The Ikea Dilemma

24 Oct

Just the other day, I took a tour of a historic home that was built in the 1860s. The house has been renovated a bit, but the general construction is true to its initial form. The  people who lived there weren’t particularly “important” to their society. But it’s a fantastic peek into what life was like at that time, a time when the city was growing at an exorbitant pace and industrial infrastructure threatened the area’s agrarian past.

The historic home tells a story about the 19th century, but isn’t completely true. The furniture shown in the house never actually belonged to any of the house’s inhabitants: it was brought in by a historical preservation organization to demonstrate what life would have been like. In fact, the house is more of an accessory to its furnishings than vice versa: the house was bought with the specific intention of showing off the preservation society’s massive collection. There’s furniture, there’s dishes, there’s even signatures from people who were way more important than anyone who ever lived there (e.g. Ben Franklin). I loved wandering the house, imagining what it must have been like to live that way. Then, as always, my brain went to the history we are building today. As I’ve mentioned before, I like to think about how our era will be interpreted by future generations. If, 100 years from now, someone tried to fill my apartment with “period furnishings,” what would those look like? What books would they put on the shelves? What kinds of paintings would be on the wall?

And that’s when I was reminded of an article I read on ThoughtCatalog a few weeks ago. In the piece, the author talks about the fact she recognizes furniture at her friends’ apartments as the very same styles she too bought from Ikea. She points out that Ikea falls neatly into that category of “not too expensive, but not terribly ugly” that so many of us rely upon to furnish our homes. I really liked her article when I first read it, but as I walked around that historic house, I realized that the Ikea-effect doesn’t just dictate what we have in our homes right now. In fact, it’s pretty likely that the “21st century house” of a future generation would actually include pieces of Ikea furniture. Sure, there’s other important trends and other important brands right now. But imagine a bunch of archaeologists dug through the apartments of 20-somethings from 2012, and then drew conclusions about what they found. I bet you they’d conclude that Ikea was an important piece of our society.

Now, that logic made me think for a second about how the abundance of Ikea goods could be misconstrued. WE all know why Ikea is so predominant in our society. But now imagine that future historians lack any sort of record of our actual society’s practices and beliefs (just suspend reality, c’mon). How would they interpret the fact that so many people had the same furnishings? What if they leapt to the conclusion that in our world, furniture was issued by the government, and THAT’S why so many people had the same dresser? Or perhaps they’d think that the type of furniture in each house correlated to a family’s clan: one clan being named “Pottery Barn,” one clan being “Ikea,” etc.

We live in a world where bespoke design is of utmost priority for many, but mass-produced design is the norm for the majority. Will the historic homes of the future reflect that? And, more importantly: does it matter? I am sure many would lament a house that showed Ikea rather than our generation’s greatest design pieces. But for a lot of people, that’s reality. And in fact, I think it’d be beside the point for a “historic house” to show goods that weren’t truly indicative of how society was at a specific time. So future historians, take note: Ikea is very important. It’s a part of who we are. And, as the ThoughtCatalog author points out- they also have delicious meatballs.

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