On Instagram, vintage home decor shops are prioritizing kitsch over class and personality over practicality
It was a set of Vandor salt and pepper shakers that convinced me Tchachke, a New York-based vintage store on Instagram, was worth a follow. One shaker was a pale pink 1950s convertible; fitting snugly in the driver’s seat was the other piece: a preening cat wearing a bright-red dress, tiara, cateye sunglasses (naturally), gold necklace, and a fur around her shoulders. In Tchachke’s IG story, where I met the feline motorist, the set bobbed up and down on a blue background with pink clouds. The words “Dreaming about the next drop” floated in the same color scheme underneath.
The shakers were like nothing else I’d seen on Instagram, where brands like Le Creuset and Great Jones battle for customers with minutely differentiated kitchen basics in solid colors. The post turned out to be my gateway into the acid-tinged, bizarro, Technicolor world of vintage tableware and kitchenware resellers, whose posts offer deals on wacky kitchen items to local customers and good vibes to onlookers. When I got to another set of a cow with a Carmen Miranda-esque fancy fruit hat, I was hooked.
Instagram accounts like Museum of Tacky, Soleil Monét, Space Sisters Vintage, Dream.wares, and IO Object live in a confusing but enticing space between DM-to-purchase pop-up stores and your aunt’s hutch full of porcelain figurines. Any era and brand is fair game, from delicate Depression glass by Jeannette Glass Company to Enesco mugs to Pier 1 condiment spinners to paper bag vases by Tapio Wirkkala. Certain themes do pervade across sellers and decades, though. Among the food-shaped items, cupcakes, ice cream, burgers, strawberries, and watermelons seem to be popular. Animal figures tend toward cows, cats, and poodles, while Betty Boop, Elvis, and Garfield populate the pop-culture segment. Some items are purely decorative, but most are obliquely utilitarian: teapots, piggy banks, bookends, napkin holders, “keepers” to store baked goods or fresh produce, and lots of salt and pepper shakers.
All of the items promise to add a pop of personality to any space, a tiny rebellion against austere essentials collections from kitchenware brands with bland names that rattle around social media ad spots like a design echo chamber. “We’ve all seen the neutral, minimalist decor with the fan palm sitting in a tan donut vase atop a white console table, which are all lovely items, but they don’t showcase the owner’s personality,” says Anh “Adeline” Tran, one half of the duo behind LA’s Object Superette (originally Qrated Qties). “Colorful ice cream-shaped bowls, on the other hand…”
Tran always enjoyed digging through thrift stores, but a pandemic lockdown shifted her hunting online. After seeing a number of thrifting accounts spring up on Instagram, she decided to finally launch her own business in December 2020, recruiting her pal Ellen Bae to co-run the account and join the hunt for retro decor.
On retailers like eBay, vintage kitchenware, like old-school collectible Pyrex, can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Expensive items do show up in these social media stores (though it’s hard to imagine dropping a grand over Instagram), but the vast majority of listings are affordable — most of Object Superette’s kitchen pieces range from $12 to $30, with more expensive items and sets stretching toward $50 — making it easy to buy a napkin holder shaped like a hot dog or slice of watermelon on a lark or as a goofy gift.
“Some things are just stupid, but the stupid things are the most fun,” says Chelsey Burger, the mind behind Tchachke. A veteran of New York’s service industry, she has seen plenty of drunk customers steal silly, specialty drinkware from bars, and her own home is filled with fanciful items, like a bejeweled Apple TV remote. During the pandemic, she began to think about the comfort that nostalgic pieces brought her (and she was running out of space at her own place), so she launched her shop to channel that energy and offload some of her collection. Her offerings ride the line between function and fun, including a Chuckie Finster vase, a lamp with Hot Wheels encased in Lucite, and a pitcher so ornate it wouldn’t be out of place at the Cooper Hewitt design museum. “Some people call these items useless but other people create full cabinets for them in their house.”
Burger digs up wares from everyday thrift stores and estate sales. Like any trendy vintage store, she curates her selection, making vintage-hunting less of a schlep for her customers. She also takes full advantage of Instagram as a platform, adding new digital backgrounds to inject life into nostalgic relics and ironically incorporating language from fashion-drop culture to give the account a playful, youthful attitude. A cat driving a convertible might give you a brief laugh in a cluttered box at a garage sale before you move on, but the way Burger arranges it in Tchachke’s feed — photographed at weird angles, dancing or floating in space, juxtaposed with power-clashing colors and patterns — might push you into a purchase. “I’ve just been playing around and going off on tangents by myself. I send stuff to my friends and ask if it looks good, and sometimes they disagree, and sometimes I post it anyway,” she says.
In choosing social media over an e-commerce platform like eBay, Tran, Bae, and Burger have to manually handle all of the logistics, coordinating sales through DM, and arranging delivery. But there are clear advantages too. Tran says she and Bae have more direct interaction with their customers, more control over their funds, and a greater sense of community. While not every Instagram user who stumbles onto Object Superette is there to shop, Tran would like to think the account brings some color to their feeds all the same.
Burger also used her account to reconnect with her community after losing her job in March 2020. She often delivers objects personally, “like an old-school milkman,” she says. In a welcome change from the isolation of the pandemic, she adds, “It makes New York feel like a cute small town.”
Ridiculous as they may look, these objects can be useful. They serve drinks, display flowers, and store fruit. They’ve proven durable enough to last decades, making them a green alternative for anyone tired of disposable, mass-produced decor. But the true value of the vintage items on these accounts isn’t really in their utility. They’re a quick litmus test for kindred souls; you can idly chat with a stranger about the Always Pan, but you know you’ve made a friend when you find someone who appreciates the same Mary Ann Baker teapot featuring a weightlifting cat. And even if your taste is totally at odds with everyone you know, if you’re the only one to see value in a knickknack, that enjoyment never seems misplaced. Take the Kamenstein enamel cow-shaped kettle: A squiggly plastic tail just shy of a fire hazard and metal bell that actually rings are the sorts of things that may only add a few cents to the production cost but make the item so much more endearing. Kitsch is designed to be loved, even by just one person.
In the last 18 months, the home kitchen has become a place of dread for some, sanctuary for others, and daily reality for most. Vintage resellers remind us the kitchen is also a place to have fun. None of these items could ever be called essential, but they make excellent pieces for anyone who could feel a bit brighter in the kitchen. And if you think you don’t have the space on your counter for a ceramic ice cream sculpture or cow-themed napkin holder, just follow along on Instagram. The piece that changes your mind might just float into your feed, because the next drop is always around the corner.