Would IKEA be the utopia of 20th century modernism? Is it the populist achievement of revolutionary Bauhaus design, the architecture industrialization of Mies Van der Rohe, and the physical embodiment of Mondrian minimalism? At first glance, or from some distant academic watch tower it would appear so. IKEA would also seem to be an internationalist victory of sorts. The Swedish behemoth offers sleek design, at cheap prices, and nearly everyone goes there at some point to either buy furnishings for a dorm room, a first apartment, a baby’s room, or for some of us a seemingly lifetime of bookshelves and dressers.
This summer I visited Weimar Germany, where my main tourist goals were to see the Goethe and Schiller homes. Still, having taken a great Bauhaus class at MoMA in 2005, my friends and I visited the Bauhaus museum, which was the site of the original Bauhaus school and studios. The Bauhaus is interesting as it was really the combination of industrial means, towards high art, for the purpose of providing design for all of society. It moved away from its original arts and crafts ideas to do this, and produced some of the most recognizable furniture and architecture that we associate with the 20th century. The museum was interesting in both its contrast to Goethe’s romanticism, and its large picture similarities. That is Goethe was a singular artist and scientist, but was a populist in many ways. Bauhaus did the same, but for a new age in which individualism was being replaced by group efforts politically, such as communism, and consumer industrialization such as cars. The Bauhaus artists were futurists as much as modernists, in that they were predicting a future of modularity, simplicity and raw form. How nice it would be to see them as the prophets of this institution, IKEA, which so many of us use?
I believe however that IKEA representatives one of two options where the Bauhaus prophecy is concerned. In the first IKEA is the future that the Bauhaus had predicted and influenced, and it manages to fill me with emptiness and anxiety, or this is not at all what the Bauhaus had actually wanted, and I would therefore be drinking schnapps with Walter Gropius and complaining of long days shopping, and weekends with Allen wrenches.
My dislike for IKEA comes with a certain amount of both guilt and plain old self doubt. After all I should be happy for IKEA and all of the shoppers who have filled their homes with those products. The stuff looks nice and it’s cheap. The problem for me is that it sucks the creativity of choosing a living place, creating instead a delusion. We feel that we are going to IKEA, which is a gigantic warehouse, and can choose the furniture that is right for us. In fact though, everyone who is even a little bit like us will buy many of the same things. We have friends with the same pieces we have. My daughter’s bed is the same as her friend’s bed. As Pete Seeger laminated in his song about suburbanization called “Little Boxes”, he sings “they all look just the same”.
The possibility that this is not what the Bauhaus envisioned is also very convincing. The need to assemble cheap particle board for hours is not the same as mass producing a Bauhaus chair and selling them as a complete chair. Another key difference to me is the IKEA inclusive look, which I do not relate to Bauhaus. That is, people buy all of their furniture from one store, so the styles are basically all the same, even though the designs are called something different. Bauhaus and other twentieth century minimalism stressed repeatability and simplicity, but every artist had a unique interpretation of what that was. Mondrian and Malevich were geometrical but nothing alike, as are Eames chairs and Wassily chairs.
This all may be me again putting off IKEA assembly, while my wife slaves away at them. It might also be that I am a snob, and would like to buy more expensive furniture. I don’t think though that either of these is the main reason. Mostly IKEA causes me anxiety, and I am trying to understand how such a nice place with such a nice philosophy can do that to me, even though I love to eat meat balls and drink lingonberry juice. I think it is because I recognize that there is something cynical about IKEA. It is a dream, and idea and now a way a life, which is based not on creativity and people, but the perception that it is. The Bauhaus may have been for the masses, but it was designed with care and creativity by individuals. IKEA is a mega company of committee design led by market analysis and quarterly stock valuations. This is not to say that it isn’t useful. It is just a not the dream store of the Bauhaus or me.