A/D/O by MINI | Design for Rent



Design for Rent

Our homes and offices are the new target of the “subscription economy,” as companies begin to offer rentable furniture.

Despite buzzy headlines, minimalism isn't a new trend – and it won't be fading soon. Long before Marie Kondo was encouraging Americans and Netflix watchers to tidy the joylessness out of their homes, society was already going through a radical shift in the way we perceive and value material items. When we can rent everything from couture to historic European castles, there's never been a broader push to embrace the ephemeral nature of “stuff”.

Real estate, in particular, has been greatly affected by the rise of renting, with first-time home purchases at record lows. As ownership declines, and the cost of living in cities rises to historic proportions, many Millennials and Gen-Zers are embracing a nomadic lifestyle, on average, moving 12 times before settling down – with the idea of investing in expensive furniture losing appeal in major metro areas. Now, companies have begun to change their business models, or create new ones altogether, that allow for consumers to rent instead of buy quality interior pieces, providing an innovative way of interacting and appreciating the most necessary of design items.

It cannot be overstated how much this trend is influenced by the lingering effects of the Great Recession. Stagnant wages, the rise of the gig economy, and ongoing social and financial precarity, coupled with a prioritizing of experiences over physical goods, have led to a massive generational buying shift. Climate change concerns have also meant a significant push toward more environmentally sustainable lifestyles, which extend to the kind of use-cycle we can expect from our purchases.

Companies like Mobley are now offering furniture packages for rent, providing an alternative to investing in expensive pieces.

"We founded Mobley after continual frustration throwing away or selling furniture for cents on the dollar after every move," said the brand’s co-founders, Daniel Ramirez and Aditya Khilnani, who met at Harvard Business School, and have both, respectively, moved between 7-10 times. Irritated by the significant expense, poor consumer experience and environmental waste of disposing of furniture that was still in usable condition, the pair began to brainstorm, realizing they weren’t alone in their plight. According to the EPA, each year, 9.8 million tons of furniture is disposed of in landfills – totaling roughly 7% of all waste.

Seeing the need, they created an initial site online, ordered the first round of furniture, rented a warehouse and secured a truck able to deliver directly to consumers, and got to work. Today, the team says their typical customer ranges from their mid-20s to late 30s and will rent a complete apartment (bed, dressers, side tables, sofa, chairs, dining table, lighting, etc) and renew their lease frequently.

"This is a fundamental shift in lifestyles and aspirations from the traditional American dream of becoming a homeowner as early as possible," they said. "As people continue to increase mobility, we firmly believe they shouldn't be forced to buy disposable, 'fast' furniture, but instead flexibly furnish their home with beautiful items and reduce environmental waste." Recently, Mobley has begun to broaden product offerings to emphasize highly-curated pieces, working closely with designers and interior architects to customize higher-end packages.

Similarly, Feather allows users to swap out designs as users' needs change.

"The sharing economy reflects modern values and works seamlessly with how people live today," said Jay Reno, founder and CEO of decor start-up Feather. “Furniture rental is particularly exciting because it alleviates the burden of upfront, long-term commitment while delivering the style and quality that people want." Reno likened the process to a choose-your-own-adventure model, which allows users to swap out pieces as their needs or aesthetic changes. Feather subscribers can also “buy out” furniture at any point in the lease if they chose to remain in a space longer or fall in love with an item. 

"Rent-to-return works like any lease," explained Reno. "You guarantee you'll make payments, and when that period is over, you return the item.” Reno mentioned this solution works well for those who know their living situation is temporary, and allows for easier moves and “less to bring with you" on your real estate journey.

Feather founder and CEO, Jay Reno, likened the process to a choose-your-own-adventure model.

These types of start-ups aren’t limited to furniture. A Los Angeles brand called Joymode enables you to borrow everything from juicers to dog obstacle courses (among other items) for roughly $22-29 a month. Knotel, an office space provider, has also embraced rentals with a monthly subscription furniture line called Geometry, which initially launched for tenants but is now available to all. Services like these have found particular popularity in the start-up world, whose model frequently requires companies to all but appear overnight – fully furnished and open for business. 

More established brands have also begun taking notice. Rent the Runway and West Elm recently announced a partnership to lease out linens, while IKEA is working toward a new rental service that would allow it to maintain ownership of their products for reuse. Once items can no longer be sent out, IKEA will recycle the pieces.

"Most homeowners are not looking to rent furniture, but they are interested in sustainable options," said Arnab Saharoy, founder of online interior design company Spacejoy. Saharoy’s team frequently searches for furniture and decor touches in the second-hand and pre-loved market, scouring sites like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, Apartment Therapy bazaar, and Etsy. He stated that when people do buy new, they usually look at furniture as an investment, purchasing meaningful pieces that are long-lasting and pointing to a rise in the popularity of traditional materials like wicker and cane furniture. For renters, however, Saharoy recommends leasing larger pieces. “It's better to buy stuff that reflects your style when you can, rather than investing in stop-gap arrangements."

Feather's model is also being adopted by industry giants like IKEA and West Elm.

But, ultimately, which is a better investment, renting or buying? "It would depend on the scenario," said designer Virginia Harper, who trained in Milan and now focuses on luxury furniture, working with brands on store design and visual merchandising. "Rental furniture for the home doesn't seem worth the cost when you can easily find affordable pieces online," she said, explaining that renting might be attractive for high-end pieces that would otherwise be unattainable, but you’re still better off checking Amazon and Wayfair first. The preference for budget or pre-loved over leased also extends to aspirational design items.

"When I see a beautiful piece of furniture, it sparks something in me, and I think that holds true for a lot of people,” Harper remarked, but also admitted to seeing the appeal of “transitory” furniture. Harper rents in New York City and recently purchased a second home for her family, but since she has young kids and a tight budget, she had to be creative filling the house. “I have learned that going cheap is not worth it,” she asserts. “But there is something to be said about fast online service for certain items in the middle market, and I think more brands will have to be amenable to that."

This article forms part of a series on Nomadic Design, one of four curatorial themes that A/D/O is exploring in 2020.

Text by Laura Feinstein.

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