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Faux Furniture: From Open Box to Open House

Home-stager Douglas Pinter stepped out of a black SUV one recent morning, bound for the top floor of an apartment building on the north end of Central Park in Manhattan. But unlike the typical interior decorator with a fleet of moving vans, Mr. Pinter traveled light: He carried the living room in a portfolio bag slung over his shoulder.

A Manhattan apartment is staged with faux furniture by inFormed Space.

Mr. Pinter’s entire line of furniture is an illusion. The Noguchi-inspired coffee table, the contemporary white sofa, the posh art pedestal—all are made of a lightweight material similar to that used to make milk cartons.

“I can bring a two-bedroom apartment up in four nylon bags,” said Mr. Pinter, whose company, inFormed Space, creates origami-like polypropylene furniture that can be folded flat and then installed in a matter of hours.

As the housing market continues to climb, so-called prop furniture is returning to form. What started as a byproduct of the early-2000s sales boom is making a comeback with new, stylish offerings of faux furnishings, including look-but-don’t-sit sofas, cardboard bed frames and fake electronics. Some offer slick finishes while others come in a variety of homey slipcovers.

The apartment Mr. Pinter was staging—a three-bedroom penthouse in a midrise condo—fell into foreclosure in 2008. Now, one of the listing agents, Mark Reznik of A&I Broadway Realty, is preparing to put the fully renovated space on the market for about $2 million.

Soon after arriving in the empty apartment, Mr. Pinter and his associate, Michael Smith, squatted down in a spare bedroom and began to bend, crease and clasp their white polymer panels.

“It is a little like sausage being made,” he said, joking that the process bears little resemblance to the finished product.

Within three hours, the living and dining areas were staged with geometric sofas, faux art canvasses on the walls and a contemporary white resin sculpture provided by artist Dave Stevenson, which balances on a fake pedestal.

The package costs about one-third the price of traditional staging, which could run several thousand dollars for a luxury apartment. Mr. Pinter charges $1,199 a month for a three-bedroom rental set and doesn’t require a multimonth commitment.

Mr. Pinter launched inFormed Space earlier this year and has so far staged about seven listings. Of those listings, a $925,000 unit is in contract, and another sold for almost $1.3 million.

“I see this as a phenomenon of a market that’s waking up,” said Jonathan Miller, president of Miller Samuel Real Estate Appraisers & Consultants. Mr. Miller said these kinds of novel approaches to real-estate marketing appear at the beginning of every new development boom cycle, as in the early 2000s.

Kevin Nielsen, a co-owner of NextStage Furniture in Sioux Falls, S.D., has seen his business ebb and flow with the market. Founded in 2008, the company creates collapsible cardboard furniture with slipcovers for homes mostly in the $300,000 range. “When the market tanked, staging was hurt first,” he said.

Since the past year, he said, sales are picking up, Web traffic is rising and he is in the process of rolling out a new, more contemporary line of furnishings. He is distributing his collection to representatives in Southern California and Nova Scotia, Canada. A “starter kit,” including a sofa, dining table and queen-size bed, costs about $600 before shipping.

None of the furniture is functional. But should someone mistakenly plop down on the corrugated bed frame, for example, they likely would be fine. “I’ve taken a nap on them before,” Mr. Nielsen said.

The faux-electronics business also is enjoying a boost from the housing market’s gains. Kenneth Guo, the owner of the Taiwan-based Real Electronic Props, said 2013 has gotten off to an auspicious start. Mr. Guo, who started in the plastic injection and molding business, switched to making replicas of flat-screen TVs in 2004, as the demand for such props started to pick up.

The fake TVs look identical to the real thing, but the electrical wiring is left out, allowing Mr. Guo to sell the devices at a low price to a mix of clients, although the majority are home designers. The popular 52-inch model retails for about $250. “We’re trying for a 60-inch and 65-inch, because of a lot of inquiries,” he said. The company ships internationally and maintains a Jamestown, N.C., warehouse that opened in 2010 for U.S. orders. In a good year, he said, he sells about 1,000 units.

Kelly Young, at Kelly Young Design Associates in Plantation, Fla., said her company expects to order more prop electronics from Mr. Guo to stage model homes as new-home construction picks up in the Fort Lauderdale area. Staging is a kind of fantasy, she said, and the goal should be to create experiences. “You want a home buyer to walk into the spaces and really feel like they could be sitting at [the] table,” she said—which is why they also buy fake videogame consoles (for the kids) and fake laptops and tablets.

There is also a more practical reason to use the props: sticky-fingered visitors. Brokers say minor theft is an unavoidable part of open-house tours. “It doesn’t matter what it is—stuff walks,” said Mary-Jo Swiatkowski, office manager at Kelly Young.

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