February 7, 2023

MyDesignDept

Carefully Crafted Home

Buying An Eames Chair On eBay, I Met The Wunderkind Of Vintage Furniture Restoration. Now I’m Obsessed With His Company, Rarify. Here’s The Amazing Story Of A Teen Collector Turned Millennial Design Authority

Like fast fashion, fast furniture has crept into our lives. You see a gorgeous Eames chair in a design-forward hotel, come home to discover it costs $3500, then start searching for replicas. The problem with filling our homes and closets with cheap knockoffs is multi-fold. It steals from the work of designers, longevity and value are little to non-existent, poorly made clothes and furniture end up in landfills, and the carbon output and consumption cycle starts all over again. My sister, Jessica Mowery, a senior interior designer at Blu Interiors in Sarasota, Florida, had long advised saving to buy the real thing when feasible. When new is out of the question, go vintage.

Finally, I heeded her advice. Rather than scour the internet for the best deal on a knock-off Eames soft pad management chair, I’d tested in a hotel in Rome. I’d decided to search for an original. I scanned craigslist ads, Facebook marketplace, eBay, even Chairish and 1st Dibs. Pricing, vintage quality, and authenticity remained worries until I came across a few listings from David Rosenwasser on eBay. I sent an inquiry about several collections he had listed – he’d hit a motherlode of Eames chairs from a law office remodel. Over email, we started discussing his collection; in the process, I discovered something even more amazing than his enviable warehouse of stockpiled pieces: his story.

*Long interview warning but worth the read. Print this out, get a cup of coffee, and try not to feel bad about your career motivation issues when done. Rather, be inspired, even if it’s to do nothing else but shop for vintage furniture.

Question: You started collecting 20th century modern furniture as a teenager, scouring Craigslist and local auction houses, and funding purchases with a minimum wage job at a pharmacy. No high school kids I know do this. Please explain!

David: I grew up in Hershey, Pennsylvania, around very little notable design and architecture. My mom, however, grew up admiring the famous (670 / 671) Eames lounge chair and ottoman because her best friend’s father had one in his office and it stuck with her. As my parents reached age 50, she gifted one to my dad. Seeing the Eames lounge as an eleven-year-old was completely foreign to me and it created an obsession with modern furniture. I started learning about the chair and then Charles and Ray Eames. Before long, I was spending my time researching designers, their furniture, and how to collect them for cheap. Teenagers don’t typically have much budget for 20th century icons, so platforms like craigslist made some purchases possible. My very first piece of furniture was an Eames LCW in walnut at age thirteen, the small plywood lounge chair. I still have it and cherish it.

Q. During high school, you had an architecture internship which gave you freedom to you hit the road, as you said, “to pick up pieces by Mies van der Rohe, Florence Knoll, Ray and Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, and beyond.” Again, please explain.

D. My interest in furniture led me directly to design and then a fascination with architecture. I realized that so many of the important 20th century designers were architects and so I decided to pursue a career in architecture. Right after getting my driver’s license, I started interning with an architect in Lebanon, PA named Kip Kelly from Nest Architecture. Lucky for me, he had a great firm in Los Angeles, but happened to operate one small office in this town (where his wife grew up). Thanks to my school internship program, I would head over to his office mid-day and spend half the day there, getting school credit in the meantime. He was extremely supportive and encouraged my obsession with furniture too.

Q. Eventually your scope shifted from collecting to restoration work and selling. What inspired this level of commitment? A parent?

D. I must have been a delusional teenager at the very least. Today I’m 27. Architects I would meet would explain that their work often involved long hours and low pay given the education needed and hours involved. My bizarre solution to this was deciding to hoard a massive collection of furniture before starting architecture school so that I would have the furniture I loved already before becoming an architect.

Because the furniture was expensive to buy, I started buying extra furniture to sell, which would then pay for the next pieces, allowing me to grow the collection. I was also buying neglected furniture that demanded restoration, so learning restoration came by necessity.

My dad was a corneal ophthalmologist who absolutely loved tinkering and restoring things in our garage. He was amazingly gifted at that. While I was often afraid to work on restoring old cars with him like our old Austin Healey bugeye sprite, I wasn’t intimidated by furniture and had my dad as a mentor. He always knew how to fix everything but made sure that I tried on my own first. Tragically, my dad passed away in 2021, at 64, of CTCL (a rare lymphoma).

By age fifteen (2010), I had saved up enough, researched, and fully restored a 1950s 670/671 Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman. What I didn’t learn from my dad came from forums online, YouTube videos, and trial and error.

Q. By the end of high school, you had filled 3-4 vacant offices with furniture. First off, this is incredible. Second, it’s even more incredible you got free office space to store your pieces. Can you explain how that came about? And what were some of the best scores of your early days?

D. Yes, it was amazing and very lucky. The architect I interned for in Lebanon, PA had a few vacant offices in his building that he didn’t have much luck renting out. The deal was that I could store furniture in these offices for as long as I needed, up until someone wanted to rent them. Lucky for me, no one ever rented the offices and so I eventually had furniture stacked to the ceiling in all these offices.

During any given week, I would spend evenings scouring auction websites and craigslist for important 20th century designer furniture, especially those from Knoll and Herman Miller. If I was lucky enough to find something, I would sneak out of town in our station wagon (often when I was supposed to be at the architect’s office) and do pickups in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City.

Central Pennsylvania is quite close to where Knoll’s factory was historically located, so there were often older Knoll employees selling off rare and unusual pieces. Some of my best scores from that time included a pair of 1948 Eames LCWs in Walnut with crisp original labels for $250 each (value ~$3,000 each), which came with a clipping from Better Homes and Gardens in 1954, where they were featured. I also found an original 1940s Grasshopper lamp by Greta Magnussen Grossman for $60 (value ~$10,000) in an unassuming house in State College, PA. Too many great finds to list.

Q. Before you went off to architecture school, you found someone in the Philippines to buy your collection. How did that trade come about?

D. This circumstance was unbelievable. To fund the collection, I would regularly buy pieces somewhat locally, try to restore them when needed, take nice photos, and list them as 7-day unreserved eBay auctions since I only had $2500 in my bank account roughly on a good day (therefore selling fast was important). I was lucky enough to find an amazing pack and ship business called Mail Dock about 5 minutes down the road, so I had the packing and shipping quality as a sure-thing.

I sold a 670/671 rosewood Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman to a buyer in The Philippines and after he received it, he proposed a much more lofty idea. He shared that he wanted to open a vintage furniture store in the Philippines and fill a 40-foot shipping container if I could make that happen. Lucky for both of us, this was in May of 2013, three months before I would leave for college. He bought virtually everything I had stashed in these offices for nearly $120,000.

Over the summer, I worked to restore everything that needed work and by August, my new favorite shippers at Mail Dock were masterfully packing up a shipping container. It shipped off in September. Months later, I heard “Happy New Year” from the buyer, so all went well I suppose.

Q. You met Jeremy at Cornell. What about the two of you hit it off, whether intellectually, creatively, or simply as friends? Common interests?

D. The two of us met in our first days in the architecture school. We started by arguing over best software to use, apple computers, and musicians we liked. A very close friendship formed quickly. Simply put, Jeremy is an exceptional person and brilliant (not used lightly). I hadn’t met anyone before who had the design skills, wit, ingenuity, creativity, and raw computing power. I spent plenty of time in architecture school in awe of how he worked and was shocked when he was willing to work on projects together, as I wasn’t sure if I had much to offer. We eventually worked together in Jenny Sabin’s lab and her design practice for a few years during school, working with industrial robotic arms and 3D printing ceramics. She was a huge mentor to us both, showing us what being a visionary looked like and what successful collaboration could bring to life.

Q. During college, you continued expanding your business restoring and selling iconic 20th century furniture through D ROSE MOD. How did you keep up the work in PA when you were at school in upstate New York?

D. I used the money from the shipping container deal as seed capital for the business and so nearly everything was reinvested. I would use every short or long break from classes as an opportunity to pick up furniture or to go back to Pennsylvania to work on restoration and then eventually photography. The business grew substantially each year while I was in school, to my amazement. Thanks to Mail Dock, they would handle pickups from the storage spaces and shipping so that I could be in Ithaca during the school year.

Q. After Cornell, you both went to grad school? What did you work on and where?

D. We started graduate school in 2019, Jeremy at MIT for dual-degrees in Design Computation and Computer Science, and myself at Harvard’s GSD for a Masters in Design and Technology.

During Jeremy’s time, he’d work with Skylar Tibbits in the Self Assembly Lab at MIT on projects such as liquid metal 3D printing.

As the massive nerds we are and were, we wanted to start a business that brought our academic interests and passions for furniture, design, and technology to life. We put together some of these foundations through MIT’s Design X accelerator program and Harvard’s Innovation Lab. Jeremy would even go on to teach a product design course at MIT with Emeco on “The next 150-year chair.”

Q. When did you start Rarify with Jeremy and what’s the focus of the company?

D. Jeremy and I started the company in January of 2021 to embrace education, technology, and the culture created from design enthusiasts around the world.

Rarify uses the history of design to tell a story, educate our audience about the importance of notable designers, and push toward the future, bringing to light noteworthy manufacturers and designers that aren’t known or recognized to the degree that that they deserve. Why isn’t USM Haller more known in the US? Shouldn’t more people know about Gae Aulenti’s Pipistrello lamp and Ana Castelli Ferrieri’s Componibili?

Furthermore, we’re working to make furniture and design more interesting for a Millennial and Get Z audience too, as we’ve been bored with dull e-commerce sites and unimpressed with resources for design education in a digital way.

In the past few months, we’ve grown a pretty amazing audience of over 50,000 followers on our instagram channel thanks to educational videos (like this one and this one) that we create about special new and vintage pieces in our warehouse and showroom. It’s become an essential ingredient in our work and something that’s been humbling to see others appreciate.

As far as our business more broadly, we now have 40,000 square feet of warehouse and showroom space on the site of a former Bethlehem Steel railroad spike plant in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. We also have an amazing team we work with every day, who make it all happen and keep things running smoothly. There’s well over 5,000 pieces of furniture ranging from the classics works of George and Mira Nakashima or the Eames’ to more contemporary works by Karim Rashid and Patricia Urquiola. We also have a growing group of brands we represent, including Flos, Emeco, USM Haller, Carl Hansen, and MOOOI.

As the years go on, our hope is to become an invaluable resource for education and for guidance on past and future collectible design. For the contemporary brands we work with, we partner with them because we truly believe that their works are or will be collectible and important classics. What we also love is that unlike most other companies around us, we can curate from our amazing vintage inventory, pairing them with innovative new works.

Q. What’s your perspective on fast furniture and the damage it’s doing to both the natural environment and our aesthetic environment?

D. The culture of fast furniture is disappointing for a couple of reasons. The lower quality and shorter life cycle often means that dining tables, sofas, bed frames, and chairs can end up from new to landfilled within five years. We see it as bad for the planet, for designers, and for the buyers of this furniture. One of the reasons 20th century design flourished on the vintage market is because of the longevity of both the aesthetics and build quality. The Eames’ for instance were designing furniture in the 1950s, intended for the post-war American middle-class home and income, which would last well beyond a lifetime. This pursuit of affordable and high-quality design is still accessible today, though may require stretching a bit beyond the price-point of Ikea with the understanding that those pieces will last far longer.

Q. How can younger people with limited budgets start adding pieces of value to their homes and avoid the allure of cheap and knock-off furniture?

D. Younger people can start looking at their furniture as investments, even with very limited budgets. If you purchase cheap, poorly built, or knock-off furniture, you’ve made a purchase that has little to no design value and certainly very little resale value. There are plenty of phenomenal pieces on the market that meet the criteria of authenticity, great design, and affordable price point, which is something we’re constantly working to improve at Rarify, since we realize there’s demand and interest among our younger customers and followers.

These are curated pieces in that category, all under $500. Some of our favorites include the Max Beam and Componibili from Kartell, The May Day Lamp from Flos, and Navy Chair from Emeco, made from recycled plastic. All of these should last a lifetime and/or could be resold, maintaining much of their original value.

Q. Do you think the MCM period has become less thrilling due to ubiquitous counterfeiting?

D. I don’t think the designs are any less thrilling, though I think it makes the emphasis on authenticity more important than ever. The world of fine watches has dealt with the problem of counterfeits for decades now, but certainly hasn’t made an authentic Rolex less desirable or valuable. Organizations such as Be Original Americas are helping in the fight against counterfeits. It goes back to the idea of investing in authentic design and educating yourself on how to identify the real deal or working with others whose knowledge you trust. Buying authentic furniture made by the licensed manufacturer or a reputable vintage dealer helps to support an ecosystem of long lasting, investment-grade furniture, which should hopefully stay out of landfills and simultaneously support the designers who brought these pieces to life.

Q. Has social media helped you convert younger viewers into design curious buyers? What tips do you have for budget-conscious folks to search local auctions and estate sales?

D. Jeremy and I have been thrilled with the interest, curiosity, and questions coming from our younger viewers. Over 2/3 of our audience is under 35, many of whom are buying quality designs for the first time. We regularly get questions from excited viewers about pieces they found at thrift stores or about how to authenticate something they have. From sales and conversations with customers especially, we see a lot of activity among the less expensive designs to start with but have already started to see those customers coming back to add more substantial pieces.

Someone may start with a Bellhop Lamp from Flos and then order a credenza from USM Haller a few months later. If new design enthusiasts are looking locally at auctions or maybe thrift stores, go out there and have fun! Exposure like that is an amazing way to train your eye and to learn in the process. Moreover, learning how to identify an authentic piece is another hugely valuable part of that process. There are tons of vintage pieces out there looking for new homes, so the world is your oyster.

Q. What’s next on the horizon? The world may never stop loving MCM but what other eras of design or even specific designers do you see as the vintage pieces of the future? Anyone we should keep an eye on?

D. I mentioned that Jeremy and I are both huge design nerds and so we have plenty of pursuits that we’re excited about. With the contemporary brands that we work with as authorized dealers, we’re excited to continue growing our offerings, while still focusing on vetting important works that we feel will become the iconic designs of the 21st century. If we don’t stand by a design and its future historical importance, you won’t see it in our collection.

We’re particularly excited about brands like MOOOI and especially their Hortensia Chair, as MOOOI is working with contemporary paradigms or evolutions in technology to bring furniture to life that is truly innovative. The Hortensia chair began as a fully digital artwork but attracted so much interest that MOOOI worked with designers Júlia Esqué & Andrés Reisinger to manufacture the chair and put it into production.

In the world of collectible vintage furniture, we’re excited to see pieces from the 1980s and 1990s more regularly come to the surface, including hugely important works from the Postmodern period, which may be visually controversial sometimes, but are still important parts of design history. One example is a rare sofa we acquired this year from a house in Philadelphia by designers Denise Scott Brown & Robert Venturi for Knoll.

Q. Anything else you’d like to add?

D. Yes! Jeremy and I are constantly working to try and improve our educational videos, make our website more engaging and educational for visitors, and to encourage design enthusiasts to visit our 40,000 square foot warehouse and showroom in Lebanon, PA. For anyone who’s enjoyed hearing about us, don’t hesitate to reach out. We’d love to talk and welcome your feedback too! Thanks for letting me share a bit about Rarify.