In the past, we’ve edited our expansive conversations with sellers into the features of A Seller’s Eye; we tell the stories of the people and perspectives behind a vintage shop, helping readers to develop their own eye for sourcing one-of-a-kind finds. In speaking with Hilary Smith of Toronto’s Alvar Home this week, we found it impossible to condense the conversation for fear of losing any inch of the insights she shared.
As you'll read, Hilary hit all the crucial notes on the vintage home category (its necessity and its future), on reframing discussions of old vs. new, and on the magic that’s out there waiting to be found. Read on for our conversation, and scroll down for Hilary's REM Round.
Dendwell: First things first, we’d love to hear a brief history of your shop; How did you get started? When did you open? How would you describe the Alvar Home vibe?
Hilary Smith: I registered the business in August 2020 while in mandatory quarantine, after moving back to Toronto from a 4 year stint in Sydney. My style is relaxed, a little coastal, a little undefined.
A fun bit of trivia – the name is obviously a nod to Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, but I actually lifted it from the brand of MCM furniture in The Sims – I was obsessed with simulation theory at the time (still am) and got a kick out of linking the two concepts together. It was a weird and wonderfully liminal time in my life.
DD: Weird and wonderfully liminal— I think you just nailed something about the essence of vintage homewares. Everyone has their own draw, but for you, why vintage? Why furniture and home decor?
HS: Broadly speaking, furniture and homewares is a category that has long been ripe for disruption. From a consumer perspective, it presents a ‘pick two’ dilemma: affordable, unique/well designed, ethically made – good luck getting all three. Vintage is the obvious answer to this but has long had its own set of barriers to entry, mainly around the effort and eye required to source across multiple physical locations and digital platforms. I was really interested in removing these barriers by increasing accessibility and shining the right light on the magic that already exists.
“...if I’m tempted to keep it for myself, it’s good enough for my customers.”
DD: Well, you’ve certainly shone light on so much magic at Alvar Home. I’m wondering how you locate that magic; What are the features you look for when sourcing? How do you know when a piece belongs in your collection?
HS: Interesting design, quality of production and materials, and pragmatically, whether I can price it fairly and still turn a profit.
If I come across something that catches my eye, but isn’t a recognizable design it’s really more of a gut feeling than anything else. But my general rule of thumb is if I’m tempted to keep it for myself, it’s good enough for my customers.
DD: On that note, what has been your favorite find that you've sold in your shop?
HS: I love all my children equally. BUT this caramel leather clad credenza I bought at auction… A few weeks after it sold I happened to go to an estate sale that turned out to be the same owner and was able to snag the matching leather desk for the studio, along with an authentic Founders burl wood bedroom set. The owner was a remarkable woman whose stories alone I would have made the drive for.
DD: How about your personal collection, what is an object you can't part with?
HS: I recently bought myself a green limited edition Alvar Aalto Iittala vase from an antique dealer. It’s probably the first thing I’ve purchased without a thought of selling on.
DD: That’s so great that Alvar HQ got a little Alvar Aalto love! You hear about sellers with an unfurnished home and a full garage, having sold every last piece... It’s a business of course, but in their home you’d never know the crucial role they have in this circular economy, choosing vintage every day. Why should everyone shop vintage?
HS: If you’re not mixing old and new by incorporating vintage pieces into your space, you’re simply missing a trick. If the ethical and environmental benefits aren’t compelling enough, the design value and soul only vintage pieces can inject should be.
DD: Yes! Vintage is always the more interesting, soulful choice. What do you think the future of this category is? What does this community need?
HS: Greater accessibility and inclusion, less pretension and gatekeeping. And a universal mindset shift from old versus new, to preexisting and future vintage.
"Furniture and homewares... present a ‘pick two’ dilemma: affordable, unique/well designed, ethically made – good luck getting all three. Vintage is the obvious answer to this."
DD: That’s a really important distinction. It underlines that anything you’ll use and care for long-term is a choice made with progress for the planet in mind. Any note you want to end on, something that’s been on your mind?
HS: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot… We spend a lot of time idolizing mid-century design but I’m not sure how often we acknowledge the exclusivity within the category at the time – the majority of iconic designs from this period were by white (mostly) men and women with relatively similar educational backgrounds. So while the ever-growing fascination with mid-century vintage is a wonderful thing, we’re doing ourselves a massive disservice if we don’t keep our eyes wide open to more recent and emerging (future vintage) designers who are bringing worlds of divergent experiences and perspectives to the table.
DD: Amen! Thank you for sharing with us, Hilary.
Favorite designer right now: Eny Lee Parker (a goddess among us) and locally, Golnar Ahmadian of Golshaah
Favorite object right now: Vintage- Gae Aulenti’s Quadrifoglio lamp; Future vintage- Dirt’s Blobjet
Your astrological sign: Aries ️🔥
Texture your eye is drawn to: Limestone, aged leather
Color your eye is drawn to: Earth tones, green
When I'm not collecting, curating, and selling vintage wares I am: cooking, reading, or working with my husband on our new home.
My estate sale strategy: Go early and make friends
First song on the estate sale getaway car playlist: Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover by Sophie B Hawkins
When I say chair, you think: Soriana
When I say light, you think: soft
When I say bend, you think: ‘or break’
When I say table, you think: pasta