Meat Ball Driven Design

Ikea has sold more than six million Swedish meatballs since opening its outpost in Bloomington last year. The trumpets announcing the opening almost convinced me that the End Times for snotty overpriced design had finally arrived. People were flocking to Bloomington as though to Lourdes. You had only to enter this cathedral of immaculate consumption to emerge transformed, a few hours later, from exposure to the miracle of factories in the third world. Those meatballs might be the driving force for the whole operation—its fuel pellets. You need them, because shopping Ikea takes energy. Golf-cart-like transporters are available to the lame, the halt, and those who cannot find the strength to traipse the vastness of the place under their own steam. From your ceremonial opening ascent up the long slope of the entry escalator to your passage through the store’s labyrinthine intestines (occasional signs posted for “shortcuts” are like the offer of a gastric bypass) to your release like spent silt through the alluvial delta of the check-outs, the experience is one of being eaten, digested, and excreted by an organism much bigger than yourself. After a final grand slalom through the towering racks of the warehouse, ejected at last to the consumer cool-down area just beyond the cash registers, you can regroup at the end with a hot dog that costs only fifty cents, then buy more meatballs to take home.

Ikea is solicitous even as you’re headed out the door: If it’s raining outside, you’ll get a dollar off on an umbrella from a bin full of them by the checkout, all furled in chrysalis and waiting to spread its Ikea logo. You may be coming back through that door a few days later, though, returning purchases that didn’t pan out, or that fell apart. Off to one end of the long row of singing cash registers is Ikea’s “As Is” department, a room full of returned, damaged, and broken merchandise, as well as shopworn display pieces. It’s instructive to cruise this section and pick through the casualties: office chairs without seats, like headless chickens; mattresses that didn’t have enough bounce; computer desks that didn’t compute; bookcases and storage units with failed joints, broken hinges, missing parts. The As Is department is like a morgue; there might be no better place to study the anatomy of works of mass-produced industrial design, not only products with weak ankles and things made out of spit, but also brilliantly conceived ideas that, cut open, reveal how they tick.

Recently, a friend picked up a bookcase from the As Is department. Helping her assemble it, I discovered the lengths to which Ikea’s designers will go to simulate an honest thing. The bookcase appeared to be made of solid sticks of low-grade knotty pine glued up butcher-block style, a use of material meant to signal (I guess we’re supposed to think) Ikea’s abiding concern for ecology, letting no scrap of wood go to waste. One of its sides had a ragged hole in it, splintered as though it had been hit with a forklift. “That’s funny,” I thought. “If this were solid wood that wouldn’t be a hole—a dent, maybe, but not a hole.” Tapping on the side and a few of the shelves, I found they weren’t solid but hollow. Those strips of pine were much thinner than I’d thought—only an eighth of an inch—and they were glued flatwise to frames. This wasn’t butcher-block but an imitation of it constructed like a hollow-core door. It seemed odd that Ikea would go to all this trouble to make one cheap thing simulate another just as cheap until I realized that, constructed this way, the bookcase’s components weigh less and can’t warp; they stay flat, so assembly holes can be relied upon to line up properly, making it easy to put the bookcase together. Deconstructing Ikea’s shrewd use of sophisticated manufacturing techniques, seeing the way its designers redeem materials of inferior quality and keep parts dimensionally stable, I couldn’t help but feel a confusing mix of admiration for such resourcefulness, and dismay at such shameless counterfeiting of appearances.

 

Here’s what I’ve bought at Ikea since it opened:

• A whole mess of candles.

• A whole mess of compact fluorescent bulbs.

• A couple of shower curtains.

• Two paper lamps in the form of a chambered

nautilus.

• Four dinner plates made in Portugal, a design

with a lip that makes a plate easy to hold.

• A mattress, covered not with stupid chintz

roses but in a calm neutral gray fabric.

• One easy chair, a knockoff of a seventy-year-old cantilevered design by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and the only chair Ikea sells that I find truly comfortable. Apparently, a million people agree with me on this one—the Poäng (a name with an unsettling similarity to Pyongyang and one that made me break my policy against buying anything involving umlauts) is Ikea’s single most popular chair. Manufactured in huge volumes in China, last year it sold for ninety-nine dollars; this year it’s seventy-nine dollars. I design and build furniture myself, but up against a chair that retails for seventy-nine dollars, I throw in the towel—I couldn’t even begin to buy the materials for that price.

Ikea’s approach to design is brutally reductive. The company makes no bones about it, boasting, “We start by designing the price.” Its designers have made an art of it. They’ve also made an art of piracy, but to my eye their knockoffs, including the Poäng chair and some of their rattan furniture, as well as their takes on Finnish glassware, Danish flatware, the Luxo lamp, and other lighting designs, almost invariably lose something in translation. A lot of the things in Ikea’s catalog look to me like fifty percent of someone else’s good idea, compromised aesthetically and in the quality of their construction. Price being the paramount consideration, it’s hit or miss whether anything holds up. The consumer colludes in this, figuring the thing was so cheap to begin with that it’s no great loss if it falls apart.

Driven by price, Ikea moves like floodwater, seeking the low ground, locating many of its manufacturing centers in developing countries. This leaves consumers in the developed world strangely marooned on the high ground, still consuming, like berserk wood chippers, whatever’s thrown into our maws, but now without the capacity to manufacture goods for ourselves. All over Asia, the Middle East, and South America, factories with hundreds of sophisticated CNC (“computer numerically controlled”) machines are cranking out crates of furniture day and night so that—to put it in adspeak—“savvy consumers” can feather their “starter homes” and virtually hip “urban lofts” for next to nothing.

Professing concern for the environmental and economic consequences to the people who produce its goods in the third world, Ikea’s ad copy in its catalog has, as a friend puts it, “some mumbo-jumbo about ‘sustainably managed forests,’” playing to everybody’s concern for ecology. She thinks a big part of Ikea’s appeal comes from “that Swedish do-gooder aura … we like to think it rubs off on us when we buy their stuff.” Already heavy users of antimicrobial wipes, we’re susceptible to the fantasy of hygienic Swedish design because, I suspect, deep down we feel ourselves to be terminally besmirched. Ikea makes you feel that you’re scrubbed clean in the sauna of its ethics—that basically the whole world is Sweden, or like you have it in you to be a neat, clean, simple Shaker —just fill up that big floppy yellow bag.

Never having been to Ikea’s factories in China, Thailand, Pakistan, Indonesia, or Brazil to see how green they are, I don’t know if Ikea really walks the walk, but a stroll through its Bloomington store serves to show how good the company’s designers are at seizing on the potential of native ecologies and existing cottage industries. They’re able to create something out of practically nothing. I admire, for example, one of their rocking chairs, the PS Gullholmen, a curious design made of banana leaves. Banana leaves! Now I want to see if Ikea can do anything with all that lint from clothes driers.

Ikea isn’t immune to its own fantasy of down-to-earth design. Its products make gestures toward practicality but don’t necessarily embody it. A kitchen table in the store last year endeared itself to me because it so clearly meant well; it aspired to be useful, but had been designed with such blithe disregard for the laws of physics that it was all but doomed to self-destruct: Its thin Formica top sat on a slender steel frame, which had no rails or stretchers down near the ground, nothing to brace it and keep it from wobbling. Anomalously mounted at one end of the top was a serious-looking woodworking vise, the kind you’d see on a cabinetmaker’s bench. Your hopes for it deflate once you realize that if the vise were ever used for sawing or planning or pounding nails, the table would flip over—if its legs didn’t give way first. But it could come in handy as a big four-legged nutcracker—every kitchen needs a nutcracker.

To be fair, few of Ikea’s designs are quite so disingenuous as that. Sometimes they come up with a thing so cleverly minimal in its use of material that I’m tempted to buy it out of comradely solidarity with the designer behind it. For example, they make an assortment of clothes- or linen storage units that remind me of lightweight tents, and have that same nomadic appeal. The frames are made of thin steel rods that clip together, over which are stretched shelves and sides made of translucent white nylon pack cloth. In one variant, you can Velcro two modules together to form a unit that has six casters and opens like a clamshell. When it’s empty you could pick it up with one finger, but it can hold the contents of a chest of drawers.

Ikea finds its way into every nook and crevice of domesticity—living room, bedroom, bath, kitchen, garage, the kids, the pets, the back yard. A one-stop Tank ’N Tummy of design, Ikea makes us instant connoisseurs of everything from cheese graters to wardrobes, toilet brushes to potted plants. They can get you all set up, down to the tchotchkes, figurines, and framed photos of Paris that spell “good taste.” It’s like a dream that’s been predreamt for you. Wandering from model room to model room, trying on tableaux to see how they fit, you could put together a place for yourself without ever having to set foot in another store. The bookcases in the model living rooms are accessorized with actual books, to show you that these rooms could be settings for the thinking of deep thoughts: One shelf, for instance, is stocked with three or four running feet of remaindered copies of Gift Med En Kommunist, the Swedish edition of Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist.

It’s a little late in the day to bemoan the industrial revolution, but I can never go into Ikea without feeling that those towering racks and pallets piled high with goods are diminishing us in some crucial human way. The scale of the place is crushing. It exerts a bending force; it kills the little guy. The catch, of course, is that Ikea also serves the little guy, and does it through economic strategies that are pretty damned smart: “It’s true socialist furniture for an egalitarian democracy,” is how a friend of mine describes it, a characterization hard to dispute. The abundance of cheap, bright, sunny goods that spill from Ikea’s cornucopia might be all that keeps us working poor from rising up to loot the castles of Minnetonka and the palace at Versailles.

After a trek through Ikea, you might still have a little left to spend on cookies from the grocery beyond the checkout stands, but all this bargain-rate plenitude comes at a cost; it bites us back. I’m talking about what our appetites exterminate, about the extinction of certain kinds of skill, the passing of which I mourn in my bones. Ikea might truly be the nicest, most well-intentioned swarm of locusts you’d ever want to meet, but such operations consume rooted material cultures of potters, weavers, woodworkers, and metalsmiths the way bulldozers consume forests. In its hunger for markets, the global economy of which Ikea is so much a part is obliterating lines of human knowledge that can be passed down only by hand, literally, from the experience of one living, thinking body to the next, through the practice of apprenticeship. All that guild and tribal memory, all that cumulative mastery and skill, begins to go the moment someone parachutes in with a laptop and a gift from Gucci for the chief, the mayor, or the special economic region’s commissar. From that point on, an artisan can expect to punch in, fill a hole on an assembly line, slap bar code labels on boxes, and forklift them onto ships and trucks—until some cheaper place to do this is unearthed.

 

As architecture, the composition of Ikea’s south elevation, the one facing the Mall of America, reminds me of the great works of de Stijl and Russian constructivist design, and—inescapably, though he would have abjured the comparison—the art of the late Charles Biederman, Red Wing’s great master of structure, color, and composition. When viewed from a point distant enough to take it all in, the play among the façade’s interpenetrating planes and fearless color is an architecturally beautiful sight—a colossal block of cobalt, the vibrant yellow of its signs a full day’s dose of vitamin D. But Ikea’s hangar in Bloomington makes a midget of anyone who visits it. Families in all-conditions shopping vehicles wheel into the ramp and tumble out of their Toyota LandOwners, Cadillac Fitzcarraldos, and Honda Lunchboxes to go streaming through the store like ants. The building’s IKEA signs always look to me like eight-foot high misspellings of IDEA, and that idea was the Bauhaus, where Modernism’s utopian dream of a democratized, hygienic, industrial simplicity was first elaborated. But the world, as Europe’s visionaries saw to their horror, is not so simple; the world is dangerous—it breeds desire. Last year, two people were trampled to death in a stampede at the opening of an Ikea in Saudi Arabia. In August, people were injured in the crush to be first through the door at the grand opening of an Ikea in one of the poorer sections of London. To be driven by price is to be driven mad.