Phil Gyford


Friday 30 January 2004

PreviousIndexNext Whither Ikeaphobia?

I’ve seen a couple of places applauding ‘Ikeaphobia and its discontents’ by Adam Greenfield in which he describes anti-Ikea and anti-Starbucks rants as “nonsensensical prejudices”. While I agree with a few of his points, and dislike the ranters’ attitudes that such companies are simply evil, I feel like standing up a little for the ranters, or at least providing an alternate slant on their rants.

I largely agree with Greenfield about the fact Ikea’s furniture is generally affordable and well-designed. I’ve never worked out why the ranters object to this, other than a snobbish reaction to popularity. Why is it a problem that many people think “cheap” and “well-designed” are desirable attributes in furniture? If you don’t like these particular cheap and well-designed objects, feel free to buy your own more exclusive and slightly less cheap ones, and leave others to furnish their homes as they wish.

However, I’ve never shopped at Ikea because I have a different problem with it. My problem is with large stores surrounded by car parks squatting beyond city centres. I prefer walkable shopping centres and don’t wish to encourage blank out-of-town boxes. No doubt their products’ cheapness requires these locations, in which case we should be asking ourselves whether the increased traffic, the ugly warehouses in suburban areas, the disruption to the lives of local residents and the decline of urban centres is a worthwhile surcharge on our Billy bookcases. Apparently plenty of people think it’s a worthwhile price to pay.

Answering the ranters’ accusation that Ikea is making the world a blander place, Greenfield says, “If your life is mediocre, I promise you, Ingvar Kamprad didn’t make it that way. You did.” While the ranters point their fingers purely at companies, Greenfield is just as simplistic in pointing his at consumers; I can almost hear “there is no such thing as society”. If there is blame to apportion, it’s naive to assign it to only one party while ignoring the rest of society and the economy. It’s easy to blame someone and exonerate another, but life’s rarely so simple.

As for Starbucks, Greenfield is “generally quite satisfied” with the coffee and surroundings, and I’m pleased for him. Again, this is partly a matter of taste; just as some people prefer to listen to Top 40 radio stations or eat at chain restaurants, many prefer the Starbucks’ predictable surroundings. Greenfield almost agrees with criticism that the company crowds out less powerful competitors but I’m disappointed by his defence that coffee in general is better since the advent of Starbucks: this may be so, but can’t we still wish for something more varied?

He ignores the frequent criticism that Starbucks short-changes the developing world when purchasing its coffee, and one could well argue that corporations daily perform far worse deeds than this. Indeed, Greenfield berates the ranters’ tendency to target Nike, Ikea and Starbucks, vaguely “progressive” companies, over giants like ADM, General Dynamics and Monsanto. Sure, this is far from strictly logical but is it surprising? No. The former set are consumer-oriented companies and go out of their way to attract attention.

Like publicity-seeking film stars it’s only to be expected not all of this attention will be favourable. Just as reclusive stars are able to get away with all manner of infelicities, companies that barely register in the minds of consumers will attract less criticism. Sure, campaigners may know some are more wicked than others, but they can hardly be blamed for piggy-backing on the awareness consumer-oriented companies have created for themselves. Not to mention that it’s rather easier to boycott vendors of coffee or furniture than purveyors of wholesale seed corn or… whatever it is ADM and General Dynamics produce.

So, this wasn’t meant to be a disagreement with Greenfield, as I share much of his frustration with the ranters’ simplistic attitudes, but more a further exploration of the topic. I feel he does himself a disservice, merely inverting the ranters’ black and white world, rather than revealing highlights in its shadows. And such “I’m right, you’re wrong” arguments get us nowhere.


You're right. ; . )

Posted by Adam Greenfield on 30 January 2004, 8:01 pm | Link

I must admit that about 70% of our furniture comes from Ikea, and until I read this I was unaware that there *was* such a thing as Ikeaphobia. We got our stuff there for the reasons mentioned above -- it's cheap, it's sturdy and it's easy to get up the stairs -- and also because my mother-in-law is obsessed with the place and used to offer us lifts there on a regular basis.

However, I doubt I'll ever go there again. This is partly because mum-in-law no longer lives nearby, but also because shopping there is such a purgatorical experience. If you think the place looks ugly and depressing from the outside, Phil, just be glad you've never gone in. Oh, it all starts out well enough, as you bound up the stairway with vaguely Mondrianesque visions of geometric kitchen chairs and colourful textiles. But the atmosphere soon palls as you're forced to follow a predetermined path through ALL the store's departments before you can check out. From the nicely arranged furniture displays you descend (literally) into a vast hall with fairly random selections of kitchen and bathroom stuff, bedding, candles &c. By this time everyone's tired, kids are screaming and spouses are snapping at each other. Finally you reach the nadir: the flat-pack warehouse, where you struggle alone to get massive boxes off the shelves and stack them on a trolley that goes careening off if you so much as brush against it. Then you wait in a queue for up to an hour, wondering why you came, whether your 'need' for a bedside table was actually a vain, empty, transitory desire (St Francis got on without one, didn't he?), and, in fact, whether it's worth going on at all.

So, yes, cheap, well-designed furniture for the masses is a good idea; but why not offer the masses some measure of warmth and convenience as well? I don't have a problem with assembling the stuff myself, because it's obvious how flat-packing saves money. But what purpose does the forced march through the store serve? Why the depressing, soulless atmosphere, which ultimately makes the shop feel like a smug Wal-Mart? I get the impression that I'm not just being asked to buy furniture, I'm being asked to buy into some sort of philosophy; and just because you can make a good set of bookshelves doesn't mean you can tell me how to think.

Until recently, I could boast that I came from the only remaining state in the Union without a Starbucks (West Virginia), but that ended last Thanksgiving when they opened a shop in the Eastern Panhandle. Almost all my experience with Starbucks has been in London. My main problem with them is that they don't serve fairtrade coffee (I think Costa is the only big chain that does that, and then only with a surcharge), but I must disagree with Mr Greenfield about their quality. I used to work across the street from one and went there almost every morning. Right after 11 September (when they charged rescue workers for water), I decided to boycott them and went in search of alternatives. I found that -- at least as far as plain black coffee went -- the stuff from the local no-name sandwich shop was actually better, and was about one-fifth the price. I also find that Starbucks aren't particularly comfortable, the food is predictable and mediocre, and I can't help envying Greenfield for hearing Ella Fitzgerald and Sinatra there -- when I've gone it's usually Dido or Travis. (On the other hand, my husband reminds me that they're smoke-free.)

Anyway, I wonder if the impulses behind Ikeaphobia and Starbucks-phobia will eventually work in concert to create Tchibophobia. I hope not, because Tchibo is the only shop in the UK where I've ever managed to find a Bundt pan, and I'd hate to hear a word against them.

Posted by Laura Brown on 31 January 2004, 4:15 pm | Link

I live in the far northeast of the United States in Southern Maine. Starbucks moved in a few years with just one store and now there are I think 5 in this area. At the time I was working on a design of a coffee shop for a man who owned a couple coffee shops under his own control and roasting. He said told me that most of the small stand alone coffee shops were ultimately glad to have them because they brough more people into the world of coffee drinking. Starbucks coffee campaign helped the little guy too, because they increased the awareness of the beverage. I think Ikea is similar. They raise the awareness of good design and they make it affordable, by your having to put up with going to the store, getting the item off the shelf and lugging it home to assemble. I'd do that if it was the ony way i good afford something aesthetically pleasing. People need to decide if it's worth the savings. If not, then order through their catalog or online and have it shipped to your door. I'm just grateful that companies are now offering an alternative where someone can save quite a bit of money, by investing their own sweat equity, if they don't have the money.

Posted by Travis on 5 February 2004, 2:32 pm | Link

Small ex-industrial village in the South Wales valleys, no Starbucks, Ikea an eon away (though I shall admit to having travelled for that eon for a wardrobe or two...!), no Domino's Pizza, Not even in a flipping Supermarket on-line ordering delivery zone. Think I quite like it though...

Posted by Sarah on 7 February 2004, 4:50 pm | Link

I agree about going to IKEA - definitely to be avoided whenever possible. However, if you go often enough (!!) you'll find that most stores have "secret" shortcuts so that you don't have to go through every section. You might have to walk into a wardrobe to find them, though!

IKEA furniture is good "fake" stuff - it looks quite good, but the construction is often functional, though usually adequate enough. You can buy period looking chairs, but they're just held together with screws and brackets - obvious if you turn them upside down. Still, if it saves a lot of money is that really such a bad thing? You can refurnish your house several times over at IKEA for the cost of one complete set of really good furniture. The money you save can be spent on other things you like. When you get rich, then you can buy better stuff.

I don't approve of some of the things which IKEA has been accused of - child labour etc. I think they try to avoid this, but I'm sure it happens sometimes. They're not alone, however.
Also, where do they get their hardwood from? Rainforests? I think they try to be environmentally friendly, but maybe they don't always succeed.

Posted by dave on 8 February 2004, 11:48 am | Link

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