Thursday, December 2, 2010

In defense of IKEA

Full disclosure:  IKEA didn't give me shit for writing this, but they should have.  [Dear IKEA, I'll still take some free stuff ex post facto if you happen to be reading.]

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.


 The old set.  Totally '90s, right?


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.


The new dining room set.  It's like grownup furniture.

*** 

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).

31 comments:

  1. I agree with all your Ikea comments. My son's entire bedroom is from Ikea and I put it all together in a couple of days. My favorite thing about the manuals is their drawings of people. Happy. Sad. Bad backed. I especially laugh at the one that always says to have a buddy get in the way. I mean, help.

    My only hatred with Ikea is this one plastic screw with teeth that is flesh colored. It's a bitch to put in. It's plastic, so if you bang it too hard, it'll bend and break. If you hit it too soft, it will do nothing. So you find yourself using your hand as a flesh mallet, hoping that dear god, you can get through all 24 before suicide can be considered an alternative.

    The best thing about Ikea is that you can buy different pieces and cobble them together to make other stuff. There's a couple websites out there that have a bunch of guides to help turn Ikea furniture into Legos, basically.

    Also they have awesome meatballs in their stores. And meatballs is where it's at.

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  2. Next time you go to IKEA, bring a Swedish to English dictionary.

    I half expect they're customer insults in their obscure language.

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  3. Almost every room in my house has IKEA furniture, and we LOVE it. And unfortunately, we're now one of those families that would have to drive four tedious hours with four kids to get to the nearest IKEA. *Sigh* How I miss my IKEA and SmallLand.

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  4. The Babymomma and I vowed at least 10 years ago: no more Ikea furniture. Sure it looks nice, but it's sawdust covered with plastic, and just doesn't hold up.
    The main problem with making that vow stick however is that there are only a few other categories that grown-up furniture falls into: 1) huge, overstuffed couches and phony Colonial hutches designed for suburban Mediterranean villas 2) ultra-stylish tables, chairs and lamps made by Italian elves from solid diamond and 3) er, I can't think of anything else.
    It seems like all you can ever find is, for instance, a 30$ table lamp (crap) and a $1000 table lamp (fine if all you need in your apartment is a blanket on the floor and a lamp). We're not hipster enough to buy anything from Design Within Reach.
    We did find a place where we bought some cool dining room pieces- Room and Board. It looks like they've added a few more stores around the country now, but when we bought stuff they only had one or two stores so we shopped online. (We don't live anywhere near a big city anyway) We had it delivered and they were excellent.

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  5. I love IKEA, but after reading the Stieg Larsson trilogy, I'm IKEA'd out. I wonder if they paid him anything to devote at least 10% of the second book to descriptions of their store and furniture.

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  6. I've never gotten anything from Ikea. But I do feel quite proud of myself when I assemble a piece of furniture that comes in a box. "Men? Who needs men! Gimmie that screwdriver! Yeah, the tool too."

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  7. BetaDad, almost everything you write makes me laugh, so good job, lol.

    Anyway, I love IKEA, but at the point I am in my life I better love IKEA because that's what I can afford. Barely. And I'm with you: who wants to be stuck with the same furniture for a lifetime? I need to mix it up with NEW cheap, laminated particle board.

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  8. I had a whole comment in my head about how I never read really long blog posts, I just skim through the pictures. I know, ADHD at it's finest. Anyways, I read your whole post and loved it. Then I got to that video and I can't get the image of your scantily clad brother in law dry humping random objects out of my head. That and I'm pretty sure we saw his junk at least twice. For the love of God, man, stay alive.

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  9. tru dat! my ikea stuff lasted way longer than my high-end ethan allen stuff.

    and the meatballs are to die for!

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  10. Love Ikea. We still use a chest of drawers we bought shortly after we were married, eight years ago.

    As a stay at home mom that was foremorly an engineer,I just think it is down right cool that some one could design nice looking stuff to fit in all flat boxes. Efficiency at its best.

    P.S. Love the statistical comment!

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  11. My kids have Ikea beds that they assembled in their own apt.. pretty nice.. btw, I like your new dining room table!. Ikea sure has stepped up-... going w/the flow of dark woods like their competitors....My friend's dad who was an engineer never read the instructions either...How wrong could one go when putting together those plastic Little tykes playhouses?

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  12. I'm from that 8%. What is this I-K-E-A thing of which you all speak. We do not have such things here. Can you eat it?

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  13. Hmm, still not convinced. I live in an area where second-hand furniture comes really really cheap. Yes, it's Florida, what can I say? My current table and 5 chairs for the kitchen cost me a whopping $29.99. All I did was spray paint the chairs.

    I am overwhelmed when I go in their behemoth of a store. When I finally settle on something, I go to the rack, and look at that they are out of that item!!

    Don't even get me started on my boy's bunk bed that was missing one piece. ONE, which made the ladder unusable. I drove to the store, 2 hours round trip, and without a receipt they could do nothing for me. My ex-husband lost said receipt and I couldn't even pay for one part, I would have to buy a whole new bunk bed set. Thanks IKEA.

    Need to stop writing, still mad.

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  14. Humor runs in the family. Sam's Reigel's love for IKEA furniture could not be contained (and all with a sandwich in his hand)!

    Very slick video production. I also enjoyed his (and Blatt's) comedy website

    Very much guy humor. Made me laugh.

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  15. @Frank--Haha..."flesh mallet." I usually use the handle of a screwdriver, and administer sharp, but light whacks with it. I hadn't heard about the IKEA mashup stuff. Gotta check that out! Also--yes, meatballs.

    @PV--I suspect they are mostly insulting Norwegians. That's what Swedes do best, isn't it?

    @Jennifer--Man, I feel for you. We used to have to travel 2 hrs, and that was a brutal trek. You really have to have your stuff together to go on a shopping excursion like that. No room for error.

    @JJ--I agree with most of what you said. Except that there are a lot of IKEA products that are built with solid wood. There's a wide range of quality. I've built entire kitchens with their custom cabinets, and they are every bit as good as anything else I've seen. We too, have tried to find stuff at other places, and ran into the same problem you did--it's either cheesy-looking and expensive, or sleek and super-expensive. And usually the super-expensive stuff looks a lot like something you'd find at IKEA anyway. I'll check out Design Within Reach. Sounds promising. Hope they're still in business when this IKEA stuff wears out.

    @UnCheyned--I had no idea he did product placement! That's hilarious. Maybe the translator slipped that stuff in later in exchange for some cash or store credit.

    @OTO--Haha...screwdriver. Also: CHECK IT OUT, EVERYBODY--THE AUTHOR OF THE BLOG OF NOTE COMMENTED ON THIS POST!! WE ARE ALL NOW AWESOME BY ASSOCIATION!! HOW DO I TURN OFF CAPS LOCK?!

    @Marisa--Thanks! I hear you about the economic factor. And even if you could afford expensive stuff, is that really what you want to spend your money on?

    @ Michelle--Thanks for sticking it out to the end. You're a trouper! Sorry you had to see Sam's junk. It happens to a lot of people, if that makes you feel any better.

    @Patty Punker--Mmm...meatballs.

    @Lisa--We had our dining room table for 15 years or so, and it really showed no signs of wear, even after five moves. It's now going to my youngest sis-in-law.

    @KBF--Yeah, there's a lot of stuff there now that's pretty much indistinguishable from Pottery Barn or Crate&Barrel stuff, but costs half as much.

    @Vinny--Oh, you poor benighted soul. There must be an IKEA somewhere in the Caribbean where you can experience the magic?

    @Judi--Ooops. Sorry to have dredged up those painful memories. Now that I think about it, my wife had to go exchange a sink twice when she was 8 months pregnant with twins. But the store is only 10 minutes from home, so it wasn't that big of a deal. For an operation that huge, though, they have pretty good quality control and customer service, at least based on my experience.

    @David--Yeah, he's a funny dude. Always great fun as a traveling or dining companion. Unless you are trying to impress people with your own wit, in which case he is the worst guy to have around.

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  16. We live far, far from Ikea now and it makes me sad. *pause for sadness*

    But your post, and dear Lord help me, that video make me happy! *pause for happiness*

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  17. Love your new dining set! We just purchased a similar one, from IKEA no less, and absolutely love it! I wish we didn't live in podunk ville so I could buy more.

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  18. I bought a desk (table really) from IKEA in the mid 80s. It was $100. It's still in perfect condition and used everyday. It's still $100 at IKEA twenty-five years later. And there is no fake wood involved. That's pretty cool.

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  19. Ikea furniture...disturbing video of brother-in-law...what I'm most impressed about is the fact that you actually read the instructions when assembling something...I think you have just inarguably proven evolution...BRAVO!

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  20. A MAN reading the instructions, I am all astonishment! :)
    We LOVE IKEA, we go there quite often to have some Meatballs and then stroll through the maze of furniture and bit and pieces. Some of which are going into our old bus. The only thing I will say about IKEA is that they TRAP you in the store and it takes five hours to get out of it.

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  21. And I thought you were working on the leftover turkey!

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  22. Best post ever (featuring me). Thanks for the plug, B. Diddy!

    Hold on... what was that?

    Did he just say, "B. Diddy"?

    Why, what a clever nickname-that-I'm-certain-will-stick-and-become-a-fun-way-for-all-your-readers-to-address-you!

    You're welcome.

    -sam

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  23. I've got to show this post to my wife. She insists that Ikea makes crappy stuff. We don't own any of it. How I long for Sklabrdendraugeb day bed.

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  24. But the question is Do you speak Ikea?

    I swear one of these days I intend to wander through the store changing the signs with ones that I have written.

    Really, how many people will know the difference between a Skedazi and Farvenugen. Will they really get upset when they discover the Momzerblitzen is a fake name.

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  25. First, the video is freakin hilarious.

    Second, I love Ikea. Even if I ever get rich, I'll probably still shop there. The meatballs alone are worth the trip.

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  26. If I go over to your house someday, are we going to discover that we have all the same furniture? At this point, I'm pretty sure that virtually everything we own came from IKEA.

    And yes, assembling the pieces, with the precut pieces, and basic allen wrench technology, makes me feel like I'm a Master Craftsman when I'm done.

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  27. OMG, the video! Hilarious.
    Yup, definitely in the 90%, myself. Our house has been described our house as 'a mini IKEA catalog', and I couldn't be prouder:) Although I agree with those who complain about the quality of some items (bookshelves, cabinets).
    And the day my girls grew too tall for the play area at our local store, (the 'ballroom') - I wanted to cry...
    Folksta

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  28. I seem to fend off most IKEA critics with the go-to phrase: "You get what you pay for... bitch." Yea, I added in the bitch part. And where else can I get a friggin hot dog, cinnamon roll, and ice cream cone for like $1 while my wife shops till she drops?? NOWHERE. Case closed Beta Dad, we win... the critics lose.

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  29. haha love this. I love ikea, I'm not afraid to admit it. :)

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  30. The closest Ikea to me is 5 hours away.

    This causes my soul more pain than you can imagine.

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  31. 1. Plz. How may I subscribe to JOMA?
    2. You clearly are a Lego fan.
    3. IKEA rocks. The author of the Girl with Dragon tattoo clearly thought so. And if IKEA furniture is good enough for Lisbeth, it is cool enough for anybody!
    4. The set looks very sophisticated. Absolutely not like dorm furniture. Ha.

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