What's the Matter With IKEA: A Dialogue With Ellen Ruppel Shell

This week, I'll be having an email dialogue with Ellen Ruppel Shell, whose new book, "Cheap", argues that cheapness is often no bargain.

Dear Ellen,

You and I certainly share one thing in common:  we both hate IKEA furniture.  It is not much of an exaggeration to say that my current life's ambition is never again to spend four hours messing around with an allen wrench and seventeen feet of badly veneered particleboard.  I hate the way Ikea furniture looks, its tendency to fall apart, and most of all, the homogenezation of our national homes.  A visit to an Ikea warehouse brings home what progressives like, and libertarians hate, about Scandinavia:  it's the Kingdom of Lagom, where everyone has exactly the same, perfectly adequate, stuff.

As you point out in your book, Ikea furniture is not quite as adorably minimalist as its marketing implies.  Making a whole bunch of disposable furniture places certain stresses on natural resources, not all of which are renewable, or, arguably, even legal.

But despite my aesthetic, personal, and environmental aversion to Ikea furniture, I have to acknowledge that there is a lot to be said for really cheap, really disposable furniture.  Without it, household formation would be a lot more difficult, which is one of the reasons people used to live at home or in furnished rooms where the furniture was often uglier, flimsier, and even more uncomfortable than the most hideous Ikea creation.  I hate futons with a passion, but I'd rather sleep on one than the sagging iron bedstead that I had to share with a friend the summer I worked as a maid in a Catskills hotel.  Every night, we clung stuporously to the sides, but every night, we eventually lost our grip and plummeted together into the central furrow, waking ourselves up enough to crawl out and repeat the process.  This sounds very colorful now, and was already an anachronism when it happened, in the early 1990s.  But before super-cheap furniture, beds like this, and broken couches, and tables that shook and chairs that broke, were a standard feature of many households--especially low-income ones.

Disposable furniture also greatly enhances mobility.  Since I went to grad school in 1999, I've moved at least seven times.  My last two moves have required movers precisely because I have more "real" furniture--too much for me to shift by myself, or impose on friends.  Each time, the movers have cost me thousands.  Of course, as I've gotten older, I have less reason to move, and more reason to acquire substantial furniture.  But for people in school, or just starting their professional lives, keeping their permanent possessions down to a minimum makes it a lot easier to pick up and move to Paris for six months, or strike out for more hospitable labor markets.  Since many economists believe that labor mobility makes a substantial positive contribution to economic growth, this is worth considering as a benefit of the disposable lifestyle.  (I suppose one could argue it is also a cost to community formation . . . but America has long maintained a quite vibrant civic society in the face of unusually high labor mobility).

There's also the fact that disposable furniture lets us get rid of our decorating mistakes.  A flip through a book like James Lilek's Interior Desecrations provides a vivid reminder of just how much hideousness we might be living with, if we changed out our decor on the same schedule as, say, the Victorian middle class.  Grandmother's attic was a graveyard of furniture abominations with astonishing lasting power--I myself went off to my senior year of college with a Johnson-era dining set, upholstered in horrible brown printed vinyl fabric, including a chair skirt that some enterprising manufacturer had actually pleated for extra appallingness.  The world became a nobler place the day we finally tipped it into the landfill.   But had it not been for Ikea--and the broader trend towards cheaper, mass produced furniture--it would probably be gracing my dining room yet.  My mother endured a mid-Victorian oak pedestal dining table handed down from an aunt for almost forty years, hating it every day, but unable to bring herself to get rid of something with so much good wear left in it.

Of course, these days, you can sell your mistakes on Craigslist.  But unless it's a high-quality antique, used furniture fetches only a fraction of what was paid for it, even if it was expensive originally.  That's why people used to keep their furniture forever.  But it didn't mean they liked their frumpy, thirty-year-old furniture; they just lived with it.  And the resale value of used furniture may decline even further because people are increasingly worried about bedbugs--another horror of the "lasting furniture" era that we've largely forgotten about.   Bedbugs are on the rise in urban areas, at least in part because of changes in pesticide use, but also because of travel, and possibly because Craigslist has made it easier for bedbug-infested owners to sell their furniture.

So I'll close by saying that I think it's easy to romanticize a past in which goods were more durable.  Many of them weren't--we're under the illusion that furniture and homes were alwas just "built better" back then, because the houses and chairs we still have with us today are the ones solidly built enough not to collapse.  But some certainly were--and this had drawbacks as well as benefits.  Being surrounded by lovely furniture hand-crafted by dedicated artisans sounds lovely.  Living with Mom and Dad (or in a rooming house) until you're thirty, because you can't afford to set up house, not so much.

But you've thought a lot about these issues, so I know you'll have some ready answers for my objections.  I'm looking forward to them.