When Julia Anduiza graduated from university and moved to London, she found herself sleeping on a mattress on the floor of her rented room. She was working in a low-paid entry-level role and couldn’t afford to spend the hundreds of pounds that it would cost to buy a bed. Yet at the same time she would often see furniture and homeware items abandoned in front gardens and lingering on kerbsides around the city.
"It made me think," she says. "Surely there was a way to get access to items in an affordable way while making use of the stuff that people already owned – and clearly wanted to get rid of?"
It turns out that Anduiza’s instincts were correct. She started to research whether people would be interested in short-term access to furniture and homeware and was overwhelmed by the response. She’s now developing shelff, a community-based rental platform which she hopes to launch later this year and which will provide interior and homeware items at a fraction of the price of purchasing.
"People kept telling me that their interior styles change regularly and so they value affordability and flexibility," she says. "Renting means that you can dictate how long you have an item for, which is perfect for people who want furniture on a short-term basis only, whether that’s because they’re in a tenancy or simply want to change their interiors frequently."
Over the last few years, the way that we view our homes has been overhauled. Social media has taken interior design out of glossy catalogues and downloaded images of perfectly preened living rooms straight to our devices. Instead of digging deep to afford expensive design advice, we can now turn straight to our Instagram feed or Pinterest board to lust over the latest trends. Our homes are increasingly seen as a reflection of ourselves and a way to express creativity – yet for many of us, a much-coveted green velvet couch or painstakingly arranged gallery wall remains way out of budget. Enter: the furniture rental industry, a rapidly rising sector which aims to address the changing relationship with our homes and belongings.
"Often, the problem isn’t that people don’t have enough stuff," says cofounder of furniture rental company Harth, Henrietta Thompson. "It’s the opposite. They have too much, but it isn’t the ‘right' stuff. Nowadays our lives change regularly, people are moving around more than ever and our furniture doesn’t always fit the new place or new lifestyle – we all have different needs at different times."
Homeownership among young people in the UK has declined almost consistently over the past decade and with the average private renter only staying in one place for around four years – or 18 months for those in shared accommodation – it’s clear to see why forking out thousands for a sofa might not seem like a financially friendly solution. Harth offers items like artwork, tables and office chairs for as little as £5 per month, although pricier pieces can go for up to £1,750. The industry caters to an entire range of budgets and rental periods – leading peer-to-peer rental company Fat Llama even offers daily rates with sofa beds currently starting at £3 per day and dining tables and chairs rentable for around £6 per day and up.
But furniture rentals don’t just respond to a demographic shift in how we live – they also respond to a growing interest in sustainability. An alternative to buying gives interiors enthusiasts the chance to switch things up as much as they want to, without having to worry about excessive waste.
"Just like in fashion we’ve seen a rise in fast furniture, which is a real problem," adds Thompson. "Rental furnishings offer a way to share, swap and have ownership for as long as you need and then be able to give something back – but also to be able to have fun with your home and change things up as you feel like it, or your life changes."
Alina Clark, 31, found that renting furniture was the perfect solution for her after moving into a three-bedroom flat. She rented a filing cabinet and bookcase for around six months and thinks that subscription services for furniture are a natural next step in a digital economy where everything from electric scooters to handbags can be leased out with a tap of our smartphone.
"The underlying truth is that the desires of many people have changed," she says. "We value experiences over things, and we’re drawn to customised, on-demand services that give us access to items without bearing the burden of ownership. For me, the option of a flexible payment plan was the most appealing thing about renting but there is more of a concern about damaging the furniture – some companies will make you cover the entire cost of the item if they’re not returned in perfect condition."
After lockdown restrictions sent traffic to homeware sites soaring by up to 318% in 2020, it isn’t just startups like shelff and Harth which are catering to renters like Alina. Late last year, John Lewis trialled a collaboration with rental marketplace Fat Llama, letting customers try out selected furniture items for three to 12 months. A £450 desk could be rented for £13 per month based on a yearlong rental period, while a £1,899 sofa was hired out for £80 per month. At the end of the trial period the rental fees paid could be deducted from the purchase price of the piece, should the renter choose to make a longer term commitment. Although the trial has now ended, a spokesperson for John Lewis told us that the scheme was successful and that they are "committed to offering more rental options for customers". The collaboration was part of an explosion of interest in rental furniture which Thompson noted throughout the pandemic as people speedily assembled home offices or sought to create calming spaces.
"People needed more flexible spaces, for example delineating playrooms from offices and creating home gyms," she says. "There used to be a lot of stigma towards renting items but it’s recently become more aspirational and attractive. It’s been really interesting to see the attitude changing as people give more thought to how they consume – how they can spruce up their space with new artwork or soft furnishings. People are coming around to the idea that you can switch things up in a more environmentally friendly way."
For Anduiza, who hopes that shelff will save other renters like herself from sleeping on the floor, mindful consumption is the key to furniture rental market growth. She hopes to see an industry that puts solving overproduction front and centre while also providing affordable options for a new generation of consumers. Meanwhile, the sharing economy continues to become ever more integrated into how we live, dress, travel and work. The transition into our homes could be just as seamless.
"There’s a growing preference for access over ownership," Anduiza says. "Long-term ownership is not feasible for many, and the growing economic pressures on people – and added pressures as a result of COVID – have forced many to look at creative ways to create a home more affordably… We’ve seen other platforms like ride-sharing and fashion rental apps show how easy and convenient sharing can be. This will definitely pave the way for such services to exist in homeware and other industries."