Consider more closely where this IKEA dresser and its underlying substance came from. That story begins at a logging camp somewhere in the world — quite possibly in an illegally harvested old-growth forest in Russia or China. (It is impossible to say exactly, since IKEA has torpedoed laws that would require them to disclose their sources.) The loggers in this mystery forest fell trees of various sorts and pass them on to a logging company that might manage scores of camps. The logging company then sells the trees to a sawmill which gathers material from several dozen logging companies and cuts them into boards. Several sawmills in a region then supply the lumber to a larger board-mill that cuts the wood into even smaller pieces. Small suppliers buy the board from several board-mills and transport a portion of it to large suppliers, which in turn gather and pulverize the various materials in a chemical soup and press it into lighter, cheaper chunks. IKEA then buys this “composite material” to cut into the components of a Malm or Hemnes, sorts it into boxes, and distributes it to over 300 stores around the world, leaving the final assembly to the customers. Even a simple desk or dresser contains, by IKEA’s own admission, at least 26 different species of wood from at least 18 different countries — and usually far more. The result is a sleek but crumbly piece of furniture, sure to camouflage into any new apartment. Jennifer and Jason use their dressers every day without a thought as to the work or the materials that made them.
We must not sneer at Jennifer and Jason, many readers are sure to point out, for choosing IKEA. Their incomes, though high in the global scale, are likely to be lower than their parents’ were, and they often have to move in order to climb the employment ladder. It is only reasonable for them to buy something inexpensive, transportable, and replaceable. IKEA fulfills an important niche in the middle-class market — for cheap furniture that still retains a semblance of respectability. The company has exploited this market to become the global empire that Sweden never had, a kind of Viking revenge on the modern age.
Still, there is a good chance that Jennifer and Jason actually like their IKEA dressers, and prefer them to the old oak chest that their grandparents tried to foist on them. Indeed, the extraordinary popularity of IKEA testifies not only to its convenience but to its ability to appeal to the middle-class self-image. Jennifer and Jason are drawn to IKEA because it reflects who they are: they too are modern, movable, and interchangeable, their wants satisfiable in any neighborhood with a food co-op and a coffee shop. More fundamentally, Jennifer and Jason are untraceable, a “composite material” made from numberless scraps and pieces. They have a long catalog of home towns, and their accents are NPR neutral. They can probably rattle off the various nationalities in their family trees — Dutch, Norwegian, Greek, and Jewish, maybe some Venezuelan or Honduran for a little color. From these backgrounds they retain no more than a humorous word or phrase, a recipe, or an Ellis Island anecdote, if that. They grew up amidst a scramble of white-collar professionals and went to college with a scramble of white-collar professionals’ kids. Their values are defined mainly by mass media, their tastes adorably quirky but never straying too far from their peers’, and like the IKEA furniture that they buy in boxes, they too cut themselves into manageable, packaged pieces and market themselves online. They are probably “spiritual but not religious.” They have no pattern or model of life that bears any relation to the past before the internet. For all intents and purposes, they sprang up de novo in the modern city. Whereas the Veneerings’ high fashion covered over an essential vulgarity, Jennifer’s and Jason’s urbane style masks a hollowness.