In 1986, my wife’s parents moved from Madrid to Luxembourg, where a prestigious position as a translator awaited my mother-in-law. Spain had just entered the European Economic Community and a need for personnel had resulted in 200-some Spaniards flooding into the city at once. After the prickly parts of their move were smoothed over, they found themselves in a new apartment north-west of the city center—on a very short street with a very long name—with some friends and co-workers living nearby. Having to quickly furnish their new lives, and never having experienced the novelty of IKEA’s notorious furniture-in-a-box, they and their friends piled into a rented van and eagerly drove to the nearest location across the border in Saarlouis, Germany. What ensued was what most penny-pinching twenty-somethings have experienced: all of their apartments started to look identical. Everyone had the same sofa, the same lamp, the same chairs. They could have wandered into nearly any of their friends’ homes and mistaken it for their own.

Homogeneity of this type, still readily available on store shelves and familiar to most of us, is the result of low pricing that leaves IKEA furniture relatively unrivaled in the global market. This affordability is made possible by intelligent logistics and production practices, but most famously by IKEA’s signature flatpack designs, which save the consumer significantly on shipping and production costs while leaving them to deal with the most labor intensive part of the process: assembly.

If we look at the history of furniture production it’s possible to mark the transition from fine furniture making to true industrial mass production, and the current reality, with Michael Thonet’s No. 14, a venerable chair that can be found everywhere: in your local café, in Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting At the Moulin Rouge, in the apartment where I’m writing this essay, and even in the Hergé comic Tintin and the Blue Lotus, where it hosts the dimwitted bottom of Detective Thompson as he nurses his bedridden twin, the other Detective Thompson.1

Before Thonet, furniture production required a skilled labor force to assemble complex pieces with a vigorous finality before their presentation in a showroom. The introduction of the No. 14 in 1859 represented a palpable shift. The design was produced in multiple replicable parts and exited the factory in pieces, to save on freight. The chair came together with ten flat-head screws and two screw-nuts. Thirty-six unassembled units could be tightly packed into a one-cubic meter box—a herculean feat at the time. The final chair was then assembled by showroom staff, who maintained a cursory but necessary knowledge of its construction. Unsurprisingly, the No. 14 became an overnight sensation, with over fifty million units produced by 1930.

Of course, furniture that required assembly did exist before Thonet, but not for general consumption at such a scale. Campaign furniture, effectively comprising knock-down tables, beds, and chairs which traveling armies could easily transport, dates back as far as the time of the Romans. And while Thonet’s was not a true ‘ready-to-assemble’ design, it did alter the perception that consumer furniture needed to be fully constructed and finished by craftsmen. The No. 14 introduced the idea that a chair could be serially produced in parts and assembled across multiple locations, which is surely worthy of a headline.

There were many lesser attempts that followed Thonet’s, and while some are well known,2 others have been laid to waste in the annals of design history. A few notable examples from the latter category include Kem Weber’s Airline Chair of 1934, a true flatpack design which launched in the United States during the Great Depression and quickly fizzled; Elias Svedberg, Erik Wørts, and Lena Larsson’s flatpack furniture collection for a Swedish competition in 1943, which was later commercialized under the name Triva by Nordiska Kompaniet, the department store; Folke Ohlsson’s knock-down furniture designs, patented in 1949 and commercialized by DUX Inc. in the 1950s; and Sauder Woodworking Company which began to sell flatpack tables from the offcuts of their church pew production in 1953 with the priceless tagline: “Sauder Woodworking takes the fear out of furniture and makes furniture for the God-fearing.” Most of these efforts, with the exception of Sauder which still exists today, enjoyed brittle moments of success. And like modernist architecture, whose worker-housing roots are haunted by the same eerily familiar refrain, nearly all of them sought to create accessible comforts for the working class.

In this regard, two enterprises come to mind that had some success in bringing accessible modern design to everyday people. The first, by the designer Louise Brigham, was the Box Furniture manual of 1909, which is excerpted in the pages preceding this essay. Begun a few years before the First World War, this project was a precursor to the readily buildable modernism Gerrit Rietveld’s crate furniture would lay claim to decades later, as well as an exercise in utopic upcycling. Box Furniture was simply a book of instructions directing the reader in how to repurpose wooden crates to make practical furnishings, based on Brigham’s own experience of living in the resourceless Norwegian Arctic island of Spitzbergen. She writes lyrically about the experience in the book's preface, with striking sentiments that are as applicable today as they were then: “As I worked in that far-off marvelous land of continuous day, surrounded by mountains and glaciers, I felt anew the truth, so familiar to all, that work to be of real value must be honest, useful, and beautiful.”3

The second example, from a then 42-year-old Enzo Mari, was the Autoprogettazione project of 1974. At face value it was a set of plans based on standard European lumber dimensions that one could use to build tables, chairs, armoires, shelves, or beds. But really the project was intended as an empowering proposition “for people to be stimulated by the examples shown to make what they needed, including types that were not in the book and to make them freely, taking the example proposed simply as a stimulus, not as a model to copy.”4 This socially minded proposal led to stacks of letters and requests for plans, which continued to swirl into Mari’s little Milan studio for decades, and selections of which have since been published in subsequent editions of the work.

IKEA, that recognizable yellow and blue giant, represents the next real milestone in the large-scale industrial production of flatpack furniture and has since enjoyed seemingly endless success thanks to their affordable products, nearly all of which ship disassembled in kraft cardboard packages whose white labels broadcast their stubbornly unpronounceable Swedish names. An oft-quoted, if speculative, statistic illustrates well the company’s international reach: “If you were born in Europe, there is a one in ten chance that you were conceived in an IKEA bed.”

IKEA’s first flatpack furniture offerings were introduced in the early 1950s, and their origins are often traced back to the company’s fourth employee, designer Gillis Lundgren, who’d been unable to fit a table into his car trunk for a photoshoot. Max, the first of their self-assembly tables, was included in the 1953 catalog alongside three other models, Delfi, Köksa, and Riga, the latter of which even featured a diagram of its sliding construction mechanism. Within the decade IKEA had become a major player in the Swedish furniture market, but its meteoric rise was met with open aggression by prominent furniture retailers, who spearheaded supplier boycotts and attempted to shut the brand out of trade fairs.

Nevertheless, by the start of the 1960s IKEA had brought on Erik Wørts, one of the minds behind the Triva NK furniture collection, who became responsible for designing the flatpack fixtures. By the 1970s IKEA's furniture range was almost completely flatpack. Correspondence with the IKEA Museum further reveals that Ingvar Kamprad, the company's famously dogmatic founder, provided the designers with an ultimatum to speed up progress: all chairs had to be redesigned to be user-assembled inside of a year or two, and whatever could not be reengineered would be cut from the line.

IKEA’s success can be attributed to the onus of furniture assembly being placed on consumers, most of whom are generally unskilled in such construction. So, in the decades since IKEA introduced flatpack furniture to the masses, they have also been obliged to devise new, user-friendly hardware for this class of un-craftsmen. A cursory search unveils hundreds of IKEA patents covering a wide array of fasteners and new methods of furniture assembly. Some appear commonplace, others foreign, and a small percentage oddly medieval.

Most of us are familiar with IKEA assembly instructions, which illustrate a calming world populated by genderless little drawings where laminated veneers do not crack and all the screws one needs are always in the box. What we are unlikely to be familiar with is the plethora of fasteners that can be found in their pages. In black and white, these newsprint foldouts diagram a wide array of IKEA-specific joints. There are the ubiquitous ribbed wooden dowels (which blend perfectly into beige carpets), a multitude of screw lengths, their respective confounding cylindrical cam locks, plastic screw caps for all occasions, and so on. And although IKEA instructions emphasize easy assembly (at this, at least, they are very successful) for every benefit they provide by way of simplicity, there is a corresponding loss of imperative detail.

One important fact that is exhaustively lamented by fuming customers in online forums and repeatedly bemoaned to strained IKEA customer service agents is that most of the brand’s furniture is not meant to be assembled with a classic Philips screwdriver. In fact, most of their design kits are supplied with a type of screw called the Pozidriv, which resembles the Philips design but features star-shaped diagonal cuts that give it a rather heavy-metal look. The benefit of this joint is that the added grooves allow for more torque and create more fluid, easy turns when used correctly. Unfortunately, the general public has little knowledge of Pozidriv screws and their clever intricacies, and instead most plough ahead with a traditional Philips screwdriver, not realizing that the screws often strip when assembled this way. A trip to my local IKEA branch indicates that even the showroom staff are unaware of this, as evidenced by the many floor models which feature somber, prostrated Pozidriv screw heads.

This explains why so many IKEA units can never be disassembled, having initially been put together without this necessary bit of knowledge that the mute little drawings don't care to share. Couple this small but integral oversight with materials such as particleboard and MDF, which tend to crumble and eventually collapse under use, and you end up with furniture that is neither long-lasting nor easily taken apart for any kind of responsible disposal. It’s an example emblematic of the long shadow that IKEA has pioneered: cheaply built and cheaply sold furniture which has created a class of consumers less concerned with longevity and a market more than happy to respond in kind.

As the streets outside your house on trash day will likely confirm, the fate of mass-market flatpack furniture today is not a happy one. Significant expansions of companies selling poorly made goods, focusing on seasonal output, and relying on low quality materials have only served to bring it closer to the fast fashion industry. The result is further muddled by marketing that characterizes these reduced logistical costs as an effort to democratize design and offer economical goods to everyday people. This raises the question: what democratic benefit does a flatpack product really serve if it is not designed or produced to withstand the rigors of everyday life?

And while there is ample criticism to be made about this serial production of low-quality designs, which enjoy brief lives in homes and long lives in landfills, one might also criticize the devaluing of labor that these business models reinforce. When we pay less for our little flatpack kits, that means that somewhere, someone else is probably being paid less for their work in putting them together. There has been much written about the former which is significantly more eloquent and informative, and an education on labor and exploitation is better served by a library card than by me, an industrial designer who has never read Das Kapital but has had some excerpts of it regurgitated onto him at art school parties.

All this compels me to reconsider the utility of flatpack construction in the context of our current reality. At the flimsy, mass-produced scale in which it largely exists, what good is the affordability it offers if it obscures our ability to distinguish between well-made and disposable; if it devalues craft and creates endless litter? If we want to speak to the real democratization of design, to real people and their needs in a world that is in dire need of less feeble things, I have to think that it has much more to do with empowerment and education than it does with bargains or the mindless task of assembly.

For my part, I think there is more value to be gained by a little trip to the local hardware store. One can build a thousand flatpack bookcases and still never learn how to use a saw, or understand why a transversal member provides structure, or discover the importance of wood grain direction. Learning to build any of Mari’s chairs, on the other hand, not only encourages the maker to look around and see what else they can build or improve on, but also offers the basic language by which to evaluate and discern the constructed world around them. All it takes is a little wood, an afternoon, and a box of nails. No shipping necessary.

1 Hergé, The Blue Lotus: The Adventures of Tintin, Mammoth (London, 1990), p. 50

2 The number of designs that fall into this category are too numerous to list, but to point to one which sums up the fates of a great many: Paolo Deganello & Archizoom's AeO armchair for Cassina, in 1973. The AeO was intended to be a radical take on the typology and on the idea of luxury itself: it shipped disassembled, was made from modest materials, and was capable of being customized to the user's desires with added components at reasonable prices. It is still sold, but only fully assembled, in a single version, and at a price which few would consider affordable.

3 Louise Brigham, Box Furniture: How to Make a Hundred Useful Articles for the Home, The Century Co. (New York, 1909), p. xxi

4 Enzo Mari, Autoprogettazione?, Edizioni Corraini (Mantova, 2008), p. 51
Commissioned for U-JOINTS – A Taxonomy of Connections, an encyclopedic publication that looks at human history through its everyday details.

Andrea Caputo
Anniina Koivu

Editorial Team:
Margherita Banchi
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Senior Researcher:
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Image Credits:
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Inter IKEA Systems BV 2021