12 November 2008

Yeah, my furniture have names.

(Furniture have names? Has names? Whatever...)

McArdle and her commenters provide fertilizer for today's vintage of my mind grapes:
I just assembled a pair of boxes from Ikea for putting paperwork in. Like all Ikea products, they are superficially fetching, nearly impossible to assemble correctly without taking them apart at least once, and too flimsy to survive more than one household move. My life's ambition is to never again put together an Ikea product. I have not yet reached that halcyon plane of existence, and perhaps never will. And so I am doomed to ask myself the same question every time I pull out one of those wordless instruction manuals: how did nature, or nature's God, manage to produce an entire nation full of industrious people who assess the value of their own time at $0?
(1) Is putting together Ikea furniture really that difficult? Surveying my apartment I have one dozen pieces of Ikeaware. I've probably assembled another dozen or so in my lifetime. I've put one shelf on one bookcase backwards, exposing a bit of unadorned particleboard but causing no structural flaws. Other than that there were no errors. Everything has survived moving just fine. I suppose there must be people out there that have trouble with assembly, but I just have a hard time believing it's that hard. (Actually, I would lay even money that my father would have trouble with Ikea. Sorry, Dad, but there it is. That's just not your strong suit.) Pwho People who struggle with furniture assembly probably did not get enough Legos from their parents. Which brings me to ...

(1a) Ikea is sort of like adult Legos. They're both Scandinavian, they both trademarked their names in all caps (screw it, I'm not adopting that convention), their product lines are both defined by the required assembly, both come with wordless instruction manuals with iconic line drawings, both sets of products can be easily re-purposed to other uses, each company first started selling it's most popular line within a year of each other* and the thrill of putting them together can be as satisfying as using them, at least to the artifactually inclined like myself. Even Special Lady Friend, who is not at all a maker, loves to assemble Ikea goods, so it's not just engineers.

* Ikea first sold furniture in 1948, Lego first sold plastic bricks in '49.

(2) Most people do value their leisure time too cheaply, but you don't have to value it at $0 to buy at Ikea. I could have probably gotten a similar entertainment center to my Ikea model at another store for $50 more and saved myself 15 minutes of assembly. Is my time worth $12.50/hr? Maybe, maybe not. (Okay, I'm a grad student, so the answer is "not.") But we're within the realm of possibility here whereas $0 is just a bad estimate. [ How embarrassing. This is what happens when I blog while falling asleep.] I feel confident that my time is worth more than $0 but less than the $200/hr that I saved.

(2b) A lot of commenters jumped in to say that since most people can't work overtime arbitrarily they can't monetize their leisure time in the short run, so it really is worth $0. This is spurious. All that proves is that an extra hour of your labor is not worth $X/hr to your employer. It says nothing about what it is worth to you. To take time out of your leisure period and assemble furniture you must not do something else which may be working for overtime wages but is probably watching TV. If you think this TV time you are spending on Ikea construction has no utility to you because you can't get your boss to pay for it then I will come to your house and pay you $1/hr to do nothing. You must stay awake and sit blindfolded and quiet, with no conversation, no music, no reading, no TV. If you refuse the offer then your time must be worth more than $1 regardless of whether you can get your employer to compensate you for it.

(3) Writes Dave, "I hate, hate, hate, hate IKEA and all it stands for." What does Ikea stand for? Really? What is the semantic connotation of Ikea? I guess you could say it "stands for" low priced home furnishings, but does carving out a market niche result in deeper philosophical significance? In that case, does Netflix "stand for" agoraphobic cinephilia? Maybe the Chuck Klostermans or PJ ORourkes or David Brooks or Tom Friedmans of the world can enlighten me to the metaphorical significance of Ikea? Maybe I'm missing something. I get the feeling though, Ikea only stands for something in the way that the Washington Monument is a testament to enduring power of the dead white patriarchy's infatuation with their phalli — that is, only in the mind of liberal arts undergrads who are trying too hard to come up with paper topics.

Update: Maybe Dave is referring to this convoluted, and frankly kind of funny, corporate structure of Ikea in which their revenue is channeled around the world through various holding companies and then into a non-profit in order to screw with the tax man? I think that's not what he had in mind, but it is worth reading. If you had told me Blackwater or Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton or U2 was set up this way I wouldn't be surprised. But sweet, seemingly progressive, environmentally-friendly Ikea? The world's largest charitable organization got so big by owning a furniture store and exists largely as a tax shelter? Ingvar Kamprad has got to have big brass ones if he set up such a Bond villain-esque scheme.

Update II: Kampard was a Nazi. Maybe this is what Dave refers to? (It certainly bolsters my Kampard-as-Bond-villain thesis. (Yes, I have Bond on the mind. I've already got my Quantum of Solace tickets for the weekend.)) Even so, does this change the semantics of the company he founded? I'm inclined to say no, mostly because that way I can avoid having to also conclude that America currently "stands for" slavery because it's founders once did. The United States, like Ikea, may be tainted by the association, but does this change the current philosophical nature of their existence? Does Dave mean that Ikea symbolizes all companies founded by Nazis? Did Ikea have some sort of BMW-like involvement whereby they used slave labor to build cheap coffee tables?


  1. If you saved $50 with 15 minutes of labour, that time was worth $200/hour, not $12.50

  2. How embarrassing. I really need to not write these late night. Thanks for pointing that out.

  3. The one thing I find fascinating about Ikea furniture is how, about every third piece I put together, I find those Scandinavians have have invented yet another type of hidden-joint hardware. I have always wondered how much of GDP in Scandinavia is consumed trying to come up with the next, most perfect, bit of joining technology.

  4. I don't know what you mean by "maker," but I do love to put together IKEA furniture :)