’s like. Being able to go to a local shop and being able to browse without being intimidated by the process or prices would be wonderful.

      • Lisa

        I hear you. I think it’s so wonderful to be able to see things in person in most cases before buying, especially artwork and things that are one-of-a-kind that you’re investing in. That’s why it’s so great to support local galleries if you have any in your area- they’re hit so hard by online sales these days and supporting them, when and if possible, is always a great idea :)

        Grace

  • Dear Grace,
    Thank you for a very thoughtful post on an important topic!
    I have been fortunate enough to experience life in different income brackets and markets of access; and in is very interesting to see how one’s perspective naturally changes once we can afford more and see more. It is very easy to lose perspective or never have it in the first place; that is why you addressing it, writing about it, and exploring it is so important. In general I love Design Spinge so much specifically because it does such an amazing job showing just how far creativity and elbow grease can take us and that there are options for living beautifully and joyfully in a limited budget. The homes you have been profiling that been a true inspiration. In practical terms, and this maybe true for the Tri-State more so than other areas, but I would encourage everyone who can to look into Craigslist Pro app when shopping for furniture. It has not always been the case, but lately I have been finding lovely, often barely used or even brand new items from expensive stores, at what I would consider a decent discount. I am not at the level of the amazing thrift shoppers who find gems for 3 dollars etc, unfortunately, but while the digital age brought us Amazon and the related ethical dillemas it also gave us things like Craigslist and Etsy and eBay; and so many opportunities to connect and recycle.
    As to independent makers, I am on a fence. I would love to find a small town Elsa Peretti, but no luck so far…..

  • I feel like I’m always striving to be as good as I can, but it’s definitely a struggle. I have an ideal but my budget, location, accessibility all are factors that can complicate that ideal. My husband is disabled and I’m a chef, we have a toddler and live on a pretty tight income. I can’t afford 100% organic food like I’d like to, so I do the best I can with what is available to me. My husband and I do work trade with a local farm in exchange for a vegetable CSA, we try to eat smaller portions of meat less often so we can buy better product when we do. Same goes for design items and clothing.
    My home is a mix of things, some hand me downs from family, some thrifted or vintage, lots of curbside items we gave a facelift. Then when I do make a purchase I try to buy from independent makers and designers. However, I am also guilty of buying things from Amazon, Overstock and IKEA. I think my most important mantra is to not buy in excess and when you buy, buy the best you can afford. A few Years ago I decided to quit fast fashion and for me that that means waiting for sales, buying brands I love and admire second hand and only occasionally splurging on a full price item. I do the same with baby clothes for my son, most of our clothes are higher end, but basic. Less can be more.
    In terms of accessibility, that can be frustrating. In our 20s we lived in Portland Oregon, didn’t own a car, biked everywhere, literally never entered or ordered from a big box store. Now we live on the east coast, in a more suburban area and it’s much harder to shop local. Even the few local stores there are don’t carry items designed or manufactured locally so it’s better that you are supporting a local business but if you are still buying things cheaply made with poor working standards– how much better is it really? Anyway, it’s complex. Thanks for bringing up the discussion.

    • Chelsea

      You brought up some really good questions. Fast fashion and fast design have a lot in common and I think it’s something we’ll see discussed in our community a lot more in years to come.

      Thanks for sharing :)

      Grace

  • I so appreciate this post. So many bloggers and Instagramers I follow have talked about shopping ethically. I love this idea! If you have the means to shop for unique items that were made in humane working conditions or support local growers, artists, etc, I applaud your efforts. The thing that gets under my skin is the use of the term “ethical”. Does this mean I am unethical if I have to make the most of every dollar I spend and sometimes that means I shop at Walmart or Amazon? My family does pretty well. We have a small outdated home that we are trying to update the best we can, we share a car and my husband walks 3 miles every day he works because it would be very difficult to add another car payment to our budget, and he also works every Saturday to help pay off his student loans. I try to thrift and buy antiques, but it is very difficult to do this type of shopping by myself with two little boys under 4. We do the best we can with what we have and are by no means poor, but I would hate to be judged as unethical by people who live much more comfortably than we do. Maybe we could say we “try to support local business when we can” or some similar sentiment to take the judgement out of it. I’m sure people are just trying to make a positive change, but for someone a little lower down on the food chain it can feel a lot like judgement.

    • Elizabeth

      You hit the nail on the head. It’s funny- I had the word “ethical” in the title of this post originally and both Kelli and Caitlin pointed out that they felt judged just reading it. So I removed it. It’s definitely a word that’s loaded with a lot of judgement. It’s used in our community a lot like the word “authentic”, which is also judgmental in some ways.

      I’ve made so many mistakes in terms of judgement and where people shop and I’m just so happy to see more people talking about how we can unpack that, see where it comes from, and try to do it less when we talk about where people shop and how they take care of themselves and their families. :)

      Grace

  • Boy this post really made me think! I’ve realized I’m much more selective about my food choices than I am about other items I buy. My husband and I are both hard to fit in clothes, so we buy what we can find. His 30 inch waist is starting to be recognized, so we have more options. I’m a curvy petite, and I have a hard time finding well fitting clothes. As far as decor, we don’t have a lot of patience for shopping. We’ve had our couch recovered twice because we like it. When I think about it, almost all our artwork was purchased from the artist and is original. We also have a collection of American crafts (pottery and basketry mostly) that we purchased from the maker. Probably our most “retail” purchases have been pillows and rugs. I’ll buy what I like because it usually takes me a while to find that. I do go for quality first, but if it’s lower quality and the look is right, I’ll buy. I do not scrimp on linens or towels ever. Back to accessories and art – I think those, along with our color choices, make our home. Most of those were bought from the makers with a few mass market things thrown in. Thanks for a great post!

    • Kim

      I think that is the case for so many of us, re: food vs. home. The food world has really made this issue a much bigger and more discussed thing (although I think that may haves ome roots in classism and people telling certain foods are “dirty” or “clean”) and it’s really lead to people paying so much more attention to what they buy, where it comes from, what’s in it and how the people who make it are treated and paid. I’d love to see that applied more to our design world- I think greater transparency and information is always a good idea :)

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Grace

  • Recently I’ve been thinking about the fact that there are designers, artists, and creators behind every product (provided it isn’t stolen) at any store. Some makers choose to strike out on their own, others choose to work with a larger organization to use their talent and get their designs out in the world. That’s an oversimplified way of looking at it, but perhaps that is also part of the larger picture.

    • That’s a great point, Renee. Everything was designed by someone, in the purest sense of the idea. Thanks for sharing!

    • Renee

      I’m so glad you mentioned that. I think sometimes with box stores we forget there are very real people and designers and artists behind most aspects of things, from store display and signage design to in-house products.

      I struggle a lot when I hear people trash big box stores as faceless and nameless, because I know a lot of the artists and great designers who work for these huge stores and in some cities (like Philly and Minneapolis), these brands employee and support such a high % of the area’s creative community, both freelance and full time.

      Grace

  • After reading your article, I realized that our home furnishings are mostly family pieces. I have the pleasure of having the same upholstered love seat and companion chair that were in my grandparents’ Philadelphia home. I’ve upholstered them twice myself and they’ve moved with us a few times. We have my dad’s bookcases and my husband’s artist aunt’s paintings. We supplemented with solid second-hand pieces, refinishing most of them ourselves. We’ve bought other (very few) pieces from big box stores because they have what we needed and could afford at the time. A beautiful bright blue sofa from Crate & Barrel was a big splurge and looks grand with the love seat and chair. I amp up what we have with local art work and fabric accessories I sew myself from fabric I silk screen print or block print on up cycled fabrics. I guess our Depression era parents really impressed on us the value of using what you have until it wears out. And to DIY what you can. I love resale, reuse and remake. Good environmentally and can be so interesting. We’ve always found ways to be current and stylish with paint and other pops of color in art or plants. We intentionally spread around our purchase dollars in our local community…grocery, hardware, fabric shop, paint store, a upholsterer, an amazing homewares resale place and plant nursery. Not having to travel to big stores or pay for shipping can make local or well chosen indie shops pretty affordable. Also, money for services…painting, some gardening, reupholstering…may be better spending than buying more things. Thanks for your thoughtful piece. Made me think about if I’m living what I value.

    • Nancy

      It’s so interesting- I’ve heard from so many people who had Depression-era parents and grandparents and there really was a sense instilled that nothing should ever ever go to waste. That informs not only reusing and recycling and remaking, but also thriftiness. Which are great skills and ideas for the long run for sure :)

      Grace

  • I haven’t had a chance to read all of the comments yet, so forgive me if this is a point someone has already made. In thinking about the cost/accessibility component of this issue, I think it’s important to recognize that, while it’s true that stores like Walmart may be the only place some folks can afford to shop, it’s also corporations like Walmart that engage in employment practices that perpetuate the economic insecurity that forces people to need stores like Walmart that offer rock-bottom prices. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle designed to benefit only those already at the top of the income chain. So rather than focusing our energy on judging the people who shop at stores like Walmart, we should be focusing it on ways to make these types of corporations actually pay their workers a fair wage, and on fighting other forms of income inequality. I’m not talking about some Pollyanna, utopian vision. But certainly we do better. We can narrow the gap and create a different cycle, one where more of us have the means to be more intentional with our purchases, and, in doing so, hold companies more accountable for how they treat their workers, the impact they have on our environment, etc.

    • Jen

      I could not agree more. The people who work for these larger box stores deserve good pay, good working conditions, benefits and more. All the things we want and need as freelance/independent people, too. I completely agree that we should hold companies accountable for this- and it’s something that greater transparency across the board could really improve.

      Grace

    • Jen

      These two lines are going to stay with me for a long time. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here.

      “So rather than focusing our energy on judging the people who shop at stores like Walmart, we should be focusing it on ways to make these types of corporations actually pay their workers a fair wage, and on fighting other forms of income inequality.”

      “We can narrow the gap and create a different cycle, one where more of us have the means to be more intentional with our purchases, and, in doing so, hold companies more accountable for how they treat their workers, the impact they have on our environment, etc.”

    • Yes, this. I don’t judge people who shop at Wal Mart, but I judge Wal Mart itself and people of means who promote it. I would react differently to a website showing someone’s home furnished with things from Wal Mart than one with sponsored Wal Mart content. The difficulty is that these days with such poor labeling of sponsored content being the norm, it can be hard to know the difference.

      • Nicole

        I hear you and understand your point about wanting to hold any store (rather than the shoppers) with problematic policies accountable.

        But one thing I want to point out is that most blogs (ie: the people running sponsored content) are also small independent businesses. DS may appear larger than it is, but we’re only 2 full time team members (myself and Caitlin) and a small team of freelance writers. We rely on advertising to pay our team members and provide free content, and these days, the only brands that can have any income to put toward advertising are large brands and box stores like this.

        We of course do our best to only work with brands we trust and feel are a good fit, but as we’re all squeezed tighter and tighter in this economy, it’s hard to only do business with indie companies when their budgets have been slashed, too, and advertising is not something they can afford. We put a lot of time into running a special reduced-cost advertising and partnership section devoted to working with indie businesses, but if we only did that, we would wouldn’t be able to stay open.

        I agree it’s a grey area (or maybe just flat out for some people) to work with brands that aren’t 100% perfect, but I think it’s important to remember that most blogs (the vast majority of us do not have venture capital or private funding) are also indie businesses that try to make the best choices they can in working with companies that can help them stay afloat and are best aligned to their business model. I often think of it the way I think of indie makers who source materials and supplies from huge national or international companies- they’re doing their best to find supplies and materials that are affordable so they can keep prices reasonable as well. I wish it could be more black & white and simple in terms of never ever working with brands that might be seen as questionable, but as small businesses, a lot of us don’t always have such clear choices.

        Grace

  • Don’t shoot the messenger…. But there is no ethical consumerism in late stage capitalism. People should just be aware of their footprint, and be as ethical as they can according to their means.

    • Annakate

      I hear you, and no one is going to be attacked to carrying a message here.

      One thing I’m wary of is the word “should” these days. I personally feel that I have privilege and access and I want to make sure I use those things to the best of my ability and make decisions that I feel good about. But I feel like an element of classism starts to kick in when we talk about what people should or shouldn’t do. I feel like that discussion and those “shoulds” are usually coming from someone with more access and hearing that directed at people who may not have any access at all is hard to sit with for me.

      Does that make sense? I agree with some of the concepts of , but I guess I don’t feel the same sense of “all is lost” that feels implied by that phrase.

      Grace

  • I read this post and the one about trends. I agree you covered great reasons why one might have to go with big box or independent makers.I might be one post too late but commenting on the trend post.  I Love love love that people brought up class. First about negative commentary on trends and why we might be go that judgemental route – Trends and how we shop or entertain here in the US feel very pretentious sometimes. It appears that the middle class has a pattern.  While we struggle to make ends meet and are house poor, we want to look good on the outside, like the rest of the internet world, we want to look OK (surviving and thriving).  There are struggles but no one has to know about them.  I.e. lawn looks manicured, new shed, whatever.  We struggle alone as middle class home owners in this way.  But it isn’t a unique struggle.  And with this “want” or need to look OK, comes the judgement towards other people’s choices, which in a way upholds pretense and keeps people in boxes of shoulds and trends.  Like, “Hey, im upholding my end of the deal, why are you slacking?” So this whole idea of commenting on trends and giving judgement or commenting negatively or even FEELING a certain “argh”, i’s part of bo one another.  And why?  My guess is because we struggle alone in keeping up so we act out on it via judgement?  It’s a guess. On the other side, like the home owners who share their space with us on your site,  I’m very happy with the choices I make for my home no matter how trendy it feels or how many people already have them in their homes.  If it triggers a certain feel for me, I stick to it.   I’ve recently stopped shopping for homegoods, want to sell, before I buy anything.  It has to mean something.  But this is from 10 years of home ownership.  It took me that long to learn about what I want.  And your most recent post got me thinking about where to shop.   I also want to tell you I genuinely appreciate your thinking.  You’re the only blogger that has been sharing with transparency and integrity.  Means alot!  Thank you.

  • I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I just bought my first apartment in Brooklyn, and it needs pretty much a gut. I’m getting a new kitchen and a new bathroom ( refinishing floors and painting.) Though I prepared myself for both the cost and the amount of time and work that goes into just planning the renovation, it has exceeded my worst thoughts in both regards. It has forced me to make a lot of changes with my design and purchases.

    I initially wanted to go with IKEA cabinets and Semi-handmade fronts. I loved the idea of supporting their work and design AND picking out my sort-of custom kitchen. Then I found out I had to totally re-wire the apartment, and now every single penny mattered (more than it originally did.) I ended up switching the design entirely with Lowes, and a key reason was because they were having a kitchen cabinet sale and if I opened a card, I save an additional $1,000 on cabinets alone.

    I also wanted to buy my appliances from local shops or small-businessses. But again, that pesky re-wiring blew my budget up and I had to go with Lowes because of the new card discount.

    It made me feel guilty, but I’ve been able to assuage the guilt because of my tiles. I fell in love with Riad Tile in Texas and that’s the one splurge I have refused to give up. I am also buying shelf brackets and knobs/pulls from Etsy. I think it is all about balance, there are certain things that make sense to buy local or artisan, and some (like a whole new kitchen) that financially make more sense to buy from a big-box.

  • The idea that “big box” stores are more likely to have unfair labor practices or to have environmental issues due to the sheer scale of production does bother me, but those concerns are at odds with where I live and my budget. I feel like I have to make the choices I make, or else I wouldn’t have furniture. In my opinion, all consumers can do is push the major brands and stores to adopt better practices, and embrace those that do. And that goes for goods beyond furniture and décor too. For example, if a name brand decided it was going to start using non-plastic biodegradable packaging on its TP, I’d be willing to pay a couple bucks more for it over the generic store brand that I currently buy. And as far as originality, deliberate copying/copyright infringement is one thing, and I totally understand and respect the desire to protect one’s original creations that they worked so hard at. But when I think of furniture/décor and fashion, I think it’s just kind of how it works that indie makers or the expensive brands that many of us can’t afford make something that people like, so the more affordable big-box stores catch on and produce something very similar at a cheaper price point. And I think this is ok. This is how great design ideas become accessible to people with smaller incomes. And those indie makers and designer brands also drew their inspiration from something that already existed, while adding their own spin on it. What is truly, truly original?

  • I believe income inequality and “late capitalism” is really central to the discussion. My disposable income and standard of living (in general) is far lower than that of my parents (greatest generation, depression, WWII). I suspect that many of my fellow baby boomers are in the same boat (although you wouldn’t know it from media reports) and lord knows that the subsequent generations are struggling to either hold on to or achieve middle-class status.
    Having said that, the options to furnish our homes for many of us will have to be second-hand shops, discount chains, and lots of DIY. Needless to say, I have opted for all of those, unlike my mother who had the means to buy through designers and high end shops. Am I envious of my mother and depressed with my options? Not in the least! I bought a home, and am renovating it completely on my own -with Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, big boxes and my own art school education. It is far from grand, in fact in a lot of ways, still pretty shabby. But I fought for it, worked hard, did it on my own and it’s all mine.
    This is all to say that I think that it is incumbent upon all design blogs to address the reality of their audience, which given the oft quoted ratio of the 1% compared to the 99%, means that affordability is paramount. Honestly, if I see one more Brooklyn loft apartment owned by a hipster pickle manufacturer (who inexplicably can afford a million dollar home) and done up by an interior designer……..I will swear off design blogs forever.

  • I think we’re talking about people interested in home decor and design here, seeing highly inspirational and aspirational products and homes and ideas and then trying to recreate it within their own means – budgetary and accessibility. Those original images in blogs, , , magazines are often produced by designers, stylists, architects, photographers etc. and there is something to be said for the pursuit of excellence, the editorial eye, the educated background, the years of experience behind someone at the height of these creative fields. And any maker can tell you why their handmade good is inherently better and worth the higher price of a mass produced substitute – if they didn’t feel strongly about it why devote a life to making??? Is there a way to say, good quality things are inherently better than low quality without snarkily or otherwise placing judgement? Does that mean we can’t make room for big box stores? I think the two can co-exist. But I think it’s often hard for those two things to come from the same mouthpiece.
    In many ways blogs and have democratized design for the masses and pushed stores like Target to up their game in their offerings. But I also see bloggers/mers that redo an entire room every season with Target/big box goods, photograph it for sponsored content, and then get rid of it all (where does it all go???) and put the high end stuff they own back in place. That sort of thing just runs so counter to truthfulness for me. It pushes an idea of rampant consumerism – replacing everything every season- when they themselves prefer to own and invest in higher end things. Same with having a very highly styled minimalist feed while in their stories show the piles of bags and boxes, a wink that the minimalist style is coming not from being careful about how much to own but on how much to show. These are counter to the promise of blogs and which was a more personal “real people, real stories” answer to very aspirational shelter magazines.
    Mostly when I buy personally, I just try to think of how long I’ll really want to keep it. And I aim to buy things I’ll want to keep for a long time, wherever they are from.

    • Coral Sayer

      I think this kind of gets to the core question for me: “Is there a way to say, good quality things are inherently better than low quality without snarkily or otherwise placing judgement.”

      I don’t know if there is. I think there are layers of classism and judgement in language that calls something “good” over something else. But I think what’s really interesting to talk about even more closely is the idea that “bad quality” is something that can be measured objectively. Yes, it’s clear when something is falling apart or sewn unevenly, etc. But what about when that object is beloved and seen as high quality by the person who owns it?

      I don’t have the answer. I just know that the more we keep trying to unpack and better understand these issues and questions in our community, the more we learn about each other and can talk to each other with more compassion and understanding.

      Grace

      • I think it’s hard to expect people whose livelihoods are invested in high end spaces or creating heirloom quality objects to say “but you know, Walmart’s cool too.’ It just sounds disingenuous. It makes me think the answer is more and varied voices. I think your blog has always managed to champion the full-time artist and the maker AND the more hobbyist/DIY/budget side as both good and not “over” something else. But part of that is because you’re not the maker/creator, you’ve created a platform for other voices. How do we allow all sorts of viewpoints without judgement while also allowing for some people to really shoot for high excellence? Because it’s really enjoyable to see what’s possible within our human spirit and can sometimes help raise the bar for everyone, but that often comes with a discipline and dedication and personal high standards that just aren’t achievable or the goal for everyone. I guess compassion is key here. The whole topic is really interesting to keep thinking about, thank you for the discussion!

  • I prefer to have unique well-made things in my home that will last. I don’t like to have to re-buy the same things over and over and I don’t like contributing to the land fill. I like to purchase my stuff at thrift stores or make it myself when possible. This way nobody else has a look exactly like mine. I realize this doesn’t work for everyone and not always for me either but that is what I strive towards. I do think we need several different options to serve everyone’s needs. There is room for everyone.

  • I appreciate this article and all the thought you have put into it to try and consider everyone.

    I live in a post-industrial town and when the industry began fading away, stores like Walmart and Target came in and took over. We do have some small businesses here in town and I always try to support them, but it’s difficult for them to stay open, though some have managed to.

    I struggle with this, too, because I want to support the makers and local artists but there are some things I don’t have access to unless I want to drive to Charlottesville (30 minutes away) or Richmond (1.5 hrs away), which isn’t too far away but not always convenient or affordable. So I look at this like shopping at the local farmer’s market, compared to shopping at the grocery store. I love the fresh vegetables and homemade goods at the farmer’s market when I can get them, but there are things at the grocery store I can’t get at the farmer’s market, AND our budget is too tight to buy things like chicken at the farmer’s market for $9.99/lb., so I buy that at the grocery store. I just do what I can and what I think is best for our family and our budget.

    That’s the reason I shop for furniture at the thrift stores and have been sitting on the same old couch for 15 years, (now covered with a slipcover) because I like good quality, solid furniture but can’t afford to buy it brand new. I’ve never financed furniture in my life but if someone else does and they prefer new furniture, that’s cool. My eclectic/thrift-store style isn’t for everyone and if other people can afford to do that, then great! So that’s how I feel about this article and everything you have discussed- you all have done an amazing job promoting the makers and independent business owners while still offering different ideas and options that might be more accessible or affordable to others. I think it’s good to be diverse and you just aren’t going to please everyone. I may not be able to afford a sofa over $500 but I can be inspired by that look to settle for a less expensive option…then decorate it with handmade pillows if I want to. :)

  • Wow, thank you for such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post! As the owner of a small, online indie shop, this topic keeps me up at night and I appreciate the respectful look at the many sides of a truly complex issue.
    I founded my own shop with the intention of curating products exclusively from smaller, emerging makers because I was personally frustrated with the lack of unique shops, and merchandise in my area. The fact is, I don’t know anyone that wouldn’t want to discover a beautiful object made by a passionate artist, and not already owned by 10 of their friends.
    But, as both a consumer and small business owner, I can personally relate to the struggle of only supporting independent design. As a consumer, it’s not always convenient, and almost always more expensive to buy from an indie shop or brand. As a shop owner, it’s difficult as well. I have a passion for great design and sourcing my merchandise from an emerging designer feels like, in some small way, I’m helping them to do what they love, and they are helping me to do the same. Would I increase my revenue by purchasing less expensive product from bigger brands? Probably. Would that attract a wider audience for my shop? Maybe. Can my independent shop survive, and am I crazy for trying? Who knows?!
    It’s a complicated issue, but I think the bottom line is, there’s a need for both retail models, and I’m just hoping that there’s room for both.

  • What an interesting discussion! I run a little handmade label together with my sister since 2008. We used to blog and never saw our blog as a shopping guide, so it was not really a question about price points when we showcased a product we liked.
    We started blogging aiming to support our brand and other small businesses. It wasn’t long after we had a steady audience when “big box companies” approached us asking to feature them for free. Although we didn’t, we know quite some who used the ready to blog material and blogged it! Most likely for free. While for us, as a really small company with a super low budget it got more and more expensive to get featured.
    I think it’s a widely needed decision to support ethical businesses for the future of this planet and I wished more people in this world would really do that decision! This doesn’t necessarily mean to neglect big box companies. (Except some of them.) Most people are forced to rely on cheaper things. – I often do. But I try to make good decisions and I indeed have a blacklist of companies.

  • My comment/question after reading the piece and the majority of the comments is this…why are people buying so much stuff? I’m old, I’m single and I love design. Heck, I love shopping, I love spending money, be it for things for myself or others. I get it, it’s fun. But in my life, I’ve had 2 sofas. The first was used, bought on the cheap from a friend of my mother when I got my first apartment. I had it reupholstered twice. The second was new, and pricey, and I bought it to fit a specific room in my house. I donated my first sofa to Salvation Army. But this second sofa will last me until I die. I”m also sleeping on the first (and only) bed I bought when I had my first apartment (I bought it at IKEA). I still use the first dining room table I bought, used. Two wingback chairs my parents gave me from their house when I moved out…ditto for all of my bedroom furniture, side tables, end table, and dishes and silverware. I’ve bought several sets of sheets, throw pillows, throws, dish towels, tons of original art, knickknacks, etc, little stuff. I’ve bought more iPods than large furniture pieces. Heck, I drove the car I got for a graduation gift for 22 years. I still wear sweatshirts I bought in college. I’m in the first house I bought, a total starter home, that became a forever home because why move if I don’t have to. So I guess my questions is…do people really buy that many sofas in a lifetime? How many beds does 1 person cycle through? I get that tastes change and styles change but do they really? (I also understand that things break, kids are born, things aren’t well made, etc and those are probably the majority of reasons why new stuff replaces older stuff but surely there is a large percentage of people that just buy a new sofa every five years because they feel like they have to).

  • Thanks for opening up this discussion Grace. I write an ethical lifestyle blog, and I sometimes find it a difficult space to be inclusive to all (geographic limitations, financial concerns, and even the diversity of the people I write about).

    In terms of ethics, I’ve got a special place in my heart for independent businesses that act as the rallying cry for fair labour and sustainable materials, but I try to balance this by focusing on larger businesses who are making improvements too. In a round about way, those improvements may be causing more good based on scale, rather than on purity.

    It’s a tough one, and I don’t think there’s an answer to whether you can really strike a balance. Instead, perhaps offering a level playing field for all, as you do, is your best bet.

    Besma | Curiously Conscious

    • Besma

      I think balance is always what we’re aiming for, while recognizing that even that won’t feel right/fair/good to everyone reading. It’s tough. Because I know the concept of “ethical” and “affordable” are very relative.

      Grace

  • Grace,

    I admire your ability to see and cover this “issue” from every angle.

    Your blog is one that I consistently look to for home décor ideas and hold in very high esteem. Much of my respect stems from the fact that you manage to artistically and considerately give inspiration and options to people of all budgets and backgrounds, depending on the editorial piece.

    As you’ve seen from the comments rolling in, you won’t appeal to everyone at every moment. But there are many of us in the middle who care about both style and substance – and you do a great job overall keeping our brains full of beautiful and often ethical choices.

    I work with a non-profit organization who’s work is to foster community discussion (both online and offline) with those we sometimes don’t agree with. Your response to a comment particularly struck me, “I don’t have the answer. I just know that the more we keep trying to unpack and better understand these issues and questions in our community, the more we learn about each other and can talk to each other with more compassion and understanding.”

    Amen! Keep doing the good work – 

    e

  • Joining in late here to comment on a related issue that often bothers me when reading design blogs and home tours more generally, not specifically on this site:

    The lionization of great thrifting deals. It’s such a cliche at this point for tours of gorgeous homes filled with expensive items to contain lines about how the homeowner found their credenza or dining chairs at an estate sale or Craigslist for a steal of a price. There’s a certain kind of humblebragging involved that bothers me not just because it’s disingenuous, but because it fetishizes poverty and presents a fantasy of what a thrifty life looks like. We often hear about how proud the homeowner is to have found a genuine Herman Miller or antique Persian rug for a steal of a deal from a secondhand vendor, but often we don’t actually learn the price they paid, which I tend to assume would still be far beyond what most readers could realistically afford. I tend to read these lines in home tour descriptions as reflecting an anxiety about having excessive wealth, a sort of insistence that “although we have all this nice stuff, we’re still down-to-earth, middle class people!” What I see are people reluctant to recognize their privilege and simply admit that, yes, they have money and chose to spend it on making their homes gorgeous.

    I don’t make this comment simply to gripe about other people. It bothers me because it’s something I’ve noticed myself doing in my own home. I am extremely thrifty and pride myself in all the weird and fabulous free items I’ve picked up from curbs and alleys. I am a firm believer in purchasing quality used items rather than new, and in repurposing and upcycling things rather than sending them to the landfill. And yet, I have to remind myself that my rustic and bohemian free finds would look less fabulous if they weren’t sitting in a beautiful house my parents helped me purchase, surrounded by fancy items I inherited from family. I am not saying that anyone should stop thrifting or feeling proud of their good finds, just that I think we need to change how we talk about and present those finds within the context of our own relative privilege.

    • Nicole

      Your comment makes such an excellent point, thank you. It’s an important one to think about in relation to how we present all interiors here and to continue to contextualize and remember the circumstances around design. Your line, “And yet, I have to remind myself that my rustic and bohemian free finds would look less fabulous if they weren’t sitting in a beautiful house my parents helped me purchase, surrounded by fancy items I inherited from family” gets to the core of this for me. I agree that often these thrift store finds are a part of a home that includes more expensive items and that does tend to elevate and contextualize those pieces, style wise, in a way that people enjoy celebrating. I don’t want to make any home owner feel guilty or bad for having thrift store scores (at any cost) in their home, but I agree, it’s important to remember how lucky any home owner is to a) have a place to house themselves and their home goods and b) that many of us (myself included) are combining these finds with higher priced items.

      One issue I’d love to hear your take on is something that we see in comment sections constantly, and is part of the reason a lot of home tour owners do tend to focus on pointing out lower priced items: when people don’t acknowledge where things come from, commenters often assume something is higher priced or designer-brand, etc and then personally attack the home owners for their perceived wealth. I’m always struggling with how best to present and handle this from our end. We’ve changed the formatting of tours to include required sections about what home owners are grateful for and what (if anything) are things they’ve received help with, like down payments, etc. But I know that doesn’t always satisfy the desires of readers who view any higher priced items as inherently negative and elitist. I want to protect the people sharing their personal spaces here from personal attacks, but I also welcome constructive dialogue (especially directed at us, and not home owners) about the deeper issues that are reflected in home tours that we could be better handling.

      If you have any requests or suggestions for things we could add or modify home tours with to better address these issues, I’m always here to listen.

      Thanks so much for your time,

      Grace

      • Well, honestly I think the issue goes beyond the design blog world and I’m not sure exactly what blogs featuring home tours should do about it. It’s a problem with the way we think about our homes, not necessarily with how they’re presented online. And it ties in, I think, with the Orientalism and celebration of colonialism that is generally inherent in the globetrotting decorating style. I say this as a white American who has traveled a lot and has items from various other countries in my home. I don’t really have answers beyond suggesting that these issues be discussed more, and obviously in as open and non-judgmental a way as possible, since smug accusations about specific people’s homes won’t elevate anyone’s perspective.

        • Nicole

          I agree. I don’t think accusations help anyone have productive conversation. It puts everyone on edge. But I also wonder if forcing people to specifically say something along the lines of “I acknowledge the privilege of…” will sound inauthentic and forced? I guess what I’m trying to figure out is how we acknowledge these things without making it feel disingenuous.

          Grace

          • Well, I do think there are a lot of people whose homes are featured in blogs and magazines who are totally oblivious to these issues or to the particular micro aggressions I brought up. I agree that forcing people to take a particular defensive position on their decor would be odd and unhelpful. But I do think it’s important to maintain a distinction between criticism and critique, and to keep the latter alive on a site such as this even while trying to stifle the former. The essay series is a useful place for building on this. Perhaps it would be useful to suggest to those showing on their homes that they read some of these essays and their comments before appearing on the website, so they have a better idea of what discussions they might be walking into and prepare accordingly (or not).

            • Nicole

              I hear you. We do discuss some of these issues with home owners and the document they all read to prepare for their photos and captions includes a lot of language and links to articles we’ve published about these bigger issue and how to be mindful of them. Whenever we come across things that touch on these issues, we discuss them one-on-one with home owners so we can talk about it together in private before making alterations to the post before it goes live. I find people are more receptive to that sort of feedback in private before getting piled on in comment sections.

              That said, we’ll keep discussing this with people who share their homes and stories with us and will keep pushing to have these conversations in essays here, too. It’s not always easy to get people to talk about these bigger issues but I’m thankful for you and anyone else willing to wade in and try to hear each other :)

              Grace

          • What if people admitted when something was a big financial hit? Like, “we saved for X months before we bought this” or “we thought we could swing this purchase, and while I love having this in our home, I wish we had considered less expensive options”.

            I feel like in most tours we only see “I got this for a steal” or “this was worth the investment” and never “I regret this big purchase” or “I’m ok with having made this big purchase but it was financially burdensome, and not something I did lightly.”

            • Rue-

              I hear you. I think the tough thing is, most people don’t want to talk about that (in home tours at least) because it feels vulnerable- and being vulnerable online is tough. I try to encourage discussions like that but it’s also a double edged sword, because a lot of commenters will jump on someone for having spent “a lot” of money in the first place. But I hear you- it would be interesting to discuss. We’ve thought about doing a column like this in the past where we talk about things we wish we hadn’t invested in, but worried it may come across as too privileged or less than thankful for being able to have afforded that thing in the first place, if that makes sense?

              Grace

  • This is a really difficult one. Some negative comments obviously do come from a place of envy. I recall in one story one owner mentioned her gratitude simply for having a home and this comment was misinterpreted somehow and created angst in the comments. The owner came from a place where there was a lot of homelessness and poverty. (By the way the home was by no means a fancy one but was extremely beautiful, greatly enhanced by nothing more than the owner’s sheer creativity). I think educating the homeowners so they are sensitive to possible reactions of some readers so if there is any fallout they are prepared… I think sometimes the way the homeowners come across is as though they are speaking to their own demographic which is so often not the case. Perhaps some acknowledgement of their good fortune could be good but it could become formulaic… However, as well as being sensitive to people, D*S is also a design blog and the idea is to inspire those who are aspiring! But it doesn’t elevate the discussion with comments attacking the perceived wealth of individuals. Maybe some of those people are really well off but maybe also they’ve worked really hard to achieve what they have. Yeah, it’s really, really hard. You can only keep trying and do your best.

  • I’m relatively comfortable financially, but I took several hits to my savings a year ago and I’m still trying to work my way back to better financial stability.

    Some items for your home seem to just cost a LOT no matter what you do. I’ve realized that having a smaller apartment is a doubly effective financial strategy: rent is lower per month, and I don’t need as many big-ticket furniture items. It’s not about being “minimalist” or “mindful” or “intentionally living with less” or “enjoying the creative challenge of using the space” or anything like that. It’s more like, “if I don’t have room for a dining table, then I don’t have to pay for a dining table, and two tiny tables cost $100 combined.”

    When I moved to a bigger place, I invested in a solid-wood dining table that I found used. It cost the same as some big box options and I hope it’ll last longer because it’s wood instead of composite. But I splurged on a new solid wood bed frame and a year later I still wonder whether it made financial sense. It’s true that I’ll likely never have to buy a bed ever again in my lifetime, and that part is really cool. But I could have spent about a tenth of the money and gotten a wood frame from Ikea. If the Ikea frame lasted me 15 years, would that be “worse” than never buying a bed again? I’m honestly not sure. I like the idea of supporting a smaller company that pays workers good wages and harvests wood responsibly. But where is the line between personal financial impact and global financial or environmental impact? I don’t know.

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