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A 2,000-square-foot apartment is a unicorn in New York City, but when Rachel Martino nabbed such a gem last June, she didn’t know what to do with it.
“I was so excited to start decorating, but I realized I was a bit in over my head because it was such a big space,” the 31-year-old influencer told Insider. The open, industrial loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was a far cry from her prior apartment on the bottom floor of a townhouse, demanding much bigger furniture to make it feel full.
By March, she decided to bring in outside help: an interior designer. She likened it to using a wedding planner.
“I wasn’t spending money on vacations or experiences in the same way I did the previous year,” Martino said. “It felt like a good investment in my day-to-day life to kind of put that back into the place I was spending all my time, which obviously is at home.”
Flush with quarantine savings, high off of scoring once-in-a-lifetime pandemic apartment deals, and entering into a new phase of adulthood, wealthy millennial New Yorkers like Martino have been investing big bucks in their pandemic-era sanctuaries. In a year when the comfort of home has become more important than ever, interior design has taken on huge importance for a certain subset that can afford to hire out to someone who can navigate widespread supply shortages and design a home that would feel good during tough times — and look that way on social media.
A pandemic design boom
Short on time and long on money, interior designers were already a part of the wealthy millennial starter pack before the pandemic.
Davita Scarlett, a 33-year-old Brooklyn-based television writer, hired designer Beth Diana Smith in 2019 to touch up her mom’s new, post-retirement apartment in Brooklyn because she struggled with making the space feel “homey.”
“I have a busy life, and an interior designer is helpful with getting things done and making sure things are ordered without me having to add that to my plate,” she said. “If I had to do it by myself, this probably wouldn’t get done for years.”
Smith, owner of an eponymous interior design firm in the tri-state area, helped Scarlett pull together a laid-back style in a neutral palette with subtle island vibes. They had to extend their plans into 2020 as manufacturers slowed production during the pandemic, the same time that Smith said she saw an uptick in interior design across all ages, causing her wait list to hit an all-time high of five to six people in January.
Millennials tend to believe it’s worth the money to hire experts for certain things, rather than trying to do it themselves and making mistakes, Smith said. That’s where interior designers come in — to create the space of their dreams.
Smith, who charges a flat fee based on the scope of the project and her $250 hourly rate, said she felt millennials realized they couldn’t run away from home during the pandemic. “It almost became the things that they wish they had already done, which meant everyone was on this mad dash to get it done,” she said.
This realization fueled a design boom that’s part of what’s called the homebody economy, which went mainstream during lockdown as spending on homebound or private matters surged. A McKinsey report from the second quarter found that the homebody economy persisted as the economy reopened, and will continue to do so in the medium term, with consumers continuing the investments they made in their home life as Delta surges. Home improvement spending was still up in mid-August, 22% higher than two years before, when spending wasn’t affected by the pandemic.
Interior designer Emma Beryl, who is based in New York but works with clients across the US, said that people fell into a now-or-never mindset as they felt the pressure of things opening back up during the summer.
That’s partly because millennials are too busy themselves. Lindsay Boswell, designer and co-founder of LABLstudio, said many clients she’s had recently are younger CEOs of tech companies or “finance bro-type clients” who moved into a new place, but don’t have time to make it as nice as they want.”I’ve never been busier,” she said.
“Time is the biggest luxury.”
“Time is the biggest luxury,” she said. “There’s so much that everyone’s trying to figure out right now in the world, or like once for the past year that they’re like, ‘Can you just make this look good?'”
Maximizing a pandemic haven
The pandemic resulted in millennial homeowners who bought their first place in the suburbs and renters alike suddenly living in newer, bigger spaces than they’re used to.
Beryl, who is currently working with 13 people, said most of her millennial clients during the pandemic were overwhelmed first-time homeowners moving out of the city. Hollis Loudon Puig of Hollis Loudon Design said at first, she saw clients who had bought homes in Westchester and Greenwich from which they could work remotely. But as prices began to drop, she saw a shift to clients staying in the city.
Rents across all boroughs plunged amid a surplus of supply during the pandemic, hitting their largest year-over-year declines on record in January — 15.5% in Manhattan and 8.6% in both Brooklyn and Queens. Young professionals jumped on discounted luxury apartments that were previously out of their budget.
Television personality and fashion influencer Paige DeSorbo upgraded her Upper West Side studio for a two-bedroom apartment in Midtown back in April, only to feel lost trying to organize a bigger place.
The 28-year-old enlisted Puig, a childhood friend, for help in creating a purpose for each space: a bedroom for sleeping and relaxing, an office for work, and an organized closet. “I wanted to walk into my apartment and feel accomplished,” she said.
Without an interior designer, DeSorbo felt she would have been decorating her apartment for the whole year. “She really took the stress out of it,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t going to sit online at the end of the day and look for a credenza.”
Puig said millennials like DeSorbo want to maximize their space so they can utilize it in several different ways, whether it’s for entertaining, exercising, or working. Before the pandemic, it was easier to dine out and exercise outside the home.
“Now they want a large chef kitchen,” she said. “They want a whole designated area for their Peloton.”
“Now they want a large chef kitchen. They want a whole designated area for their Peloton.”
Puig, who works with clients on a $45,000 minimum budget charging a set project management fee of 20%, helps them pick out everything from flatware to sheets, things she said didn’t matter much pre-pandemic. They’re looking for things that were previously an afterthought, she added, like a Herman Miller desk instead of sitting at their counter to work.
“People who never thought their home would really be their ‘sanctuary,'” she said, “this is where they’re spending all their time.”
Investing in an adultlike home
After upgrading their spaces, many millennials looked at their new apartments as a long-term investment.
They may have been content with something from Ikea pre-pandemic, Puig said, but now they’re looking for forever pieces that they can transition from renting when they buy a home.
That was the case for Megan Falvey, who moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the Lower East Side with her hedge fund analyst boyfriend last July. Because living with a partner for the first time felt like a milestone, she said, she wanted to invest in long-term pieces and create a wholesome space that captured both his industrial taste and her boho style.
“I didn’t want everything to be piecemeal together,” she said. “Living in New York, you want to have your own little sanctuary.”
Busy with work as the founder of a holistic education and tutoring firm, but wanting to have fun with the design and a quarantine hobby, she turned to Puig.
While her last apartment had college dorm vibes, as Falvey described it, her new apartment now feels like a home. “It’s like when I go home and visit my parents and everything is clean and comfortable and put together,” she said. “It’s kind of like coming into adulthood.”
Skipping the supply shortage
Some people have to be pushed into adulthood, though, and likewise, people who could afford to hire designers were pushed into their arms by the great supply crunch of the pandemic. Backlogged shipping ports, unpredictable consumer behavior, factory shutdowns, and some production-halting storms resulted in tight capacity and low inventory across many retail goods.
The ensuing furniture shortage sent the wealthy urban millennial into the hands of interior designers, Puig said, adding that they may have an eye for design but can’t find things they can get ASAP.
“Like with any New Yorker, everyone wants everything done yesterday,” she said.
“Like with any New Yorker, everyone wants everything done yesterday.”
“They’re moving into these places and they’re realizing that there is absolutely nothing out there that they can get to ship immediately.”
She said she’s stepped in as a sourcing agent to find something comparable that is available or have something made domestically in New York. Many people are bringing in interior designers to find what they can’t find on their own, but also to expedite the process so that they can more quickly utilize the space.
All the designers Insider spoke to mentioned that the supply shortages have resulted in longer lead times. A typical lead time of 90 days with a client for Puig has turned into six-month-long projects.
Smith said she ordered a client’s love seat in November, but it’s been pushed back at least three times, now expected to arrive in September. “Now that everything under the sun is on back order, all projects are probably taking twice as long,” she said.
For millennials, interior design is about more than just creating a pandemic-optimized home — it’s also informed and inspired by social media.
“Millennials are very into design and very aware of what’s around, because we’re all on social media all the time,” Beryl said. “Whereas when I have older clients, it’s a little bit easier to impress them because they haven’t necessarily been exposed to it.”
Boswell noted she’s seen a shift towards a more streamlined design, partly because a cleaner aesthetic is more refreshing and appealing after being home for so long, but also because it’s what’s popular on Instagram.
For influencers like DeSorbo and Martino, a good home space also serves as a big content piece, making interior design an investment in itself. Martino even found her designer on Instagram.
The social media platform was another big reason why DeSorbo, the fashion influencer, brought Puig in. “People are always taking pictures in their apartment,” she said. “You want it to look cool.”
For DeSorbo, that would be a simple, chic, and clean design that could serve as a neutral background for her Instagram photos. “That was very high up on our list of making sure everything would match any outfit basically,” she said.
She added, “I can put an outfit together in a second, but if you ask me what matches the couch, I have no idea.”