On Craigslist, it lives beneath “for sale: furniture.” Next to a listing for a never-used chafing dish, beneath a “Modern White Leather Couch,” a few scrolls away from “RUGS RUGS RUGS” — it always seems to be there.
In the real world, it lives with people newly accustomed to the real world. Those who are a long shot away from leather couches and are shopping for RUGS RUGS RUGS at Target. So they search D.C.’s beloved online repository of used treasure, and they find it:
“IKEA — Lack coffee table”
“New Lack IKEA coffee table — dark brown”
“Black Ikea LACK coffee table”
Lack tables are some of the Swedish furniture powerhouse’s most popular items. At Ikea, “most popular” also means “most boring.” Plain. Simple. Shapeable to everyone’s decor. And only $19.99 or $39.99 for the coffee table, depending on the size.
It is purchased at a time when life is as unstable as the cheap table will eventually become. There’s no point in buying something nicer, its owners say, when they’re just going to move soon anyway. Because in the District, moving is what young people tend to do. The median age of people moving into the city is about 26, and it’s 29 for those migrating out.
More than half of residents rent their homes, and according to 2013 Census data, 59 percent of those renters have been in their place three years or less. The District is packed with the millennials who gave the city its population boom. They’re the ones who are the most likely to change homes again and again, rotating through group houses, upgrading to bigger places, shacking up and breaking up, packing up all their stuff again and thinking there’s no point in bringing this coffee table with me; it only cost $19.99.
And that’s how tables well-worn and nearly new end up on Craigslist. In October alone, there were 6,969 posts that included the word “Ikea” in the furniture-for-sale section. Billy bookcases and Brusali bed frames, Malm dressers and Magnarp floor lamps, and nearly every day, a few Lack tables.
Described as sparsely as it is designed, the Lack table is discarded on Craigslist for $10 to $20, as if its companionship during the disorienting time of 20-something-ness gave it no additional value. As if it hadn’t been such a reliable foot rest during sessions of scrolling on Facebook, silently comparing the new lives of college friends. As if it hadn’t been such an adequate plate holder for food that was a real, cooked meal, and thus, a victory.
Behind each dull post — “fair condition” and “Please call, text, or e-mail” and “pretty sturdy” — there is a history: a story of a this-will-do coffee table at a what-to-do time in life.
IKEA LACK Coffee Table, Black-Brown — $20 (Capitol Hill)
When was it that the Yankees won the World Series? 2009? 2010? Andrew Paul can’t remember, but he knows that was the day the first coffee table was put to death. There was screaming, hugging, shattered glass. What was a glass coffee table doing in a place nicknamed “The Frat House” anyway? So out he went, to Ikea College Park, and he came home with the Lack. The Black-Brown Lack. That’s not a color, but it’s a color enough that if you’re picky about your blacks and browns matching, you can work it either way.
The Frat House is not picky. It is a three-bedroom place in Capitol Hill that functions like a group house, with the roommates always moving in and moving out, 12 of them in six years, always nicking the coffee table on their way. The one who couldn’t pay his bills on time, he didn’t last long. The one studying international policy at Georgetown, no one ever saw him. The one with a Lion King quote tattooed on his calf. What was it? “Be prepared?”
Andrew, the 29-year-old meeting planner, can’t remember, but he remembers meeting the girl. The girl who would eventually be telling him that no, he can’t bring the coffee table to their new place. The new place will have candles on the coffee table, not Maxim and Miller Lite. No Andrew, they don’t need a weed-whacker either. Not the mini fridge. Sure, he can bring the knife sharpener. You know, some of this stuff he could probably sell online.
Maybe if he uses a Sharpie, he can fill in the nicks where the particle board is showing on the coffee table. Sharpies don’t come in black-brown. Hopefully the new owner won’t be picky.
The Lack coffee table first graced the pages of an Ikea catalogue in 1981, the year President Reagan was shot and MTV launched on cable television. But Americans couldn’t easily get the catalogue’s “Våra nya läckra lack-bord” (“Our new delicious lacquer tables”) anyway, because the first U.S. Ikea store wouldn’t open in Philadelphia until four years later. A New York Times article declaring the “supermarket-style approach” a hit clarified, it’s: “Ikea (pronounced eye-KEY-ah)”
The coffee table cost 178 Swedish krona in 1981 — today that’s $23.67 in U.S. dollars, or $3.68 more than the Lack we have 33 years later. That’s possible, an Ikea spokesperson said, because much of the table is actually made out of paper. In between layers of fiberboard, particleboard and glue is paper packing material, shaped in one-inch tall hexagons.
Beige Ikea Lack Coffee Table — $15 (LeDroit Park (3rd & U))
Lauren Skerrett, 25. Found the Lack coffee table on the side of the road one day after work. She really doesn’t need another coffee table. She really could use $15.
IKEA Furniture — Moving Sale (Court House)
John, 27, didn’t plan to do it in the room with the Lack coffee table, but then, as these things do, the moment struck.
She said she had to go move the car. He went for the box. She came back in. His knee touched the laminate floor.
The ring was from Helzberg Diamonds. The girl was from North Carolina. The shaking was from his nerves.
Yes to the ring. Yes, too, to moving back to North Carolina. Yes, most importantly, to always being there for life’s nerve-racking moments.
But the coffee table, that would cost more to move than it cost to buy. It will hold her bridal magazines until someone responds to the ad.
There will always be the people in life who know how to make things better. When the things in question are Ikea furniture, the better-ers are the users of Pinterest. Enter the phenomena of the “Lack Hack.” The table (and its equally boring side table accompaniment) have been the benefactors of an aggressive mission to turn $19.99 into knockoffs of West Elm/ Pottery Barn/anything-nicer-than-Ikea. The crucial Lack hacks, organized by popular Pinteresty adjectives:
Rustic: Glue wood 2-by-4s to the top of the table.
Glam: Glue a mirror to the top of the table.
So Glam: Also add upholstery studs.
Cozy: Make a fabric covered cushion.
One of a kind: Paint/decoupage/bling out/replace top with vintage suitcase/just buy a different coffee table.
Black Ikea LACK Coffee Table — $15 (West End)
A euphemism is a phrase we use when we want to make something sound better than it is. Getting fired is “being let go.” Dying is “passing away.” When you love someone and then you live with that someone, and then you break up with that someone, the euphemism is “went our separate ways.” The smaller, less-perfect, found-in-a-rush apartment is “lucking out in terms of rent.” The being alone is “so nice to only have to clean up after myself.”
Rory Lamond, the engineer with his coffee table on Craigslist, knows all of this, because he’s saying it, because she got the Scrabble and he got the coffee table and now the coffee table is too big.
He will sell it. He will buy the same coffee table in the smaller size. He never played Scrabble anyway.
IKEA Lack coffee table — $10 (Marshall)
There is a real coffee table waiting in Dowagiac, Mich. (Population: 5,861). It is made of oak and has a glass top, and the glass is probably covered in dust now because the table has been waiting for four years.
There was no need to bring it with them, all of this was “just temporary.” That’s what then-21-year-old Mandy Wallace said when her then-27-year-old husband got a job in the D.C. metro area (Population: 5,949,859).
“Just temporary,” she said as she searched Craigslist for a desk, a TV stand, a futon (king of “just temporary” couch substitutions) and a not-oak coffee table. The Ikea Lack, birch, bought from a guy who bought it at a garage sale, would do.
Within a year, the “just temporary” job that brought them to Northern Virginia had run its course. But instead of moving back to Dowagiac, her husband started a mechanic business.
Now the birch Lack coffee table was for paperwork: receipts and tax forms and legalities and what-nows and what-ifs, over dinner and during commercial breaks. Mandy missed family birthday parties and Mandy missed her oak coffee table.
Then: Mandy and her husband found out (not at their coffee table — they were house-sitting, so at a friend’s coffee table) that they would soon be Mandy and husband and baby. Small-town Mandys of the world waiting to return home, rejoice!
“Just temporary,” she affirmed as she posted on Craigslist to sell the things not going home to Michigan with them: a desk, a TV stand and a not-oak coffee table.
There is so much Ikea furniture on Craigslist in the District that the site is the substitute Ikea catalogue for those who don’t have access to a car or prefer their piece pre-built. In the District, Craigslist is the renter’s go-to. The potential for things to go wrong — Craigslist killers, drug deals, robberies, kidnappings and scams — somehow seems less worrisome in the face of sheer convenience. There are 23,000 housing posts, 27,000 furniture posts. Blurry pictures and misspelled descriptions, the easiest way to plan the next move.
Ikea Lack Black-Brown Coffee Table (Shaw)
The couple splurged on the Elliot sectional from Macy’s, like real adults, like people who can spend $1,600 on a couch.
And then the girl from a few floors up was getting rid of her coffee table, so they took it, like 20-somethings, like people who need to spend $0 on a coffee table. This Lack was too big for their space in Shaw, but they left it for a month or two.
Feet up, “House Hunters” on. Watching other people look at oceanfront bungalows and rustic-stacked-stone farmhouses when you’re living in a 700-square-foot box is a particularly enjoyable kind of masochism. It’s the assurance that one day, you too can be the wife walking into a closet the size of your current bedroom and saying “But honey, where will we put your clothes?” The couple with their feet up on the $0 coffee table are Lauren Eineker, a homeland security consultant, and boyfriend, a “job on the Hill.” One day they too will have it all, and “all” will include a coffee table, probably from Ethan Allen, like her parents have.
For now, they deserve to sell this too-big coffee table on Craigslist. They’ll buy another just-for-now coffee table, probably on Craigslist, too, but it will be the right size. One step at a time.