IKEA and the Culture of Disposability

In the October 3rd, 2011 issue of the New Yorker, Lauren Collins wrote a great article, entitled House Perfect: Is IKEA Comfy or Creepy?  She starts by discussing her own history, particularly the way IKEA furniture has become a rite of passage in America for a certain class of young people making their way through the machinations of adolescence, college, first jobs, and frequent moves between small apartments.  The idea that furniture is a disposable fashion accessory is a marked generational shift from our parents and grandparents, for whom furniture was a permanent fixture of the home.

Collins writes "Choosing a piece of furniture was once a serious decision, because of the expectation that it was permanent.  It is said that Americans keep sofas longer than they keep cars, and change dining-room tables about as often as they trade spouses.  IKEA has made interiors ephemeral.  Its furniture is placeholder furniture, the prelude to an always imminent upgrade.  It works until it breaks, or until its owners break up.  It carries no traces.  The ease of self-invention that IKEA enables is liberating, but it can be sad to make a life, or to dispose of it, so cheaply."

IKEA has achieved this lifestyle shift in many ways.  One avenue has been by aggressively cutting costs, which has led to inevitable friction in its supply chain and employee base.  They have found imaginative ways to save money: flat-packing, self-assembly, hollowing out table legs, and making liberal use of particleboard construction.  Their stores, infamous for winding aisles and room-layout dioramas, surround the consumer with the illusion of abundance, encouraging larger purchases.  Collins writes " . . . IKEA uses a technique called 'bulla bulla', in which a bunch of items are purposely jumbled into bins, to create the impression of volume, and, therefore, inexpensiveness."

IKEA has also pushed themselves into ubiquity through the design of their products.  Collins quotes Bill Moggridge's (founding partner at IDEO and current director of the Cooper-Hewitt) feelings on their aesthetic: "It's modernist, and it's very neutral, in order to avoid local preferences, to get the economies of scale they need to keep prices good."  I think he was saying, diplomatically, that most of IKEA's furniture is bland, in the style of the late-nineties, beige-box desktops I grew up with.  That said, some of it is handsome, if somewhat indistinguishable.  Collins point to two of their most popular products, the BILLY bookcase and the LACK side table.  While not ugly, they are simple without being good.  Affordable and inoffensive: two words to build a business with.

Much of the mid-century modern furniture that I so admire and aspire to, from the Bauhaus to the Eames' work, was inspired by the same mission as IKEA.  All of those designers tried to use the tools at their disposal to create, as Charles Eames said, products that were "the best for the most for the least."  Just as designers today are leveraging the new possibilities presented by digital design and fabrication techniques, Eames and the rest invented processes, took advantage of new materials, and challenged the manufacturing processes that had existed for hundreds of years.  Bending plywood, using tubular steel, exposing fasteners and structural elements, making steel an acceptable aesthetic for home interiors, and aiming for mass production instead of boutique, one-off manufacturing changed the face of furniture forever.  

Some companies are trying to keep this tradition alive, among them IKEA.  I would just argue that they are doing it more poorly than a lot of other companies, including Design Within Reach and Industry West.  While not really in the same price range as IKEA, their products are still reasonable in cost and well-built, turning the idea of disposability on its head.  Their furniture can be beautiful, comfortable, and last, all while providing the aspirational lifestyle that young consumers are looking for in IKEA.

Through Instructables, I became aware of a growing IKEA hackers community, which eventually spun off from Instructables, forming their own site.  People all over the world have started using IKEA furniture as raw material.  Most of it is cut, drilled, sanded, and finished to some level already, allowing folks without a lot of tools or space to modify items fairly easily, much like an erector set.  Second, it is cheap -- as cheap, if not more so, than buying raw dimensional lumber at a hardware store.  And, as I've found with my transition to urban dwelling, big hardware stores that sell dimensional lumber are all out in the suburbs.  This inexpensiveness also allows for experimentation without feeling bad about mistakes.  

Much like customizing cars, another business has spring up to help one modify their IKEA furniture.  A system of simple, patterned overlays allows people to add some decorative flair to their otherwise slab-sided pieces.  While not the biggest fan of the designs, I think the concept is brilliant -- piggybacking on an established business, hacking the way forward.  

IKEA is now moving forward on housing developments in Sweden and Britain, trying to "democratize" housing.  The immediate worry, in my mind, is that their culture with translate poorly into buildings.  Homes are semi-permanent features of the landscape.  We have all seen what happens when homes are treated as disposable lifestyle commodities, to be traded upon every few years in dizzying spirals of speculation.  That said, I know firsthand how challenging the low-income housing puzzle is, and perhaps their cost-and-construction innovations will find a way to solve some of the thornier issues.

I think the best way might be to bring the hackers on board.  They have unwittingly created a system of mass-customization, finding ways to make products work better.  I could see IKEA providing some sort of shell, and infrastructure, then allowing the consumer to fit out the interior of their space with their own kit of parts.  Dozens of architects have tried to turn housing into Legos for grownups over the years, but a hybrid system, instead of a top-down, profit-based system, has a lot of potential.  With IKEA's financial muscle, and the wisdom of the hackers, tinkerers, and mad furniture scientists, who knows what could happen?