Designing Class: Ikea and Democracy as Furniture

Kimberly DeFazio


The way Americans think about "design" is changing.  Design (and especially "modern" design) used to be associated with expensive products for the rich.  Today modern design, with its emphasis on sleek lines and "elegant simplicity", has not only become popular and affordable, it has also become a symbol of individual "change" and "equality". From the popular "home design" shows like Trading Spaces and Surprise by Design (not to mention the growing number of cable networks devoted entirely to the redecorating, renovation and makeover of domestic space), to the success of the Martha Stewart product line in working class stores like Kmart and the expansion of hip Ikea stores around the world, to the endless updating and showcasing of technological design in such "personal" technology as cell phones and palm pilots, etc.,... design in the U.S. has become the latest way to "transform" everyday life through consumption.

Proponents of mass-produced design suggest that the more stylish your sofa, the better your life, and that redecorating your house will help you change everyday living by providing more "comfort" and "pleasure".  Your paycheck may barely cover your bills, but you can secure a hip and stylish image with a trendy $10 lamp.  And now that design is no longer the exclusive privilege of the rich, all people, so the new design narrative goes, can enjoy such lifestyle pleasures.

The story of the "democratization" of design, in other words, is a renarration of the "American Dream": the myth that access to (stylized) commodities is the basis of individual happiness and freedom. As Ikea's Unböring Manifesto puts it, "In the past, more often than not, the people who really needed a more beautiful home weren't able to afford it. That's boring". " Unböring", in contrast, is "mak[ing] design available to everyone", which "very few have ever bothered" to try (  Which is another way of saying that it is not equality at the point of production that constitutes social freedom, but equality of consumption.

But there can be no equality of consumption if the vast majority of people have to rely on increasingly lower wages, while a few reap greater and greater profits. No amount of "unböring" commodities on the market can cancel this growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, because what the haves have that the have-nots do not has never been access to more commodities. Class is not made by access to more commodities, but by the ability to purchase others' labor power (by owning the instruments and materials of production) in order to produce profit. The growing cult of design is an attempt to ideologically occult this economic gap, by focusing on the extraordinary superfluidity of commodities on the market and the differences between them.

The superfluidity of commodities, however, is itself an index of the class basis of production. There is such an excess to begin with because of the small amount of time it takes workers to reproduce their daily needs with today's technology compared to the bulk of the time they spend producing value for the capitalist in the form of commodities. More and more workers cannot afford to buy what they themselves produce because of the cheapening of labor due to the competitive use of technology for profit. By fetishizing the effects these conditions have on the form of commodities the changes in "style" are themselves trivialized as matters of pure taste above and beyond the social contradictions of class, which is, of course, not a neutral position but precisely the cultural view of those few whose needs are sure to be met because they live off the surplus labor of the other. The changes in style in actuality come when the reigning style exhausts its ideological function and can no longer cover over the class politics of culture. "Boring" is in actuality a marker of a bankrupt ideological mode that has lost its effectivity in disguising the class conflicts. The lamps sold at Wal-Mart (which is increasingly developing a reputation for its "bullying" tactics in driving smaller stores out of business and forcing workers to work "over time" for free) are "boring" compared to the "unboring" lamps of Ikea because Ikea shows it has learned to market itself as a politically savvy product at a time of increasing global class contradictions and consciousness, at a time when it is becoming impossible to ignore the crises of global capitalism.

The "unique" and "unböring" commodities that are supposed to more freely express consumers' "individual" identities are mass-produced on a global scale, and the very products in which workers are supposed to find "pleasure", "comfort" and "freedom" are produced under increasingly exploitative conditions worldwide, especially in countries in the South and in the former Soviet block, where most of the manufacturing now takes place. The more "well-designed" products for "good living" become available to working people, the more the conditions of living for the majority actually deteriorate, while corporations amass ever-increasing rates of profit.

For instance, Ikea, the Sweden-based transnational corporation which has built a reputation for being a highly "socially and environmentally conscious" company, has seen its profits increase dramatically ("worldwide sales have grown by an estimated 20 percent a year for the past five years, and its 2001 revenues topped $9.6 billion"[1]).  On the other hand, in the US alone the real wages of the working people to whom Ikea sells its products have not increased since the 1970s, and more and more of Ikea's products are being produced in developing countries where workers receive even lower wages and suffer terrible working conditions—so that workers in the North can buy trendy products at very cheap prices.

What has become clear is that design—whether it is the design of furniture, home, apartment, etc.—is  being marketed as a local "solution" to problems which have their source in wider global economic relations.  Fashionable home furnishings for some have become a substitute for a social existence in which all people's needs are met. So while Ikea pays cheap wages to workers in the South who can't afford basic necessities, let alone faddish domestic products, it is this same process that keeps workers in the North in debt and living increasingly precarious lives, where illness, being laid off, or missing a rent payment can be the difference between living a relatively comfortable life and destitution.

The ideology of "design" is an inversion of the actual material relations of production under transnational capitalism. It presents things—and their re-design, or re-arrangement—as the space of freedom and change. But the increase in the production of commodities (whether well-designed or not) is actually an index of what Marx in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 calls the "estrangement" of workers from the things they produce, and marks the degree to which social relations under capitalism have become subservient to private accumulation. By "estrangement" Marx means that the worker does not own the product of her labor, which stands as something "alien" or "strange" in relation to the worker. It is of course the capitalist, not the worker, who owns the products of the worker's labor, and if the worker needs the product produced, she is forced to purchase it (like all the other products she needs) through the wages she receives by selling her labor power to the capitalist. The estranged relation of the worker to the product of labor in other words is an effect of the fact that the worker owns nothing but her labor power, which she must sell as a commodity to those who own the means of production and who thereby exploit the labor of those who lack ownership of the means of production.

Estrangement, in other words, is what Marx in his later writings calls "exploitation": the process under capitalism through which an increasingly large portion of the value produced by the worker is appropriated by the owner in the form of surplus value (the basis of profit). What the worker receives for her labor power (wages) steadily decreases as the rate of capitalists' profit increases as a result of the ruthless competition among capitalists for the larger share of the market. But markets are won by lowering the cost of production, mainly today through introducing "labor-saving" technology which enables corporations to pay less wages for workers ("living labor") while the productivity of workers actually increases (they produce more products in a shorter period of time). It is for this reason Marx argues that "The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates" (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, 271-72).

Thus, as Marx argues in Wage Labour and Capital, "although the pleasures of the labourer have increased", and thus commodities that were once the privilege of the rich are now afforded by the working class, "the social gratification which they afford [the worker] has fallen in comparison with the increased pleasures of the capitalist, which are inaccessible to the worker, in comparison with the stage of development of society in general" (33). In other words, that the working class is now able to afford sleek sofas does little to undo the fundamental class division between workers and owners. In fact, for Marx it is an index of the deepening of this divide, not it's leveling, as the corporate cult of design would have it, because the same level of production that is making modern style popular for example is also concentrating a greater mass of value and power in fewer and fewer hands.  The (local) freedom of consumption is an ornament on the global slavery imposed by monopoly capital through its transnational institutions.

Consider again the example of Ikea, which has taken the ideology of design to new heights. Ikea not only produces trendy modern home furnishings at low prices but also suggests that affordable modern design is fundamentally "democratic" and "socially and environmentally" conscious. For example, Ikea's web page informs readers that "IKEA was founded when Sweden was fast becoming an example of the caring society, where rich and poor alike were well looked after. This is also a theme that fits well with the IKEA vision" ( Ikea, it is suggested, should be celebrated and shopped at because while "[m]ost of the time, beautifully designed home furnishings are created for a small part of the population—the few who can afford them"—Ikea has "decided to side with the many".

Ikea claims to "side with the many" by producing cheap, well-designed home furnishings. As it explains in one of its "case studies", Ikea was able to produce a mug (which it calls "BANG") at half the average price of other mugs by looking around the world for "suppliers" which would "invest in specially-adapted equipment for our specially-priced mug. Our product developer worked to find the best conditions on the factory floor for fast and efficient production". That is, equipment that would be able to fit "the maximum number [of mugs] in the ovens at a time, an expensive process".

What is entirely erased in this notion of "democracy" are the conditions of production which make such cheap prices possible. Left out of this narrative is that the only way that products can be made cheaply is by finding the cheapest labor possible to produce the products for Ikea. What else is meant by "specially-adapted equipment" but technology which can mass produce products using as little living labor as possible—technology which only very large companies can afford to own or to subcontract (as Ikea does)? Ikea itself says as much.  It is not concerned about the conditions under which workers have to work to produce the mugs—only with the conditions of "fast and efficient production", or the greatest amount of products produced in the least amount of time, and for the lowest price. This necessarily means that workers are forced to increase their rate of productivity without being compensated. As a recent article in the corporate magazine Business 2.0 makes clear, "The push to discover ever-cheaper labor in ever-cheaper markets has been one of Ikea's signature strategies". Not surprisingly, in the last five years, the article goes on to point out, Ikea "has increased its buying in developing countries from 32 to 48 percent" (Lisa Margonelli, "How Ikea Designs Its Sexy Price Tags", Business 2.0,October 2002).  Rather than representing the real economic relations behind Ikea's products, Ikea instead fosters among workers a way of thinking about the world in which "The real motive forces impelling [them] remain unknown to [them]" (Marx-Engels Reader 766).

What Ikea calls "siding with the many", in short, is really putting a "democratic" spin on exploiting the many.

At the same time that Ikea represents itself as committed to creating better living conditions for the "many" (a world in which "everyone should be given a chance to enjoy life"), the actual practices in which it engages so as to produce cheap commodities lead to the lowering of wages and the worsening of working conditions among the global working class—regardless of Ikea's well-publicized "anti-child labor" and "anti-coerced labor" campaigns to manufacture its "ethical" image. Exploitation is at the root of all production under capitalism; reifying the extreme conditions of low-tech capitalism actually helps to normalize the daily exploitation that undergirds all production.

It is the development of the productive forces that is behind the emergence of "design" as a new cultural phenomenon, and it is this same productive growth that is now threatening the capitalist system with a global crisis of over-production. As corporations strive to gain a larger share of the market through mass-producing products at low costs, they do so regardless of the actual social needs, and in the process eliminate the basis of profits by replacing labor (the source of all value) with technology. The result is that, at the same time many social needs go unmet, the market becomes overwhelmed by a surplus of commodities (indeed, in the case of Ikea, frivolous commodities). These products of course must be sold, or else the owners of the commodities will not see their profits. Toward this end, as a recent New York Times Magazine article reports, the products Ikea makes are not only "impermanent" in the sense of trendy—they are actually poorly made and break easily: "The aroma of impermanence that [hangs] over a lot of Ikea products, the nicked veneers and wobbly joints . . . no longer [seem] such a problem.  Impermanence ha[s] become a mark of progress, not of decay" (John Leland, "How the Disposable Sofa Conquered America", New York Times Magazine, December 1, 2002). Thus, not only are workers taught that they should purchase trendy home furnishings to keep up with the times, they are also forced to purchase commodities more frequently because the products are designed to have a limited life-span of use (i.e., planned obsolescence). They produce an endless need in the consumer base, and provide workers with global consciousness skills for transnational capitalism—consciousness skills that take the flexibility and impermanence demanded of workers in the contemporary workplace as the mark of a hip up-to-date lifestyle.

Corporations like Ikea re-narrate the mass production at the basis of "modern design", which requires the intensification of exploitation and the commodification of everyday life ("modernism represents the most cost-effective style in which to manufacture many goods"[2]), as the epitome of freedom. What is hidden behind the ideology of what Ikea calls "democratic design" is the fact that the process of production of the products sold actually leads to and is dependent upon the worsening of living conditions of the vast majority of people. As the division of labor increases, so too does the general de-skilling of labor, the aim of which is the general increase in the extraction of surplus value from the worker.  "Democratic design" is really the "democracy" of transnational corporations.

Against design's ideological severing of exploitation from consumption—which, rather than producing a more "sophisticated" consumer who appreciates the stylistic differences among commodities, actually "stupefies" the worker and turns them into corporate tools—Marx explains the intimate connection between culture, daily life and the exploitative conditions under which products are produced in capitalism. This separation of the worker from her labor is critical to an understanding of capitalism, because it is at the basis of a wider series of "estrangements" in social life: objectifying peoples' laboring activity in commodities also leads to their estrangement from themselves and from one another. The result is that human society becomes increasingly alienating and alienated ("inhuman"), prioritizing the production of things over meeting and "enriching" social needs. "Objectified" labor "in the form of sensuous, alien, useful objects, in the form of estrangement," is everywhere "displayed in ordinary material industry" (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, 302).

Ikea's theory of design in contrast assumes that the real problem is that stylish products are not more affordable by the many. But this has never been the fundamental problem of "democracy". The fundamental contradiction of society today is that the many do not own the means of production and therefore must sell their labor to those who do, and who accumulate private profit by exploiting the labor of those who work for them. "Design" reinvents these fundamental relations and turns people's need to purchase things on the market into a matter of "choice". It is only a matter of "choice", however, because they are economically compelled to purchase items necessary to survive on the market, because they must sell their labor as a commodity on the market.

"Democracy" doesn't start at the end of the production process—with distribution and exchange of commodities already produced under exploitative conditions—but at the beginning, in production. Real democracy means that people are not exploited in the process of producing their means of subsistence and meeting their social needs. A truly democratic culture would provide consciousness skills to abolish the division of labor in order to meet the needs of all. A society, in short, committed to "the positive transcendence of private property. . . and therefore as the real appropriation of [social relations of production] by and for [workers]" (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, 296). 

[1] Lisa Margonelli, "How Ikea Designs Its Sexy Price Tags", Business 2.0 (October 2002),1643,43529,00.htm

[2] "Design: Europe's Baby", European Cultural Digest  (October 1998)

 THE RED CRITIQUE 7 (November/December 2002)