An online design shop for the cool kids

Judith Zeng

Minya Quirk and Deirdre Maloney had a little ritual at the start of every trade show they put on: work an early shift at the registration desk incognito. As they checked IDs and printed badges, the pair would hear unfiltered gossip from unsuspecting attendees—a kind of low-stakes Undercover Boss move that helped them keep their ears to the ground.

The pair, business partners since 2004, had launched a successful fashion trade show in the aughts, sold it, then took their talents to home, founding Shoppe Object with their friend Jesse James in 2018. The show—a boutique alternative to NY Now—quickly became a hit. But for the first edition, Quirk and Maloney didn’t know quite what to expect.

An online design shop for the cool kids

Minya Quirk (left) and Deirdre MaloneyCourtesy of Afternoon Light

“As we’re checking people in, we keep calling Jesse and saying, ‘Who are the heavy hitters? Who are the buyers we should be excited to see?’” recalls Maloney. “He was able to rattle off a handful of stores, but none of them really encompassed what we were looking for coming from the world of fashion—a Mr. Porter, or an Ssense, a one-stop shop where everything they carry is curated through a distinctive point of view and served up for you like, ‘This has been vetted, this is the authority.’ … We kept ping-ponging back and forth about how that was missing until finally we decided: We wanted to do it.”

Four years later, the trio sold Shoppe Object to IMC; following the sale, which closed this February, James will stay on as show director. Quirk and Maloney, on the other hand, were free to pursue a new venture. This week, fueled by a $1.2 million pre-seed funding round, they’re launching Afternoon Light, a platform that collects au courant brands from around the design world into a single, stylish e-commerce site. The next time they attend Shoppe, Quirk and Maloney are hoping to be the heavy hitters.

“Right now, looking online involves searching on Instagram or stumbling on cool stuff and needing to bookmark or remember it,” says Quirk. “We thought, What if we just built this one platform for all of it?”

At launch, Afternoon Light features just shy of 100 brands, all of which sell through the site through drop-shipping deals. There’s a wide range to the selection, from 80-year-old aluminum chair makers Emeco to vibey Brooklyn glass artisan Grace Whiteside, but generally speaking the edit reflects Shoppe Object’s predilection for the cosmopolitan and cutting-edge. This is a design e-comm site for the cool kids.

Pricewise, Afternoon Light’s selection has some high-low to it, but Quirk and Maloney are targeting customers who want to spend money on their homes—the more affordable pieces are what you’d expect at the higher end of retail, and the more expensive reflect what you might pay at a design boutique in SoHo. The goal is to find consumers who like design in theory but don’t quite know the lay of the land.

“People want cool stuff for their house, but where do they go? Urban Outfitters? CB2? There are so many brands out there making amazing stuff, with so much thought and care, but for the average person not ensconced in this world, where do you get awareness for it?” says Quirk. “Even in editorial roundups of where to shop for your bedroom, it’s all mass retailers. But where do you go if you want to find a bed made by a cool dude in L.A.? He’s out there. His name is Brad Burleigh and he’s rad.”

Quirk and Maloney aren’t the only ones to notice a Net-a-Porter-size hole in the design industry. When Design Milk was acquired by Ahalife in 2019, CEO Robert Mancini told BOH he was looking to use the site’s editorial clout to get into high-end e-comm, and The Expert recently raised $12 million to build a multi-brand shopping site. Clearly, this is a white space worth coloring in.

That’s not to say it’s easy. Supply chain snarls have made it difficult for vendors to commit to taking orders online, and in a somewhat chaotic landscape for e-commerce in general, it’s difficult to sign up the right mix of brands. Some smaller studios have been burned by bad experiences in the past and require some convincing, while others (like a few of the bigger Italian manufacturers) passed on Afternoon Light, at least for now. Finally, the cost of acquiring customers online has never been higher—it’s hard to compete in a landscape where sites like 1stDibs are spending tens of millions on marketing.

Quirk and Maloney are betting that putting brands first, plus flawless curation, will help them break through—basically, if you throw a party that everyone wants to come to, the hurdles can be overcome. “Sometimes in the home industry, which is different from fashion, retailers hide or put in the background the brands they’re selling,” says Quirk. “Our approach is radically different. We want to make partners feel like it is advantageous to be sitting on this site. Not only because they’ll be making sales but for brand awareness and the company they’re keeping.”

“We build things as platforms for brands to foster community. When you do that, there are great advantages,” she adds. “One of them is people talk and word spreads. You are a symphony of voices working together as opposed to one.”

Homepage image: Courtesy of Afternoon Light

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