Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

The Importance of the Flatpack

by David Greenhalgh

20 Dec 2012

Ikea must be a glimpse of a utopian future – why else would a furniture showroom inspire such awe in people? Maybe it's the wholesome Scandinavian living? Or the prospect of resembling one of the satisfied faces that fill the Ikea catalogue? Maybe it’s the low prices? Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the joy of putting together that trademark piece of ingenuity, the flatpack.

Ikea certainly appeals to many; you’ve probably heard before that 1 in 10 europeans are thought to have been conceived in an Ikea bed. That the catalogue is more widely consumed than the Bible. That it is one of the most lucrative companies on the planet. Indeed, Ikea refers to itself as a place of ‘democratic design’, a phrase summed up by the Ikea mission statement:

"To offer a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them."

Sounds ideal doesn’t it? Perhaps we’re right to assume that this is the utopian future – but it's here and now. The flatpack, our vehicle for this utopian vision, sure has become ubiquitous – but how important is it? I’d say the flatpack has become a rich symbol for the times in which we live. It does this with its ability to embody a variety of the worldly forces modern man has ushered to prominence: democracy, capitalism, mass  production, globalisation and disposability – but many would argue this sounds far from utopian.

Two recent exhibitions, Swedish for Argument at UTS Gallery and Claire Healy & Sean Cordeiro at the MCA, have mined the flatpack’s potential for meaning. The range of artistic investigations that stem from the flatpack is staggering. Discernibly, there ran two parallel thoughts: that Ikea is either a utopian expression or dystopian. Some, like Lorenzo Bravo at Swedish for Argument see Ikea’s range as comparable to Gutenberg’s printing press: it makes available something previously out of reach for the masses. As a tribute Lorenzo turns Ikea stools into printing tools in 1:1. Others see contemptible forces underlying Ikea’s flatpacks: during the course of their exhibition, UTS Gallery ran an Ikea Recovery Workshop to highlight the impact of its disposability. Piles of discarded flatpack furniture littered a corner of the gallery, awaiting reinterpretation and rescue. It read as a modern memento mori to our utopian thoughts.

Utopian or not, the flatpack deserves our attention. Perhaps the most poignant thought comes from Healy and Cordiero at the MCA. The work Future Remnants predicts that just as the ancient Greek and Roman ruins symbolise the beginnings of utopian, democratic thought in the West, it may well be the flatpack that will become this time’s ruins – a memento of a second democratic flourishing. Unlike the standing ruins of ancient Athens however, the ruins of Ikea aRE destined to accumulate as stratified chipboard and fake plants, which future generations may well excavate and be left to ponder on either our stupidity or our ingenuity.