What makes a home?

Post written by Chantel Carr

“What Makes a Home?”, asks the IKEA Winter catalogue.  The catalogue is sent out to members subscribed to the IKEA Family programme, a subscription-based scheme providing discounts in return for the retail holy grail of loyalty and information.  But a quick flick through the pages of the catalogue reveals a conundrum: very little IKEA product is on display, in the eclectic, homely, cultured and bohemian spaces featured on its pages. 

Doing the 1.4km IKEA shuffle on a Saturday afternoon is universally bemoaned as an exercise in frustration.  Disoriented crowds herded along the narrow, uni-directional walkways, rampant toddlers, the wide-jawed wonder of boomer parents accompanying their university-bound progeny.  But there is another more internal frustration that starts about 100 metres in – that of not being able to live your life properly.  The room displays look so warm and lived-in, so comforting and inviting, and so, so organised.

Both the catalogue and the in-store experience show the genius in IKEA’s marketing strategy.  While the forms, materials and textures owe more than a nod to the Miesian doctrine ‘less is more’, at about the one-kilometre mark we are increasingly convinced that more is, in fact, less.  The clean, white EXPEDIT bookshelf has just the right number of nooks on which to display a carefully chosen sample of beloved hardbacks, treasured relic LPs, some family pictures and a few special trinkets from long forgotten backpacking sojourns in Morocco and Vietnam.  But maybe the photo frames need replacing with something more streamlined and RIBBA, and that OCKSÅ vase was handblown by a skilled craftsman (for $7.99).  Some tealights in their coloured GLANSIG cups would be a nice touch.  That IKEA PS clock is pretty cool.  Not a steal at $69.00, but why not ?  Before you know it, the polypropylene bag becomes a trolley.  A full one.

The catalogue describes a similar less-is-more and more-is-less conundrum.  Norwegian Hanne lives in a rustic old Italian farmhouse with Raffaele.  “The way I stack and store things isn’t perfect”, she admits.  “I like ordered mess”.  And so IKEA clearly likes Hanne.  A couple of pages later, a product page urges us to spend less time decorating and more time chilling out, by adopting Hanne’s ‘laid-back chic’ of rattan, wood and undyed fabrics.  The irony of using decorator products to avoid decorating is muted in the natural tones and textures of mass-produced soft-cover armchairs, sheepskin rugs and coconut palm leaf boxes.

Illustrator Frank and his partner Olivia live with their two year old daughter in an airy 19th century Berlin apartment.  The bold cornicing, classic parquetry floors and overscaled casement windows evoke another Miesian phrase, “God is in the details”.  The walls are lined with an eclectic blend of Frank’s own works and old family photos.  Despite the ordered chaos, Frank is apparently a de-clutterer.  “He is always keen for me to throw stuff away: ‘It looks nice, but it is just gathering dust’” exclaims partner Olivia.  Again the irony of featuring someone who advocates chucking, in a catalogue clearly designed to foster buying, is lost in the blissful family life depicted.

The underlying message in the catalogue is that simple, authentic living can be achieved through the accumulation of things. But the 12,000 stools and shower curtains, sofas and desks that make up IKEA’s product lines are curiously absent.  Instead, the catalogue is about making other types of things – space for little ones in the family bed, shared times around the fire, an authentic ragu for friends, a home.  As we’ve pointed out elsewhere, such things are not separate from the economy – they are the economy, as IKEA has clearly worked out.  We’re not poring over Hanne and Raffaele or Frank and Olivia’s homes smirking at their ubiquitous, flat-packed lives. We’re reading about the journey from “house to home”, and the rich, active and connected lives the inhabitants lead, that are ironically enabled through new things. “I love open-plan living, it means I can listen to Hal reading while I cook”, exclaims Tokyo resident Shin, from her new IKEA kitchen.

Yet by paying more attention to the ways in which objects enter and leave our lives and become valued (and conversely de-valued), we too can begin to imagine our role in the economy differently. Creative material engagements such as sharing, thrifting, repair and re-purposing offer myriad new opportunities for alternative economies (in the Gibson-Graham sense), in ways that are more mindful of the challenges we face under mounting climate change pressures. There is an optimism, and certainly a degree of resilience in looking beyond the accumulation of objects, to how the objects that surround us can adapt with our changing needs over time.

Heidegger uses the term entelecheia to describe something which ‘holds itself in its end’. A tree, for example, is always growing and changing, yet it is always still a tree.  This is different from a chair made from the wood of the tree, which is finished – it is just a chair.  When the things around us are complete objects, their making is forgotten and taken for granted.  We only notice how these things are made when they break. The frustration we face, the ‘completeness’ of the object and our inability to fix it, make it easier for us to dispose of it and buy a new one.

Are there alternatives to this life of accumulating and chucking ?  I have been interviewing a range of people who have spent their working lives thinking and learning through their hands – skills that are increasingly derided as dirty, outdated and irrelevant in the almighty surge towards an information economy.  But it is these skills that enable them to look beyond the ‘thing’, and to engage creatively with the past and potential future life of the material itself.  Themes are starting to emerge around how materials are acquired, accumulated, assembled, repaired, re-appropriated, discarded and destroyed. In making and re-making things, interviewees are clearly enacting Heidegger’s entelecheia. They have made homes that change and adapt over time to meet the needs of inhabitants, yet sit largely outside of the economy of ‘things’ as we know it. In the most unlikely of places then – an industrial city – is there a more resourceful and creative way to look at the future of making things ?

Chantel Carr is a PhD Candidate at the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research. You can follow her on Twitter here or visit her tumblr at life of stuff.

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