How much would you pay for a virtual sofa?

A rendering of Andrés Reisinger’s pink “Hortensia” armchair.
A rendering of Andrés Reisinger’s pink “Hortensia” armchair.
Image: Andrés Reisinger
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How much would you pay for a 3D rendering of a sofa? Last month, a line of “virtual furniture” earned its creator nearly half a million real dollars on Nifty Gateway, one of several online auction sites for blockchain-backed digital assets.

Conceived by Andrés Reisinger, a 29-year old Argentinian digital artist based in Barcelona, the collection includes blob-shaped couches, a discombobulating set of drawers, and one pink swivel office chair.

To be clear, these are mostly computer generated files—not actual pieces of furniture. Winning bidders, however, can use them to furnish their virtual worlds and gaming environments. For instance, the person who paid $5,000 for a rendering of a gravity-defying table called Pinky can upload it to Minecraft.

A rendering of a pink Hortensia armchair by Argentinian designer Andrés Reisinger.
Plush pixel.
Image: Andrés Reisinger

Reisinger intends to eventually manufacture physical versions of five of his designs, including a custom-designed piece that sold for $68,000.  (These exorbitant prices are more commonly seen for auctions of collectible furniture. For example, you can get a limited edition Salvador Dali throne for a few hundred dollars less.)

Reisinger’s stellar sales benefited from the burgeoning crypto-art market, where anything from digital art, video clips, even a tweet, can go for millions of dollars in a matter of minutes. Items listed on Nifty Gateway and similar platforms like Super Rare, OpenSea, Foundation, Zora, and MakersPlace come with a non-fungible token which serves as a certificate of authenticity vetted by the Ethereum blockchain. This allows collectors to resell the work with the option of sharing the profits with the original artist. Miami-based  collector Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile recently pocketed over $6 million for reselling a 10-second video clip he acquired for $67,000 last October.

Crypto-art fans contend that non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, will be the future of art collecting. Critics say it will literally destroy the planet.

Cypto-Art and Covid-19

In 2014, Monegraph (short for monetized graphics) became the first platform to sell art using blockchain protocols. Attaching a deed of ownership to a piece of art creates scarcity for digital content that one can otherwise view online for free.

NFTs made news in 2017 when collectors spent over $1 million to own a game called “CryptoKitties.” But crypto-art truly blew up in 2020. Fueled by a spike in online gaming and general listlessness during months in lockdown, more collectors—including many tech millionaires—turned their attention to NFTs. The crypto-art market is now worth nearly $200 million, with nearly 100,000 transactions conducted in six of the largest platforms, according to figures compiled in Crypto Art Data. Last month, Christie’s became the first traditional auction house to venture into selling digital art accompanied by NFTs. (As of this writing, the highest bid for a digital collage, created by star crypto-artist Beeple, is pegged at $8.3 million.)

OpenSea co-founder Alex Atallah says the dramatic spike in interest makes sense during the pandemic year. “If you spend 10 hours a day on the computer…then [buying] art in the digital realm makes tons of sense,” he told Reuters.

NFTs’ impact on the furniture design industry

Reisinger’s desire to create real versions of his virtual furniture makes him unique from other crypto-artists. It’s also a move that can potentially—and dramatically—impact how furniture is made and sold.

A typical chair takes about four years to gestate, with legacy manufacturers going through rounds of R&D and product testing. And when the finished version is finally ready, introducing it to the public involves a lot of effort—from pitching the piece to magazines, printing marketing materials for it, and entering it in design fairs like the The International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, NeoCon in Chicago, Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan, imm Cologne, and a global network of other festivals where a discombobulating number of brands vie for attention.

Reisinger skips all that and gauges demand by posting a rendering on Instagram before going into production. Of course, “likes” don’t directly translate to sales, but one of his concepts has garnered pre-orders and wide public attention, and has even been acquired for the Design Museum Ghent’s collection. Working with product designer Júlia Esqué, he’s produced a physical version of Hortensia, a dreamy armchair inspired by the hydrangea flower. Selling digital editions on Nifty Gateway gains him the capital for manufacturing.

“I am a faithful believer that you should only physically create what is already in demand,” says Reisinger, a digital artist who has some experience in furniture design, having worked with brands like Cassina and IKEA. “I am fatally opposed to brands that propose mass production, where after a season they tell you that your furniture is out of fashion.”

Reisinger says he’s determined to make furniture that won’t end up as a fleeting phenomenon. “Hortensia chair is very durable,” he assures, noting that the upholstery was designed to be easily removed and washed. “The fabric does not wrinkle and it stays in shape. We have tested it for days sitting in the studio and it is still in perfect condition.”

He says producing Hortensia feels like a coup given that many big furniture manufacturers declined to work with him. “It was quite difficult to find producers and workshops who wanted to work with a digital artist,” he tells Quartz. “Most of the teams that I contacted back in 2018 told me that what I was proposing was very difficult and that we would lose money.”

The trends of decentralization and Design Home

Adrian Parra, a marketing expert who has worked for big furniture brands such as Vitra, Humanscale, and Artek, for one welcomes the disruption. “I do think the rage for NFT-backed assets has the potential to further push the industry toward a greater decentralization of power,” he says.

“Rather than a top-down approach that relies on a chief creative officer or ‘high priest of design’—usually a white dude heading a design department, and whose job it is to translate market research into creative briefs filtered through his own understanding of the world—this new phenomenon of virtual furniture design has the potential to flip the process on its head,” he observes. “There is a democratization of design at play here where the market validation of a design happens before the production and launch processes. This is powerful.”

Parra adds that more furniture brands adopted computer-generated imagery during the pandemic. With design fairs and photo studios shuttered and much of their audience glued to screens, manufacturers hired computer graphics specialists to create renderings to market their product lines. “We totally seem fine with it now, whereas 18 months ago, we’d look down on these assets as inferior to ‘real’ photo shoots,” he explains.

As further proof of how real furniture is getting framed in digital realms, Design Home, the top video game for interior design enthusiasts, opened an e-commerce platform last year. The IOS game allows users to buy home furnishings like rugs, lamps, and bedding right off the platform. Actual products from Williams Sonoma, West Elm, and Pottery Barn figure also appear in the game’s challenges.

The ecological price of NFTs

For virtual furniture to be truly meaningful, Parra says creators should be mindful of the ethical supply chain of their creations, in light of the growing awareness about the alarming scale of throwaway furniture. According to 2018 data from the US Environmental Protection Agency, 80% of the 12 million tons of furniture Americans throw away each year ends up in landfills. A 2019 study suggests that 30% of adults in the UK have discarded perfectly usable furnishings for the sake of changing things up. Interior design makeovers and renovations are a significant factor in why the building industry is responsible for 40% of global annual carbon emissions, a 2020 study suggests.

NFT-based transactions are contributing to the problem, too. In a series of articles titled, “The Unreasonable Ecological Cost of #CryptoArt,” London-based computational engineer Memo Akten outlines the carbon footprint of Ethereum-based transactions. Analyzing data from SuperRare, he calculates that the average crypto-art transaction has a footprint of around 340 kWh and 211 kg CO2—which, he points out, “is equivalent to a EU resident’s total electric power consumption for more than a month, with emissions equivalent to driving for 1,000 km or flying for 2 hours.”

At least one crypo-artist is heeding Akten’s call to conscience. French artist Joanie Lemercier canceled his auction after realizing how much the transactions will cost the planet. “It turns out my release of six cryptoart works consumed in 10 seconds more electricity than the entire studio over the past two years,” Lemercier wrote on his website. “With no travel involved and a mostly digital distribution, this new model looks like it has the potential to become a sustainable practice for artists. That’s until you understand the magnitude of the environmental impacts of the current blockchain: It is a disaster.”

Activists are calling on NFT auction sites for greater transparency about the energy usage of their transactions. A petition is underway for the adoption of more sustainable transaction protocols.