September 16, 2011

What Ikea Lack

Once again, I'm getting burned for procrastinating on a project. And once again, I'm forced to reckon with how susceptible we are to the illusion a company can create of cultural stability and reliability, even as it constantly effects changes that suit its own business purposes.

mari_effe_ikea_wood.jpg

Which is a lot to pile onto a tiny, cheap-ass Ikea Lack side table. Even before I finished my Ikea X Enzo Mari autoprogettazione table in 2009, I had the idea of making another one.

For the first, I'd found the single Ikea product that felt closest to the original lumber Mari specified for his designs: the unfinished pine components of the Ivar shelving system.

ikea_side_table_lack.jpg

I wanted to realize the second table, though, in the product that felt the most Ikea: the Lack table. The Lack collection is pure Ikea: high modern, highly engineered, and super-cheap. The Lack is a marvel of perfect crappiness: sawdust legs and honeycomb cardboard tops encased in a structural plastic shell. You can't cut a Lack without destroying it, but the series' tables and shelves all share proportional dimensions, so it's possible to tile them together.

mvrdv_boijmans_depot.jpg
my favorite Lack reference: MVRDV's 2007 proposal for the Boijmans von Beuningen Museum Depot in Rotterdam. Alas, unbuilt.

The other day when Man Bartlett posted on his tumblr about visiting Brent Birnbaum's studio, this awesome image made my heart leap--off the Ikea ferry, and then to promptly sink into the East River.

brent_birnbaum_ikea.jpg

On the wall of Birnbaum's studio is a piece called Untitled (Ikea), which is assembled from a veritable rainbow of Lack tables and shelves the artist has collected around town. It's like, "WHOA, DOUBLE RAINBOW!" And exactly the patchworked minimalist look I was hoping for.

And the killer thing is, when I came up with the idea 2+ years ago, there was a literal rainbow of Lack side tables stacked in a spiral on the catalogue cover and in every store. But when I finally decided to make it about eight months ago, I found that after introducing a bunch of pastel colors in 2010, Ikea had all but discontinued colored Lack, leaving just red, white and black, and just a couple of wood "effect" finishes. [Seriously "birch effect" is such a sad concept.]

ikea_lack_catalog_2010.jpg

I had some pieces that I'd stashed or stored: a navy blue shelf, dark grey and dark green side tables, and either dumped or gave away a while ago because seriously, it's Ikea. Just go get another one. But it's precisely this misplaced belief that it'll always be there that tripped me up. Ikea IS always full, and it DOES always look and feel the same in its way, but the specific products, even the iconic ones, are constantly in flux.

There were hints, warning signs, which I chose to ignore. A Lack side table was always ridiculously, disposably cheap: $12 or something. But in 2010, Ikea began value engineering them, eliminating packaging, and tweaking the materials a bit, to get the price even lower. For a while, they were $5.99. Now I think they're $7.99. Rationalizing inventory and SKUs was obviously part of this ongoing, profit-wringing process.

And that brings up the implications of Ikea's product choice winnowing, which are thoroughly depressing, yet fascinating. I've been scanning craigslist for months, trying to find any colorful Lack pieces. I've missed a couple in New York because I couldn't get them in time, and I found one pink table in Alexandria, Virginia. But otherwise, the craigslist selection is relentlessly constrained: it's almost entirely these fake wood finishes. And I can't tell what came first: Ikea's eliminating all color from their lowest-end table offerings, or the [$5 table-offloading] public's total embrace of printed plastic that simulates [and poorly] actual wood.

The greatest/saddest listing I saw was from an American University student, who described his Lack side table as, "exactly the same table that everyone else has." And it's becoming even more so every day.

So anyway, if you have a lead on some colorful Lack side tables or hanging shelves [medium or small], definitely drop a line. Because I'm definitely buying.

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: September 16, 2011.

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