Meet The Startup Making Home Design Accessible (And Affordable) For The Post-Pandemic Generation

Direct-to-consumer startups have flourished in the last seven years. Beginning with mattresses and luggage in 2014 and spanning a wide range of products and services from skincare to dog food, D2C is now seen by many as the future of all goods and services.

This model that has thrived in the last twelve months of the pandemic: e-commerce sales are expected to top $843 billion this year alone. And, while more of us got used to doing all our shopping online—from groceries to pharmaceuticals to sunglasses to plants—there’s one area of retail that’s remained largely business as usual. At least until now.

Furniture rental is not a new concept; most of us probably had some experience with it during our college years: renting a couch or TV or washing machine for our dorm rooms or whatever cheap student housing we ended up in. The old rental model was nothing short of predatory: companies charging jacked up monthly rates for used and outdated furniture and appliances to those who didn’t have the financial means to buy the items outright.

Enter Oliver Space, a new startup that’s turning that model on its head by offering a sexy, affordable, and stylish furniture rental service for the D2C generation. I spoke to Emily Simmons, Oliver’s in-house designer, about what it took to make furniture renting cool again.

Tell me a bit about Oliver Space and the concept of furniture rentals as reimagined for the direct-to-consumer age.

Oliver Space is a furniture brand that cuts out the logistical mayhem of furniture shopping. We help you design your home, we deliver within three days, we assemble your items for free, and you can return at any time with a free pickup.

As for our rental model, you can pay month-to-month for a short time only, or pay monthly towards ownership with zero interest. This is our flexibility promise—a “try before you buy” program that gives you freedom to live comfortably without making a hefty commitment upfront. You can also swap out your furniture for new styles when you move (or want a change!)

While furniture rental is a familiar concept to many, Oliver Space is bringing this model to a new consumer audience who are more conditioned to buy, buy, buy. In another sense, we are normalizing the concept of creating a home in any space, even if it’s temporary.

Was the furniture industry ready for this kind of shakeup?

The furniture industry, and more broadly the interior design industry, is filled with point solutions. You can find niche services out there for design advice, shopping support, moving and assembly tasks, and payment platforms. You can find your favorite brand for just about any specific type or style of furniture.

However, you can’t find a reliable partner to “do it all” for you. We strive to be a full end-to-end partner to help you create a home.

When doing consumer research, what you find out about what people really want from their furniture buying/moving experience?

First, consumers face the problem of too many options: you can scroll through thousands of sofa options on Wayfair and be overwhelmed with variety. On top of that, it can be hard to know what will work well in your space, and what items will look good and fit together—this is where merchandising comes into play.

At Oliver, we give our customers the advantage of curating all of our products to be functionally cohesive. Small details like the width of dining chair legs or depth of a mattress inside a bed frame: these are minutia that busy consumers might overlook and end up dissatisfied with. Size, shape, metal fixtures, and even wood grain are strategically chosen for our catalog, so that any space will organically fit together. Within our site too, we work to embed visualization tools and limit the amount of extraneous product information. With a holistic design-driven approach, we can solve a major pain point by just being thoughtful about what we carry in inventory and how we support a guided shopping experience.

Second, we’ve found that many consumers are facing the pain point of budgeting and committing to creating a space they actually are proud of. Maybe they’re living in a different city for one year, maybe they’re living with roommates to share rent costs, or maybe they’ve moved three times in the past three years. Whatever the case, many people are skipping the investment and living without the functionality and comfort that they desire. This pain point helped us understand that what customers really need is a logistical partner, who can help customers overcome the burden that furniture poses.

Tell me a bit more about the company’s dedication to creating a furniture circular economy and what measures it’s taking toward a sustainable business model.

As part of our circular economy model, we cycle our furniture pieces back into as-new condition, in order to give them a second life in a new home. This is especially prevalent for short term renters, who have temporary needs.

Instead of buying a sofa and then struggling to dispose or resell it, a customer can rent from Oliver and have their item delivered and picked up within a day’s notice. It’s that easy. And the way we see it, every “rented” sofa means one less sofa getting disposed of on the street and ending up in the landfill.  The traditional furniture industry is simply not built for flexibility.

Tell me how the in-house design and merchandising process works. What’s the process end-to-end?

My merchandising approach follows three priorities: vendor partnerships, catalog curation, and brand aesthetics.

First, I work with our Operations and Sourcing teams to select factories that have materials and style capabilities that fit our stylistic and pricing goals. Taking a vendor-first approach sets us up with reliable partners, and is the key first step to creating a successful furniture brand.

Next, I consider our catalog and what functional and aesthetic gaps to fix. What customer feedback has come in requesting missing styles? What aesthetics have received positive feedback? What inspiration has emerged that I’m keen to explore in our new collection? I can create a list of what we’re scouting for, and turn back to our partnerships.

Third and finally, we go deep on each individual item that we’re considering to match our brand standards. I look at raw dimensions, functional cohesion with our other products, material composition, upholstery options, style bias, cost and pricing implications. We typically start with anywhere from 50-100 items we are interested in, and narrow the pool down to 10-12 final selections. In the end, we aim for every item in our catalog to be unique, functional, timeless, and long-lasting.

Where do you find design inspiration for Oliver Space designs? Do you look at popular brands like West Elm, etc, or is there a different process?

I find inspiration from my own personal style research mainly! I’m an avid reader of AD, Dezeen, Cereal, and other publications. I follow trends coming out from industry events and top tastemakers, but also keep an eye on what classic styles are making a comeback from past decades.

I do keep up with other brands to see what’s popular and trending, and what the alternatives out there might be for someone furniture shopping. Sometimes there are “must-have” styles that everyone’s looking for. Most importantly though, I find inspiration from within my team! We have such a diverse group of personalities and tastes. I love sharing stylistic options over Slack, and getting group feedback. I have my go-to minimalists, traditionalists, and style adventurers in-house, and am always just one message away from real-time feedback.

Does Oliver Space offer design and inspiration help to consumers?

We absolutely do! We offer 1-on-1 design support for questions as simple as finding the best sofa, to more complex requests like designing a full house interior. Our shopping experience gives customers the option to explore all products or create an inspiration board through our Room Builder, which helps visualize furniture pieces side by side. From there, we are online 7 days a week for on-demand design tips through chat, or offer 1-on-1 video consultations to work hands-on with our shoppers.

The pandemic has taught us a few lessons about how we live and work, namely that maybe our idea of ‘home’ will be redefined. It will no longer be something we spend decades planning and saving up for, but rather it will be something more fluid, changing, and morphing with our lives as we shift from place to place. How does a company like Oliver Space contribute to this new world order?

The industry of home is one of the most traditional and stagnant still. We are conditioned to think of ‘home’ as a distant proposition, far away in the future, a milestone that requires saving and planning over decades. This traditional way of thinking has neglected to adapt to our modern way of living though.

Today, our careers and lifestyles take us from city to city and push much of the “settling” to later in life. Meanwhile, our square footage and tastes are changing, to the point where it would be unwise to invest in any particular piece of furniture. What if it doesn’t fit in my next place? What if I don’t like this blue velvet next year? This new reality doesn’t mean we should compromise on making a home wherever we are, though.

What Oliver offers is a way to create a home quickly and easily, without the burden, the build-up, and massive amounts of budgeting. With a more flexible, logistically simpler way of shopping for furniture, we are building a future where you can create a home in whatever space you’re in, even if you’re years away from settling down.

Finally, do you see the furniture and design rental market exploding in the next 3-5 years? Is it feasible to suspect that at one point, we will no longer be looking to necessarily ‘own’ things, but kind of move towards a subscription and/or rental model for our entire lifestyle?

I do see that are living through the shift towards the “rental economy” of the future. The old model of individual ownership has shown us that it leads to over-consumption and waste. Whereas, movements like the share economy and the new rental economy, push us towards more communal resourcing.

In the future, consumers may be able to share assets quickly, find services that fit their given needs in the moment, and accumulate less. In many ways, I imagine this future way of life will be less burdened and more fulfilling. What may be even more dominant in my mind though, is the societal shift towards convenience and environmentalism.

The biggest motivation driving the share or rental economy is the notion of saving consumers time and money, but also reducing mass consumption. I believe our society has put a new premium on time as a luxury, and sustainability as a necessity. For the consumer, this means an increase in service businesses that can make life seemingly more effortless.

Within furniture and design specifically, this would mean expanded optionality and access to interior design, and increasing number of options to help you save on logistical burdens especially.