My tea cup draws nearer

It’s 10:59am on a Sunday. As I open the car door and step onto the tarmac of the car park, hundreds of other doors followed by twice as many legs perform the same task in almost exact synchronisation. 11am arrives and the crowd of people who’ve emerged from their cars begins to swarm towards the large blue and yellow building that is the destination for this morning’s pilgrimage. I’m reminded of the scene in Night of the Living Dead where all the mindless zombies flock instinctively to the shopping mall. Consumer automatons until the very end. Today (and not for the first time) I’m one of those zombies.

According to the thirty foot tall sign above the door, the deity we’ve all come to worship this Sunday goes by the name of IKEA.

By the time I’ve collected my complimentary pencil and disposable tape measure at the door I’ve already slipped into the aloof designer mindset. What am I doing here again? Why do I sully my weekend like this? I deserve better! This is all mass produced crap! I’m an Architect! I’ve sat on Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair in the Barcelona Pavillion for pity’s sake! I’ve reclined on Corbusier’s recliner in the Villa Savoye for crying out loud! – splutter, splutter, et cetera, et cetera…

If, like me, your profession means you consider yourself a designer of some description, then I know that you’ll have gone through the same thought process when faced with the prospect of shopping in Ikea. I also know that, like me, you were getting worked up over nothing.

If we were to keep up this pompous behaviour, you and I could both audition for the part of Van den Puup in IKEA’s brilliant advertising campaign Elite Designers Against IKEA.

We are the Elite Designers. We design profound and beautiful furniture for those with wealth and taste. Which is why IKEA makes us furious livid and angry. Do their designs live, breathe and growl? Are they born from tears of pain? Do they gently touch the bottom of the human soul? Pah! Of course not, no more than weeds can attract a bee. The big blue place is odious, its affordable design is sickeningly shallow and we loathe it even more than we loathe football. Please join us in our unqualified hatred.

If you haven’t seen the TV commercials, visit the web site and take a look at the movies – they’re very, very funny.

We needn’t worry though, someone has already started to prepare for the role. This month’s Icon magazine contains an interview with Job Smeets of Studio Job in Antwerp.

Smeets explains his theory that at the beginning of industrial mass design there was a social urge to supply households with modern, functional goods to make them more comfortable. But now he says that industrial production is more driven by commercial concerns,

“It’s why I hate IKEA. They say that they’re doing a social thing by giving the opportunity for everybody to have good design in their home but they’ve transformed that now so that every time you buy a new chair you put the old one outside.”

I wonder, has it ever been any different? All chairs get put outside eventually, does the time frame really matter? A shorter life span means more chairs, but if the argument is simply about the number of chairs in the world it’s far too late to be worrying about that now. We could have had a complete moratorium on chair design 50 years ago and there would still be enough designs to go round. Yet still the latest graduates and seasoned designers turn out their new interpretation of the act of sitting every year.

IKEA is a part of (as opposed to sole cause of) a changing field of materials, production techniques and craftmanship. How many of your friends are carpenters or cabinet makers, upholsterers or metal workers? How do you compare mass cultivated softwood from a sustainable source used to make furniture with a short life span, against more durable hardwood furniture whose source is more heavily impacted by deforestation? I suspect that the comparison is futile and a balance between the two is the answer. I’ve always thought that sustainability is about the balance between the durable and the perishable, one supporting the other and visa versa. Does the easy-come, easy-go attitude we have with towards our furniture today give us the freedom to invest more in the durable infrastructure of our lives?

Here’s Martin Pawley in the AJ on December 9th last year, talking about the demise of his Mies van der Rohe designed MR chairs:

As to durability, 40 years of not very arduous use has almost entirely struck at the canework – whether the leather equivalent would have stood up better is hard to say, as is the cruel question of how much worse would the performance of a couple of tonnes of MDF armchair have been? All of which leads me back to the central fact, which is that these MR chairs – rocket science in the 1920s – have now become liabilities. Too much Ikea has flowed under the bridge to make chairs like these viable again.

It’s time for them to go outside. He can’t resist aiming his crosshairs at Ikea, but at least he recognises that it’s too early to tell what the fate of our MDF filled world will be. Who knows how long it will last? It’s pretty durable stuff. I have a vision of the future that is partly shaped by my favourite graphic from the TV version of Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It shows the elements that make up a specially constructed designer planet and works its way from the inner core to the outer crust until finally reaching a surface made entirely of meringue. In my vision it’s covered in MDF.

Pencil and tape measure in hand I negotiate the route past all the carefully laid out micro-worlds. The collections of mock living rooms and kitchens, the perversely public bathrooms and bedrooms. Come the revolution you’ll find me here, living out a perfectly preserved slice of 21st century domesticity, shielded from the wilderness outside by the comforts of a faux sheepskin thrown over a leather chaise longue. The walls will be chocolate brown and there will be an endless supply of candles that float in a bowl of water.

Somewhere near the middle, as we pass the coffee tables, I begin to wish I was at home having a nice cup of tea.

There are no prizes for guessing where I bought the cup in the above picture. It’s my favourite Ikea purchase to date. This is actually its second incarnation, the first one – purchased in orange to match the shirt I happened to be wearing that day – got smashed and had to be replaced. Despite having only been carrying my tea for a couple of weeks, its character has already blossomed through the way it forces me to consider the actions involved in drinking tea. It fits snuggly in my hand (both in the direction shown and rotated through 90 degrees), it fits in the dishwasher better without a handle to get in the way and it maintains an intimate relationship between me on the outside and the tea on the inside, because – and this is a feature I hadn’t forseen – to begin with it’s just too damn hot to pick up. The result? A reminder to be patient, slow down and think about what I’m doing. The character frozen in the actions that formed it, in turn, form my actions and character. I think we’ve talked about this before.

We escape unharmed. Back in the car, in an effort to block out the Barney songs my daughter has demanded we play, Sarah and I talk about what life would be like without Ikea.

“It’s no wonder Ikea is so popular, there’s nowhere else to get the sort of contemporary furniture I like without spending Habitat-like prices, or worse.” she says. It’s a fair point, we’ve all heard the ‘design for the masses’ mantra. “But,” I quickly reply before Barney launches into his next number, “it’s a two way thing. Shopping at Ikea has also formed your taste for contemporary furniture over the last few years. We’re trapped in a circle.”

Trapped in a circle created by Ikea cornering the market. Circles with corners? That doesn’t sound too healthy does it? Is this what really upsets people about Ikea, the homogeneity of their furniture tastes? But if this is so, how can I talk so enthusiastically about a tea cup and then begrudge everyone else owning one too? Besides, what does it matter if all our houses look the same inside? I’ll never get to see it anyway; you only exist to me because you have a blog and I can subscribe to your newsfeed.

I put my foot down and slip into the traffic of the anti-intellectual M6 motorway. My tea cup draws nearer.


Throughout the last few weeks I’ve been awash in the blogging zeitgeist. Every time I sat down to make some notes on this topic another web site delivered a new series of links and another magazine opened on a page about Ikea. One of the main offenders was the excellent thingsmagazine.com; its best link being the article by Adam Greenfield, ‘Ikeaphobia and its discontents’. Have a read, he does a good job of putting things in perspective.

Elsewhere, just as I was beginning to make peace with my inner Van den Puup, landliving.com posted an article designed to swing all the architects back to the dark side.

Ikea is at it again. Knocking down the past to build a big-box emporium to hock their mass produced modern design wares. Here is a company that takes advantage of their Scandinavian design heritage to sell inexpensive, yet “well designed” products to the masses. But, in the process, they have now displayed two blatant instances of their disregard for design legacy. First, they defaced a Marcel Breuer building in New Haven, Connecticut. Now the wrecking ball has turned to Civil War era structures in Brooklyn.

You’ll note that they couldn’t bring themselves to write well designed without making it seem like it left a bad taste in their mouth.

Finally, just before I finished tonight, ArchNewsNow delivered a link to a story about some students recycling old furniture headed for the landfill site: Furniture reborn: Haworth, students explore recycling.

The table supporting the tea cup in the pictures is part of a 1960’s solid beech Ercol set (with matching chairs) that I bought on eBay. It’s all about balance you see?

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