Recently, I paid my local council £10 to get rid of a sofa. It was a two-seater in blush pink with curved arms, and the unsettling ability to never change shape after I’d sat on it. But it also repelled most spillages, so it became our “takeaway sofa”. A year in, two of its legs broke. After that, we propped it up with a pair of yoga blocks before finally, last week, calling it a day.
The sofa, which took almost four months to arrive and cost several hundred pounds – a sign, we presumed, of its enduring quality – came from Made.com, the furniture company that moved closer to administration this week with its share price tumbling by nearly 90% as it still searches for a buyer. I was not the first person of my generation to buy it, just as I was not the first to wait half a pregnancy for it to arrive, only to watch it then fall apart.
But at a time (2019) when owning our own home somehow seemed more ludicrous than it does now, buying nice things became an affordable way to pretend we were adults when all the usual markers (income, children, marriage, home ownership, the permission to drill holes in my own wall) were absent. What did it matter that the sofa made our flat look the same as everyone else’s? It was a shorthand for stability, however bourgeois, simply because a sofa is a grownup thing to own.
So what went wrong for Made dot com? Supply issues and disruption at ports leading to lengthy delays in furniture arriving to customers for one, as well as a decline in sales after a wildly successful pandemic (Made reported sales increases of 63% in the first three months of 2021).
Another problem is, perhaps, ubiquity. It’s not difficult to spot something from Made these days. Launched in 2010, shortly after Instagram, by the Lastminute.com entrepreneur Brent Hoberman, this taste borrowed heavily from mid-20th-century modern furniture and furnishings. At the start of the 2010s (mid-Mad Men, the early days of Modern House property website), this was no bad thing. The furnishings came in muted pinks, or forest green, and were either wipe-clean fabrics or deeply textural, like velvet – all the better to be seen on Instagram with. There was wood, too, bleached and soft and almost-Scandinavian. Put together – which was often the case – it created a sort of curated comfort, which is precisely what you want your home to do.
As the academic Sam Johnson-Schlee writes in his new book, Living Rooms: “In my home I can become temporarily oblivious to the horrors of the world outside, held fast by the comfort of soft furnishings.” If you ever went into one of Made’s showrooms, being surrounded by this stuff felt akin to being sedated, but not in an entirely bad way.
But it ran deeper than that. The aesthetic catered to millennials who wanted their homes to look like the past while distancing themselves from the chintziness they’d grown up with in the 80s and 90s. Like real mid-century furniture, it was light and ergonomic, so you could shunt it about from rental to rental.
The recent resurgence in interest in mid-century modern design also came at a time when the political ideals that underpinned it – quality housing and beautiful, functional design for all – have never felt further away from our current politics. Made.com offered the social democratic postwar lifestyle on the cheap. But after you saw 50 versions of the same thing in your friends’ homes also falling apart, it became clear that Made’s version was an illusion.
Real mid-century furniture – from the Knoll wire chair to the leather Eames lounge chair, and the many, many spindly Ercol legs – is expensive; Made was relatively cheap. Except that in a crowded market, and one with Ikea in it, no business can succeed on design alone.
As with anything born and propagated on social media, the gap between image and reality turned out to be vast. People saw the curved shapes in lilac, the rattan lampshades and scalloped edges, and figured that Made could allow them to have an aesthetic they aspired to but until then had been unable to afford.
The problem is, if you want proper stuff, you have to pay for it. But that is not in keeping with a society saturated in cheaply manufactured goods (Made.com does not own its factories), and certainly runs counter to our current economic crisis. This may also explain why secondhand furniture, sold on Etsy, Narchie or even Facebook marketplace, will probably take Made’s place.
We are, to quote John Lewis, living in a “moments” economy: in times of financial strain, big-ticket items such as furniture always suffer. But Made.com’s demise is also a lesson in what happens when you create trend-led pieces with an investment-level price as a stand-in for something that actually works and lasts in a place as sacred as your home.
Looking back, I can see why I bought the sofa – it looked like a womb. Also looking back, buying a sofa online was pretty daft.