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Order from Ikea

We live in angles and boxes. Except for those few living in yurts and Buckydomes, we live in rectangles, with things pushed up along the sides. The model expects that we have square things to fit the right angles; round things have no angles, and are wrong, inefficient. You get some places to put things in the kitchen and bathroom, but the rest you are expected to supply. It’s a challenge when most of what you own are books and you don’t have any shelves. You are lacking in squares.

Moving in has been delayed. Some is knowing a solid house cannot be made on a weak foundation: things should have a place and be in them. A lot is not having to hurry: my roommate’s charity has not been tried by my cat or me. A little has been fear: what am I doing? Where is this place going to be in my history, now that the present is here? Is it big enough? Plastic wrap covers the carpet. I have no place for books, socks, silverware. The dryer plug is halfway converted from three to four prong. It’s just me and I don’t know where to start. Without urgent need I haven’t.

Ikea holds the answer, and I loathe and need it. The Swedes have perfected the most onerous and off-putting sales techniques we Americans pioneered: inescapable incitements to order, pleasure and ease; a twisting and inefficient labyrinth of space packed high with enticing models and sensible “solutions” reaching into your endless pit of need; throngs of people searching and hunting and filling carts with the limited supplies you must get first. The whole place has a distasteful county fair carnival air, like one of Bradbury’s stories cleaned up for Christian broadcasting. Smarmy barkers have been replaced by indifferent yellow-shirted clerks out of a 1970s SNL skit about Ma Bell, and everyone churns forward to the thing they really want, always just ahead, or right where you want to be.

Shelves they excel at, square and pleasant, no doubt churned out every hour of every day by legions of Chinese proles. I had set my sights on one atypical model: a white, six-foot cube so popular it is only available online. Half the cost in shipping turns me off from a two-bill bookcase. Thus into every Ikea’s maelstrom heart: home organization, just past bedrooms and living spaces. Everybody and his brother is there, two deep in places, many with squeaking carts and baby strollers. Every ethnicity and every age feels the planking and looks at the price tags while discussing finer points in their native language. It’s the spaceport for the storage sector.

Like all great salesmen, Ikea has found an iconic product that embodies its image and values and maintained it over the decades. Billy is your prototypical Dansk bookcase that I first remember seeing at a Danish furniture store in Fort Worth’s Ridglea Mall area–not the mall itself, but one of the outer retail orbits not far from where we bought our Atari 2600. (First game: Space Invaders. “Every little boy who comes in here wants that game,” I still remember the young woman saying when I pointed at it through the glass in 1980.) My mother liked plain, light furniture and this store was a find for her. We bought a bookcase for me. I loved its plain, white simplicity: it had no extra anything, and we put it together ourselves. It was like a model rocket: aside from a half-dozen screws, everything was held in place by wooden tabs and plain white glue in a colorless, unmarked bottle. It held my Ray Bradbury and assorted stuffed animals and elementary school treasures, and my mother made me dust the shelves every week. I still hate dusting.

It was the Ur-bookshelf, the bookshelf in Plato’s dream. No curves or decorations, no pattern or interest: nothing but pure angle clean as an ink line on fine paper. That Danish place closed but we have Ikea now, a place become a juggernaut on the power of lines. Billy is nothing but lines.

They had Lingtrond and Expedit and some other alphabet jumbles, but Billy comes out on top. One has more interest but the antique white finish just seems incomplete; another seems more regal but I can’t see spending twice as much for the same particleboard and glue. Ikea touts Billy’s value, certainly true in white. Something tells me not to be cheap, as much as it is my nature: they’re just shelves, white is bright and clean, everything will match. I splurge for Birch. Wood is comforting even when unreal, and I have a coupon for a whole $25.

Determination helps in a place like this. I powerwalk past large Asian men testing the couches and whining young children testing their mothers in model living rooms, bob and weave around strollers and newlyweds avoiding arguments. Self-service was a novelty in the late 70s when I first remember the appearance of giant warehouse stores, though I wonder now if anyone can remember how much they save doing their own heavy lifting. The warehouse is clearly labeled, the boxes long brown plinths: two of these, one of these, down the aisle, up the aisle. The cart takes pushing in its own straight line, though there is no crowd here at the end.

Grateful as I am for Kevin’s pickup truck, there is some sense of loss not having my own car to wrestle them in. A Civic sedan has functioned as my station wagon for over twenty years and I feel sure these things would have fit. Tilting the boxes a few feet to the bed is just as hard, though at my new home they are easy to unload and wrestle up the stairs.

Assembly is pleasure, warming the muscles and requiring just enough attention to make it interesting. Out of a little plastic bag come pins smaller than a finger that connect boards and fiberboard into something that can hold half a ton of books. Abstract line drawing figures direct the objects, their order, though what not to do is too subtle. Assembling one takes two screwdrivers, a hammer and twenty minutes. The biggest disappointment are the little snug-down cams that half-turn everything all tight: plastic has replaced metal. I wonder if the little finish nails are shiny because of lead.

Upright, they seem like mouths hanging open. They do not seem lonely or purposeless or even empty. The birch doesn’t quite match the maple kitchen cabinets and not at all the bamboo floor, but that’s fine. They imply I have something to hold.

Halfway through making the second one I made myself stop and lie down. There was no rush to make them; already into the dark part of Sunday evening I wasn’t going to do much more. If the construction is so pleasurable, why rush? They are not going anywhere, but the act of making them will. I realized I should savor the feast of making a thing meant to be made.

What will happen when everything is in its place, the initial surge of activity done, my cat and I in this place with the shelves all full, staring at each other? As much as I will feel let down when the shelves are done, that is a start, not an end. There are things to put on them, things to decide if I want to keep, new things to bring in. That is what I thought lying on the floor making myself slow down.

Back in school a sociology professor argued we didn’t have enough place: we moved too much, were too loose, were always picking up and ordering things and dropping them half-done. Life is like that I suppose, always half-made and being made. There is such a thing as too much order, but it is surely true that you need some, and sometimes you buy it in plain brown boxes.

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