A visit to Ikea to buy a few household items and on another day to the Bauhaus Museum opened my eyes to another irony of modern history.
Ikea is the largest furniture retailer in the world. It was founded in 1943 by the young Swede Ingvar Kamprad, who named his mail-order company after himself and his family farm. Fifteen years later he opened the first Ikea store. Last year, nearly 400 mostly gigantic stores in 48 countries sold about $40 billion worth of goods. Ikea is one of largest consumers of commercial wood products in the world.
Ikea has been so successful partly because of Kamprad’s use of the techniques of capitalism. Ikea stores are laid out as labyrinths: once you enter, it is nearly impossible not to wind your way along a predetermined path through countless rooms selling furniture and products for every part of a house. Prices are remarkably low, because the products are standardized and simply constructed. They are made in a few giant factories scattered around the world, shipped in pieces in cleverly arranged flat packages, and sold unassembled with clear instruction booklets and a few necessary tools. In big cities in Europe and America, Ikea products can be found in countless apartments.
Ikea has been a world leader in promoting non-traditional family structures. A 1994 ad featured two men shopping for a dining room table, probably the first TV ad in the US with openly gay characters. It was shown only a few times, before conservatives tried to organize boycotts and threatened to bomb Ikea stores. The company has continued to feature non-traditional families in ads and catalogs around the world.
Like many other global concerns, Ikea uses international differences in tax structures to minimize taxes. The stores are owned by a supposedly non-profit foundation seated in Luxembourg and Liechtenstein. Various European organizations have criticized Ikea for its tax avoidance policies. Ikea is a capitalist success story. Kamprad is one of the richest people in the world.
Although Ikea promotional materials like to discuss “the Ikea concept”, the idea of mass-produced, affordable, functional products for everyday use was conceived after the First World War by leftist radicals who rejected conventional ideas about art. In Germany and Russia, revolutionary artists and architects attempted to combine fine arts with practical crafts to produce beautiful and functional products using modern technology and industrial materials. Schools of modern design were founded to develop and teach innovative design techniques to improve the daily lives of average people: Bauhaus (loosely, “House of Construction”) in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, and Vkhutemas (acronym for "Higher Art and Technical Studios") in 1920 in Moscow.
These schools and their staff shared radical political and aesthetic ideas. Their founders were socialists and communists, who focused their energies on improving working-class life by developing well-designed and affordable objects. They rejected the conventional separation between high art for the elite and lowly craft skills, eagerly incorporated new industrial materials like steel tubing into furniture-making, and favored simple geometric constructions. They dreamed of the integration of art and life. This revolutionary aesthetic pleased angered political leaders of the far left and far right. Vkhutemas was closed by Stalin in 1930, and the Bauhaus was raided a few months after Hitler came to power in 1933. The political project of a better life for workers through design was killed by authoritarian governments.
But the Bauhaus concept has been successfully revived in capitalist nations by capitalist entrepreneurs. Undecorated, geometrically simple, functional yet colorful creations in our modern lives have their origin in these radical artistic projects. Stackable chairs with metal skeletons were pioneered at the Bauhaus.
Former Bauhaus teachers like Mies van der Rohe helped create the rectangular skyscrapers of Chicago and founded the Chicago School of Design, which became the Illinois Institute of Technology. The flat painted cabinet doors of Ikea kitchens look just like the 1920s kitchen displayed at the Bauhaus Museum.
Seeking general lessons in history is a dangerous project, but also a tempting one. The failure and success of the Bauhaus idea might demonstrate that the radical leftists of the early 20th century produced some wonderful ideas for improving daily life, but that their social implementation needed capitalist economic structures. Perhaps in our world, the needs of the majority can only be met if someone becomes a billionaire.
Taking Back Our Lives