I know IKEA doesn't really need to be defended. It's not like they can't take care of themselves, seeing as how 92% of all furniture purchased on Earth is from IKEA*, and the remaining whatever percent is left over is bought by design snobs, goody-goodies, and people who live in the god-forsaken hinterlands where there's no IKEA within hundreds of miles (can you imagine?). Given its huge sphere of influence, it's not surprising that it's become fashionable in some quarters to take potshots the Swedish giant.
To some extent, I guess I'm defending myself for not being enough of a design snob or goody-goody. Don't get me wrong--I like Eames chairs just as much as the next guy. They look cool in pictures and in somebody else's Mid-Century Modern living room. But they would be incongruous in our old bungalow (okay--shotgun shack), and they just aren't that comfortable anyway. Plus, once you buy one, you're pretty much committed to making your home into a museum of used high-end furniture.
As for the criticisms of the goody-goodies--that IKEA is a forest-raping, third-world sweatshop overlord--I doubt that many other manufacturers have better records in that regard. And even if they still made furniture in countries that had labor laws, most of us wouldn't be able to afford it. So to own furniture in good conscience, you would have to make it yourself or buy it second-hand, making sure it was built in an era in which workers were treated fairly and natural resources were handled with great deference. Good luck with that.
In addition to its aesthetics and dubious corporate virtue, a perceived lack of quality in its products is often a target for IKEA's critics. This critique plays into questions of the company's environmental impact as well: the argument goes that because they make cheap, short-lived furniture, they contribute to overflowing landfills and deforestation. If they just made sturdier stuff, critics say, customers would not need to replace it every couple of years; and therefore less furniture, less landfill space for the old junk, and less lumber for the new stuff would be needed. Fair enough, I guess. Although I have to say that of the hundreds of pieces I've bought from IKEA over the years, probably 90% of them are still in use by somebody. And anyway, I don't want to buy furniture that I'm stuck with for the rest of my life.
The reason I'm getting defensive about IKEA is that I've been spending the last few evenings assembling an entire new IKEA dining room set; one that will replace the IKEA set my wife and I bought back in, oh, about 1994. For "disposable" furniture, it's held up pretty well. Okay, to be honest, the chairs have pretty much fallen apart in the last few months. I could probably fix them if I needed to, though.
So, having cleared my conscience in regard to the philosophical quibbles of buying from IKEA, I will proceed to address another one of the most common gripes about the Scandinavian behemoth: that its products are difficult to assemble and the directions are indecipherable.
This is patently absurd. Say what you will about the look of their furniture, but you can't deny that their engineering, down to the last fastener, is a paragon of efficiency and ingenuity, all geared toward shipping the products in flat boxes to cut costs, and not requiring much in the way of skills or tools on the part of the eventual assembler. You've got to love not only the cleverness, but the populist philosophy behind it.
And the instructions are an amazing display of succinctness and clarity. Whereas most some-assembly-required products come with instructions bogged down in convoluted, ill-translated verbiage, IKEA uses cartoon figures and universally understood icons almost exclusively. These pictograms are uncannily thorough. Pick up a screw that looks like the one pictured, and there on the page is a simple drawing cautioning you not to confuse screw #144083 with its longer cousin, screw #144085. You know you were about to use the long screw.
The ingenious design and the clear instructions make assembling IKEA furniture a real pleasure for me. That's right--I truly look forward to putting this stuff together. Having built stuff for a living for most of my life, it's always relaxing to assemble furniture that I know is going to come out right. I get much of the satisfaction and none of the stress that I would from building something out of raw lumber. I know that all the hardware will be there, that the components will fit together, and that the end product will be handsome and practical. There's no running to the lumber yard in the middle of the job, trimming and tweaking, and no surprises once the final product is unveiled. I wish I could say that about all of the houses, decks, and other structures I've built.
When I finished building the addition on our house, and we started populating the new space with affordable, aesthetically innocuous furniture, my father-in-law helped me set up the IKEA bedroom suite.
Bo (Vietnamese for "Dad"), who put six kids through college by repairing and refinishing furniture, has a similar respect for IKEA, despite his livelihood hinging on desks and bureaus that are built for the ages.
"You can't make it no cheaper than this!" he said with admiration as we unpacked the veneered particle board.
We had two identical nightstands to put together, and although there were no challenges issued, the race was totally on.
I noticed that Bo's strategy was to scan the instructions, throw them aside, and then start slamming the thing together. It was pretty impressive that he didn't need to refer to the diagrams once in the process.
My technique was, and remains, the opposite of his. I will start at Step One, and, without reading ahead or peeking at the last page, perform each task as it is assigned. I hadn't thought about it this way before, but to me assembling a piece of IKEA furniture is something like reading a good book. There is a bit of work involved, but there's no real rush to complete the project. The joy of it comes from putting the pieces together, in ways that you often didn't expect, to reveal the ultimate work of art that is only realized after it has been processed by the reader.
And, in case you were wondering, the old man and I tied at the nightstand-building contest.
I am bound by a brother-in-lawly bond to post this video every time I mention, or see, the word "IKEA" on the internets. My bro-in-law is the shirtless one. He's also Cobra's godfather, which gives us extra incentive to stay alive.
*Statistic from a 2007 study conducted by Journal of my Ass (JOMA).