By all accounts, Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad was my kind of guy: may he rest in peace (on an Askvoll standard double). Like me, he was a skinflint. For a multibillionaire to buy his clothes at flea markets and select his groceries from supermarket quick-sale shelves is charming. About his retail wares, I’m more ambivalent. Look, hats off to Ingvar for making halfway-attractive furniture available to the hoi polloi at affordable prices. Yet every time I’ve succumbed to the allure of a cheap-and-cheerful Ikea design, I’ve ended up hating it.
Part of the problem is the look. Cheap-and-cheerful is not my bag. I’m more into cheap-and-morose. In a profile a while ago, a journalist characterised my home as freighted with ‘grandma furniture’. Further, that cut-rate Scandi look is now so recognisable that you might as well leave the Ikea price tags dangling off the chairs. I’d rather my house look uniquely crap than exactly like the house next door. But the main reason I came to hate Ikea-anything is that, sooner or later, it falls apart.
Flat-pack furniture is not meant to last. It has taken me too long to understand that flimsiness is part of its appeal. Because when the door of a cabinet starts to sag off plumb and the laminate is curling off its corner, that means you get to buy another one. So long as they can always find another sucker, manufacturers are obviously motivated to sell products that break or degrade. The best thing that ever happened to cookware companies, for example, was the non-stick surface. A solid set of stainless-steel pots and pans will last a lifetime — or, should you inherit ‘grandma cookware’ from an elderly relative, a lifetime after that. Cast iron can last hundreds of years. Such stunning durability is a commercial catastrophe. You sell one complete set of your line to a pair of newlyweds, and even if they adore your products — or especially then — they never buy your wares again. Retailers don’t make money on customer satisfaction. They make money on customer dissatisfaction.
Thus, non-stick was a godsend. Regardless of how vociferously it is marketed as heavy-duty, it wears out, and it wears out fast. Occasional stainless-steel baking pans are making a re-appearance (I suggest you buy them up quick). Stainless steel doesn’t rust, requires no special utensils, withstands extremely high heat and will stoically submit to any abrasive cleanser or scouring pad you care to assault it with. But we have now gone through a good 15- to 20-year period during which this material virtually disappeared from cookery outlets. Stainless steel is too robust and works too well.
If a corruptible cooking surface makes sense from a capitalist perspective, it would seem to make less sense from a consumer one. After realising that the calories saved are minimal (since non-stick still only functions properly with a little oil), that the savings on elbow grease also rapidly decline as the coating flecks off, and that this shedding of you-don’t-want-to-know-what is toxic, if not outright carcinogenic, why haven’t more customers rebelled?
Because they like having to buy another frying pan. Acquisition has become a standard form of entertainment. Perhaps the best definition of the middle class is people who are grateful to run out of shampoo. Needing a consumer good, a far superior experience to merely wanting it, presents the delightful prospect of both purposive activity and one of the few quests in this life that can almost certainly be fulfilled. Indeed, in an era of mass production and inexpensive imports from China, incessant shopping is a form of amusement widely available even to Westerners on low incomes. It stands to reason, then, that durable products are not merely a catastrophe for manufacturing, but for the people who buy them. Sturdy, well-made objects threaten our wellbeing. Staunchly refusing to break or decay, they ruin our good time. They are the anti-shopping.
Take towels. Good quality towels last for decades. Why do so many people persist in purchasing piles of thin discount towels bound to rip and shred? Given that one set of excellent towels will cost less than a endless parade of sad ones, opting for the latter might seem to be a manifestation of self-destructively short-term thinking. It is not. It represents long-term thinking. Whether consciously or instinctively, the purchase of rubbish towels deliberately plants in a consumer’s future the happy occasion of having to replace them.
Thus while customers can generally tell at a glance that Ikea furnishings are not destined to be lifetime investments, much less heirlooms handed down, their glaringly temporary nature is a large part of their attraction. You are not stuck with this stuff. You can move house and leave it behind. Even before the flat-pack is through the checkout, somewhere in the back of the average Ikea customer’s mind is the image of that Jokkmokk pine table clattered in the front garden with a broken leg waiting for the council’s Bulky Waste Pickup. Both economically and aesthetically, then, even furniture purchase, once a major commitment, amounts to a small decision, and a provisional one.
All this buying and chucking would seem rather harmless fun, except that Sky News was repeating on its usual infinite loop after Kamprad’s death on Sunday that Ikea now uses a full 1 per cent of the world’s annual wood production. Writ large, the environmental consequences of acquisition-as-entertainment are substantial.
So give me my ‘grandma furniture’ any day. Our walnut dining table is more than 200 years old. It is thereby recycled. It’s hand-hewn and funky, and no one else in London has one just like it. I have owned that table for nearly 20 years, and you’d think that I’d have tired of it by now. But something happens when you hold on to things: rather than weary of them, you grow more attached. Not unlike some husbands, come to think of it.