Megan, who’s started a dialogue with Ellen Ruppel Shell (author of the new book Cheap), has some ruminations on the infamous maker of shelves with short shelf lives. Lots to digest, including some deee-lightful ancedotes from the bad old days of furniture so durable you seemed to be stuck with it — as it went bad — forever. Here’s the part I think might spur the most discussion:
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).
Do note this is only one part of Megan’s broader argument, for good or for ill. I think my reaction is this: I, too, have enjoyed the wares of the great Swedish fürnisher. But not everything IKEA makes is quite as junk-tastic as those infamous particle board bookshelves, or at least not in the same way. I’m thinking of a few chairs and a couch that figured into my living space for some time. There were also some medicine (i.e. liquor) cabinets that probably did very little damage to the natural world. It’s true that these items weren’t of a quality high enough to make you feel guilty about throwing them out, but it’s also true that I did hang onto the chairs, for instance, quite shamelessly until I was able to acquire some dinner-table seats worthy of the name. It might be inevitable that some IKEA items put a painful dent in artisan-produced items of the same sort. But it seems to me IKEA can never kill off craftsmanship — for the enduring reasons of supply and demand that Matt Crawford hints at in his book. People will make good things, things so good that people will want them. Unless, of course, the arts and sciences of furniture-making are lost. But if that happens, it’s not because IKEA made us stupid; we’d have done that to ourselves. The market can make fine handcrafted goods harder to get and more expensive, I suppose, but there are still plenty of antiques shops subject to market pressure which are filled to the rafters with great stuff (like the chairs I got to replace those IKEA wobblies!) — and if you set out to make your own chair, with a minimum of skills aesthetic and technical, you just might end up with something about as beautiful and functional as the IKEA alternative.