According to allegations in a new book, Ikea’s founder Ingvar Kamprad has not been entirely truthful about his personal history with the Sweedish Nazi Party during the Second World War. If these allegations are true, he’d be in good company – Henry Ford was an avid fan of the Furher, IBM’s machines helped organized the holocaust and even the Pope got sucked into the Hitler Youth. Kamprad has admitted some of this in the past, according to the new book, his involvement went a fair bit deeper than he’d claimed. Holding a position within the Sweedish Socialist Union (SSS, the main fascist group at the time), he actively recruited members and became the subject of intelligence files, one of the book’s main sources.

Hearing this news, I figured it about time to dust-off my new Ikea Catalogue, which arrived last week in the mail. I haven’t been in an Ikea for years – my furniture is mostly home-built or scavenged. Having spent my share of time looking at junk heaps of furniture, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what won’t last, and Ikea’s goods rarely do. Looking at the glossy catalogue, though, I’m reminded that it isn’t about the furniture. Shopping at Ikea means buying into a lifestyle and identity. Both the catalogue and the store are cleverly set up with scenes of Ikea homes, filled to the last detail with Ikea goods. These images of perfect homes, crafted by designers, are there to convey how easy it is to purchase your own without ever leaving the store.

Ikea’s business model is one of endless reproduction. Ikeas exist across the globe, nearly identical stores, with nearly identical products. This creates an enormous economy of scale like other corporate chain behemoths (McDonalds, Wal-Mart etc) where they can bulk-buy on a planetary level while only effectively managing one (endlessly reproduced) store. Competing with chains like this is an uphill battle, but that only strengthens their appeal as the ultimate default home-store.

This endless reproduction is a part of the ideology of Ikea. Anything in your home can be instantly bought or replaced with a short car ride. Perfect homes which used to take lifetimes to assemble can now be bought in a single visit. Individuality and creativity can be expressed with one’s choice of printed patterns or styling on essentially identical furniture.

Ikea’s designs are incredibly simple. They use mostly low-quality materials like laminated particle-board, moulded plastics and stamped metals. This helps keep costs down and makes it incredibly easy to mass-produce them for a world of Ikea outlets. Having your customers assemble things themselves cuts costs too. What suffers is the furniture itself. Using particleboard and hex-screws makes most kinds of jointing impossible. Over time, especially if holding heavy loads or exposed to water, it can sag, warp and even crumble. Many kinds are toxic, and Ikea’s been in trouble formaldehyde emissions from their wood in the past, though they now claim to use less harmful glues and binding agents. For this kind of furniture, there’s little long-term potential – it can’t be repaired or refinished, and almost certainly will never end up in an antique store.

There are, of course, a few solid spruce items and others available at the higher end of the price range, but even for $500, you’ll only get a pine dining table, though it might come stained or veneered to look like a more interesting hardwood.

The furniture which fills today’s antique stores represents what was possible with hand tools and natural finishes, and though many of these pieces are over a century old, they’ll all likely outlast most of what’s bought at Ikea today. Buying better furniture costs a fair bit more, but lasts decades or centuries instead of years. It’s only because our grandparents built and bought better tables, chair and cabinets that we have such cheap, beautiful alternatives today.

Ikea is hardly alone in using low-quality materials and methods. The field of carpentry is suffering heavily today, and Ikea’s played no mall role in that. The cheap and easy availability of factory cut/drilled/milled furniture has pummelled skilled trades. Added to that, the global wood market has logged itself out of cheap supplies of nearly everything but farmed pine. Manufactured woods like plywood and particleboard were supposed to fix this, allowing us to chip trees which would never be economically viable for logging, but instead they’ve just extended the demand for clearcut lumber.

For those of us who can’t afford to furnish a home with newly carved hardwood or pristine antiques, there’s a lot of other options. Furniture which last for decades or centuries can be passed on in many ways – through families, friends, stores (antique, thrift etc), Freecycle, Craigslist and anywhere garbage is heaped. Even stained and damaged pieces can be repaired or rebuilt into something that suits your home. You can try your hand at making your own, or improvise with old boards and milk crates until something better comes along, or you’ve saved up enough to purchase something from Mennonite country. Having cheap, high-quality used furniture available tomorrow means growing, building and buying them today.

Is today’s Ikea “fascist”? I’m not sure that it would qualify any more than Wal-Mart or Starbucks. Today’s authoritarianism is far more subtle, but just as technocratic. Though it still imposes incredible amounts of control and uniformity, corporate plutocracies like ours are based on a pervasive image of freedom and luxury. Our rulers don’t need to march troops down Main St. to make their point – thick glossy catalogues in all of our mailboxes are just as effective.

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