Next week, the MoMA Design Store will start selling something you might not expect to find offered by a serious gallery: paddling pools for adults.
Mylle, the brand behind the pools, had been pitching its design-forward inflatables to the gallery’s store for some time. But it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that founder Kris Myllenbeck got an answer. “The pandemic really opened the door,” she says on the renewed appeal of outdoor brands. “Word spread through backyards and balconies.”
In the past 12 months, our homes have been taken over by work and Zoom school, but for those of us lucky enough to have a bit of outdoor space, our balconies, backyards, and gardens have become one of the few private places where we can unwind.
Naturally, that means we’ve been buying all sorts of things to help us enjoy them. Early on in the pandemic, the (virtual) shelves were stripped of seeds, inflatable pools, grills, furniture and other outdoor lifestyle products.
According to Modern Retail, direct-to-consumer outdoor furniture brand Outer’s revenue increased ten-fold in 2020 to $12 million, up from just $1.1 million in 2019. The brand has also secured $14.3 million in investment since the pandemic began. Yardbird, which focuses on sustainably manufactured patio furniture, closed a $4.4 million funding round in March 2020.
Even though lockdown restrictions are slowly starting to ease, it looks like people are still keen to invest in their gardens. According to an International Casual Furnishings Association survey released in March, 58% of people are planning to buy more furniture and accessories for their gardens this year. Items on the shopping list include fire pits, grills, and plenty more furniture.
Neighbor, an outdoor furniture brand based in Arizona that launched in October 2020, says it's already turning a profit. “We’re unhappy that this pandemic has been thrust upon the world, but the focus on the home has been beneficial to the launch of Neighbor,” Nick Arambula, one of the brand’s cofounders, says. “I don’t think the peak is over.”
Arambula says demand for shipping containers is picking up once again, and that Neighbor is currently paying double the $4,000 per container it paid last year to get its products over to the U.S. from Vietnam.
Gina Hinde, marketing manager at the Leisure and Outdoor Furniture Association, says U.K. brands are facing the same struggles. Prices are soaring as high as $12,000 per container, up from the $1,200 brands would normally expect to pay.
She says a huge part of this extra demand is coming from a consumer group – millennials – who previously weren’t interested in these products. “All of a sudden, because the garden was the only place they could go, they were ordering barbecues, furniture, you name it,” she says, adding that before COVID the typical garden furniture and accessories customer would be in their 40s, 50s or 60s.
Mylle’s pools sold out multiple times throughout 2020 due to increased demand. Myllenback says they have been particularly popular among city dwellers living in small spaces, who might not have the space, or the finances, to shell out for an outdoor sofa.
In the U.K. Window Fleur, which sells ready-planted window boxes on subscription, has found similar success in catering to smaller budgets and spaces (all its customers need is a window ledge). Since launching in June 2020, the startup has gained more than 400 active subscribers. “Our sales are through the roof at the minute, and we’re hoping to double by the end of summer,” founder Frannie Liddle says.
Why, at a time when a degree of freedom seems just around the corner, are people still interested in decking out their gardens?
Liddle says the impact of the past year cannot be underestimated, and the fact that many people went from thinking that lockdowns would last a few months to finding themselves in a similar position a year later has resulted in a significant perspective change.
“Because this period of time has been so long, and actually quite harrowing for a lot of people, I think it’s a permanent shift,” she explains. “Especially with the sales that we’re seeing. We’re coming out of lockdown hopefully very soon, yet [business] has picked up pace to no end.”
Arambula says that, as societies reopen, our backyards will continue to provide a safe, controlled environment.
“I think at least for the next 12 months, people are still going to be uncomfortable going to common spaces to congregate – because there’s going to be questions about who’s vaccinated, and if it’s safe,” he says, explaining that people may want to “reintegrate” their social lives slowly. “There’s this emotional component where people have to figure out how they find comfort going back into social settings, and for many people I think it will be in their own spaces with people that they’re close with.”
For some, gardens may well become a preferred focal point for social activity. Neighbor is already thinking about what that might mean in terms of launching new product alongside its modular sofas – sun loungers and a range of dining products are already in the works.
“It’s about creating ways to further develop your living room outdoors,” Arambula says. “Like, how do you build a system for beverages in the furniture? What’s a cool way that we could build a cooler into a side table? How do you bring music outdoors?”
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