Ikea: Scourge of the Soul

Stories about IKEA keep coming across my desk, suggesting that it’s an odd sort of cultural lightning rod. Just today I saw a hilarious story in the LA Times: “Beijing loves IKEA — but not for shopping.”

Two visitors to Beijing's IKEA enjoy a nap on a display sofa. (David Pierson / Los Angeles Times)

Two visitors to Beijing's IKEA enjoy a nap on a display sofa. (David Pierson / Los Angeles Times)

Visitors can’t seem to resist novelties most Americans take for granted, such as free soda refills and ample seating. They also like the laid-back staffers who don’t mind when a child jumps on a couch.

Purchasing anything at Yi Jia, as the store is called here, can seem like an afterthought.

“It’s the only big store in Beijing where a security guard doesn’t stop you from taking a picture,” said Jing Bo, 30, who was looking for promising backdrops for a photograph of his girlfriend.

It’s actually more like a theme park than a store:

Bai mapped out a five-hour outing. First, they had hot dogs and soft ice cream cones at noon. Then they enjoyed a long rest lounging on the beds. Bai kicked off her sandals and sprawled out on a Tromso bunk bed. The 36-year-old homemaker made herself comfortable and even answered passing shoppers’ questions about the quality of the mattress….

After that, Bai and her family took group pictures. By 5 p.m., it was time for another meal, so they headed to the cafeteria and ate braised mushrooms with rice.

Another interesting story about IKEA is actually a book review of Ellen Ruppel Shell’s new book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. The review, in salon.com, has this to say:

Shell’s chapter on IKEA is the most gently damning in the book…. But Shell also points out the hypocrisy inherent in IKEA’s philosophy. As a clever IKEA commercial, directed by Spike Jonze, points out, an old lamp (or bookcase or table) doesn’t have feelings; any piece of furniture can and should be replaced at any time. The ad, and the whole IKEA approach, suggests that objects have no lasting meaning or value. They’re disposable; when we tire of them, we should just throw them out.

From there we go into an interesting discussion about what that means:

“Objects can be designed to low price,” [Shell] writes, “but they cannot be crafted to low price.” But if we stop valuing — and buying — craftsmanship, the very idea of making something with care and expertise is destined to die, and something of us as human beings will die along with it: “A bricklayer or carpenter or teacher, a musician or salesperson, a writer of computer code — any and all can be craftsmen. Craftsmanship cements a relationship between buyer and seller, worker and employer, and expects something of both. It is about caring about the work and its application. It is what distinguishes the work of humans from the work of machines, and it is everything that IKEA and other discounters are not.”

I’d read something like that a few years back from a guy named Matthew Crawford, who has a new book out called Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. A couple years before his book came out, Crawford published a remarkable essay with the same title in a journal called The New Atlantis.

Crawford is a strange hybrid of high-powered intellectual and working tradesman, one of the very few PhDs from the University of Chicago able to fix a motorcycle. So he has some interesting things to say. For example, “craftsmanship might be defined simply as the desire to do something well, for its own sake.”

He has to be right about that. I just finished painting my front door, and I took pains to do a good job. Not because everyone would judge me by the job I did, but because everyone is going to look at the door, and I didn’t want my own front door to look like crap.

That leads to a second point about craftsmanship: part of the desire to do something well is because the object is expected to last–and that leads to a third point:

Because craftsmanship refers to objective standards that do not issue from the self and its desires, it poses a challenge to the ethic of consumerism, as the sociologist Richard Sennett has recently argued. The craftsman is proud of what he has made, and cherishes it, while the consumer discards things that are perfectly serviceable in his restless pursuit of the new.

Ironically, one of the biggest problems large corporations face when trying to make their supply chains more sustainable is provenance — sourcing the raw materials and assembly and logistics just to account for the environmental and social impact of the products they produce.

IKEA is so big, it’s hard to know where the wood it uses comes from (From the Salon article: IKEA is the third-largest consumer of wood in the world and uses timber that comes mostly from Eastern Europe and the Russian Far East, where, Shell points out, “wages are low, large wooded regions remote, and according to the World Bank, half of all logging is illegal.”)

This, then, is the high cost of discount culture Shell is writing about (and Crawford too, who argues that in a move away from craftsmanship, both blue collar and white collar work has been devalued ).

Without knowing about the products you buy and the food you eat, you end up with these nagging problems:

Those all-you-can-eat Red Lobster shrimps may very well have come from massive shrimp-farming spreads in Thailand, where they’ve been plumped up with antibiotics and possibly tended by maltreated migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam. The made-in-China toy train you bought your kid a few Christmases ago may have been sprayed with lead paint — and the spraying itself may have been done by a child laborer, without the benefit of a protective mask.

So how do you reel in all that madness? One way is craftsmanship. A craftsman (or woman) can source his materials, and ought to take pride in what he has created — he should have built it to last.

I like that idea. Buy food that’s local, grown from a farmer you know.Buy things that are well made and will last. And if you go to IKEA, do it the Chinese way: by all means take pictures, and a nap on the sofa. But just don’t buy very much.

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