Setting the stage: how home staging became a transformative tool

Words by

Ellie Rees

Home staging is on the up. Having become the norm in the States, like so many things that travel across the pond, it’s beginning to make an impact over here. But its origin story isn’t one of overnight success. Whilst preparing your home to maximise its appeal is now considered an effective strategy, it wasn’t always that way.

Until the 1970s anyone selling a house was limited in how they could flaunt its best assets. Other than making sure it was clean and tidy, the sale depended on the buyer having vision. Anyone suggesting owners change the arrangement or aesthetics of their home to reach its true potential may have risked causing offence.

It all changed when Barbara Schwarz, interior designer turned realtor, saw the potential in selling well-turned out properties. Not only did they sell faster by giving the buyer a fantasy they could connect with, but by creating a transactional service the owner could default the design decisions to a visually-minded individual without feeling bruised. It just so happened that Schwarz had a background in theatre and so ‘setting the stage’ made perfect sense, and hence, home staging was born.

Smart woman that she was, Schwarz developed ways to share her expertise through resources and training, eventually establishing the International Association of Home Staging Professionals that ensured standards. But it wasn’t until the recession in the U.S. that sellers tuned into the value of reimagining their home and giving it a facelift in order to secure a sale in a competitive market. As a recession knocks on our door here in the UK, now is the time in which this revisioning of a home may really come into its own.

We can’t talk about home staging without mentioning the high-end transformations on Netflix sensation, Selling Sunset. For anyone not familiar with the series, the super deluxe properties and upscale makeovers make for compulsive viewing. But it’s the disastrous revamps that provide the most entertainment. Like the time a professional stager decides to ignore the agreed Californian minimalist look because she was ‘inspired in a different direction’ - that direction being a cowhide rug (for a vegan) and an oversized bust statue. Needless to say, the eclectic look was not a hit. But it does raise good questions about the fine line stagers have to walk between what will attract buyers, an individual's flair for design and keeping sellers happy.

The leap from residential homes to luxury LA, legend has it, happened 25 years ago when former actress Meredith Baer decorated a friend's house that had been sitting on the market for some time, and then sold within days. Meredith Baer Home became a formidable force in the industry, growing an empire with vast warehouses crammed full of an impressive inventory.

Many similar companies sprung up in her wake, ready to meet the exacting needs of clients with expensive properties, the bills of which can often run into six-figure sums. But it is in fact an archrival company which now does the majority of business in LA. Controversially set up by Baer’s nephew and niece, Vesta is the more successful arm of the Baer dynasty, leading to a family feud that continues to this day - a plot twist worthy of a hit Hollywood show.

Over in the UK, home staging has had a slightly different journey. What started as a way to market commercial and new-build developments, has begun a transition to mainstream residential. Rather than being just the preserve of high-end properties or large commerical developments, sellers of homes of all sizes and specs are using the readily-available service to sell their home. No longer do vendors have to opt for impersonal, off-the-shelf design choices, because genuine alternatives, that are more reflective of their homes, are now on offer.

This growth in popularity has been aided, in part, by a shift in mindset. Understanding home staging’s defining principle - painting a picture of a life to buy into rather than personal taste or style - is perhaps what instigated this shift. Even when the property owner may need a nudge, the benefits are hard to argue with. Staging has a proven record on ensuring faster sales, and often at a higher value. As the home-buying market looks to slow down in the coming months due to the current world economic situation, it is having a home staging resource up your sleeve which could give you the edge.

Making the connection

As anyone who has been through the process knows, buying and selling is an emotional business. We’re wired to sense first and think second, and so we’re driven to make decisions based on how a property makes us feel. The clichéd tricks of the trade, like brewing coffee, lighting a scented candle or baking bread to make a home more enticing play on this, so that a home speaks to a buyer on a sensory level. The value of home staging, long recognised in the commercial development world, is its ability to focus in on the heart rather than the head, tapping into our hopes and desires. It’s the difference between being inspired to take action, or not, and as such, it’s a powerful tool.

An underrated skill

To achieve the right vision doesn’t just involve decluttering and restyling, it’s the careful curation of sound, scent and texture as well as visuals, with a sensitivity to the property’s existing character. Many underestimate the skill involved; techniques require a trained eye and access to a lot of furniture from which the most appropriate pieces can be curated. It demands knowing your audience, and using a visual language that will speak to and engage them. When done right, there’s an opportunity to communicate with buyers and present a narrative that connects with them emotionally, in a way that is hard to do when you’re seeing your own home subjectively.

The future of home staging

There is always chatter about what the big trends are for the upcoming year, and 2023 is no different. Perhaps we shouldn’t go in for fashions that are likely to be gone by next year. Instead, favouring a more sustainable approach to interior design. That said, there are cultural changes that staging appears to be mirroring: those based on how we live and our impact on the environment, which can be no bad thing.

Specifically, post-pandemic interiors are more considered, facilitating productivity in our living space. Blending our home and work lives and being versatile and uncluttered can enable more harmonious living and aid our thinking - as the saying goes: tidy desk, tidy mind. Additionally, bringing in an element of nature is more of a priority since COVID times, especially when so many of us reimagined our connection with the natural world.

Whilst we can thank the U.S. for introducing staging to the world, the brits are adding their own unique stamp and eclectic style. The low threshold we have for anything slick or synthetic has demanded a more authentic approach, which moves away from the fabricated to recognise the human.

We want spaces that speak to our whole selves, which are good for our health and happiness, and are sensitive to sustainability. The U.K.’s staging strength is that it reflects this evolution of design, and has the potential to achieve good results for both people and planet.