The Ikea Idea: What to Make Of These Modern Times

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008

Last week, thousands of homes in and around Washington -- joining a 198 million around the world -- received the new Ikea catalogue. For many of us, it has become the season's most gripping bathroom read. The clean lines of the new Pax wardrobe, with its sleek Ardal glass doors, demand to be admired. At $4.99, Ikea's Evert stool empties piggy banks, not bank accounts.

It's here, the glorious future that modernism's founders waited for in vain -- a future where modern design has crept into every citizen's life, at prices even the proletariat can afford. But would Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and even Charles and Ray Eames really be so happy with how things have panned out?

They were, after all, design radicals, charged up by the energy of their unrivaled innovations. If the modern world was a sphere of constant change, then the objects filling truly modern houses had to be equally change-inspired and change-inspiring. Radicalism was central to what modernism was, at least in the years when it was coming into being.

Modernism was, that is, as much about the rejection of old styles as about promoting any single new one to take their place. One of the iconic images from "Modernism: Designing a New World," the survey that filled the Corcoran last year, was a 1927 poster for a show of the latest in modern design: That poster was nothing more than a photo of an old-fashioned, gilt-and-curlicue living room, with a huge red X splashed across the image. Whatever the politics of modernism's early fans (a group that included both communists and fascists), they all agreed that any vision of the modern had to focus on the new.

Modern design wasn't just about the forms its objects took. Like all art, it was about what those forms meant in the culture that invented them. And part of that meaning came from the special force that comes with innovation.

And now, with modernism's Ikea-fueled victory at hand, that force has dissipated. Good ol' modernism -- not far now from celebrating its 100th birthday -- has become a standard way to go. It no longer takes much of an intellectual or emotional or aesthetic investment to buy -- or buy into -- even the most pared-down pieces at Ikea. Clean modernist lines have come to be about comfort and coddling. On the ground today, Ikea's ever-popular Billy bookcases, all right-angles and smooth surfaces, are very different kinds of things from the radical modern designs they so faithfully copy. The early modernists said they wanted their objects in every home, but you can't champion radicalism and mass appeal at the same time. With its big-box success, the thrill of the Bauhaus has inevitably settled down to become easygoing "good design."

Of course, there's no objectively "good design" -- never has been, never will be. What is good in 1508 is different from what is good in 1708, or 1908, or 2008 -- not because we keep moving forward toward better objects, but because our tastes don't stay the same. What counts as "good design" is just what has been approved -- say, by virtue of a million young professionals heading out to buy it at Ikea. But there's problem with all this, at least in the case of modernism: The tame "goodness" that popular objects acquire neutralizes any radicalism their designs started out with.

Sometimes, "good design" can even go on to become "good taste" -- becoming a marker of a certain social status, that is, rather than any kind of statement about the way objects should look.

That may be what we're witnessing at Design Within Reach, the thriving high-design retailer whose latest catalogue, far glossier than Ikea's, also arrived this month -- though only on the stoops of those who've chosen to subscribe, or who've bought objects from the chain before. One of DWR's local stores (they prefer to call them "studios") is near 18th Street and Columbia Road NW, perched on the border between the groove of Adams Morgan and the posh of Kalorama. The posh side may be winning.

Omari Walker, who's worked there for three years, says that, even in that short time, customers' attitudes "changed so quickly, it was almost shocking." From way out, modern design has become mainstream: "It has made the grade, it has passed, it's acceptable," Walker says. For Adams Morgan loft dwellers, modernism is in fact now the necessary style. New lofters regularly "make a decision to start over and go modern," he says. And for Kaloramites, in their antique-filled neo-Georgians, DWR can provide "a new masterpiece" to add into the mix. Of course, our current idea of the "classic modern masterpiece," ready to be mixed and matched with earlier styles, is against the radical, X-out-the-past spirit in play in modernism's early days.

Design Within Reach is seen as a move "up" from Ikea -- but that step risks being as much about social climbing as aesthetic elevation. DWR now proudly proclaims that it has banished the "unauthorized reproductions" the company started out selling -- however well made and legal they may have been -- in favor of a slate of "authorized classics." Branded authenticity, that is has started to replace actual design as the crucial feature of a piece. An improvement in design can even be rejected by the public: Design Within Reach now offers Eames chairs remade in a smooth plastic that is both greener and more functional than the original fiberglass and resin seats -- but some connoisseurs, says Walker, still demand the "aura" of the unimproved 1950s materials, and will go to other companies to find them.

Such devout acolytes of "authentic" modernism may in fact stray further from the revolutionary spirit of modern design than Ikea does, with the democratic appeal of its affordable knockoffs. In our ever more stratified society, any move to level the aesthetic playing field can count as almost radical.

There's one other thing to keep in mind in all of this: There's not much to take modernism's place out on the cutting edge. The movement may not be as fresh or lively as when it started out, but it's still less tired than faux Chippendale or neo-Colonial cherry or most other options out there.

That's why, pending the arrival of some new design vanguard, that new Ikea catalogue has found a home in a Spontan magazine rack ($9.99), above a Periskop toilet paper holder ($4.99), beside an Atran cabinet ($17.99).

© 2008 The Washington Post Company