Posts Tagged ‘ikea’

The Nightmare Chair

February 22, 2012

In anticipation of a small gathering held recently at our new flat, Michelle and I decided to add one relatively nice chair to the living room inventory, so that the adults in attendance would not have to sit on the floor.

It goes without saying that when a certain age is reached – and many if not most of my friends are that age – sitting on a floor can be a one-way journey, one which does not come with a guarantee that the traveler can get back up.

We had chosen a chair and footstool from IKEA, and imagined a simple and straightforward trip. Instead it turned into an ordeal, a test of stamina and grit.

If I had been riding a snowboard, whooshing down an icy hill while balancing a hungry bear on my shoulders, in the dark blinded by sleet, approaching a cliff and being shot at by Daleks, it could not have been worse.

With any luck, it will be the last time for a while that we’ll be visiting the blue and yellow box store where, like Ft Knox, the nation’s supply of Swedish meatballs is stored.

If you had carefully measured the living room’s dimensions like I had, you knew that a chair with a small footprint was all that would fit. That was a good thing, since we don’t have one of those obscenely big SUV’s. I fully understand the paradox presented by the fact that one would have been handy in this case, but we all know that most of the time, these beastly behemoths carry a cargo consisting of nothing more than the driver. My own sensible sedan, an Audi, is currently under the weather, so the vehicle at our disposal for the task was my wife’s Honda Accord Coupe. This is an excellent and eminently reliable conveyance, but it is not made for carrying living room furniture.

Still, armed with our considerable experience with the assemble-it-yourself mantra of IKEA, we felt confident that the small, flat box it was certain to come it would fit in the car when the seats were folded just so. Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha.

The evening of the caper, we trusted our instincts and sped through the labyrinth of the store, ignoring the ubiquitous containers of handy crap begging to be bought. Soon we were face to face with the chair, a Björnibumme. (Most if not all the products are given unpronounceable Swedish names.) Legend has it that the chair was originally designed for an average, cross-country-ski-loving Swede with a tiny butt, measuring precisely one SSBW (Standard Swedish Butt Width). However, to better fit the American market, the chair’s butt width had to be expanded. This reporter will not reveal his own personal butt width, although Google probably knows it already.

We examined the chair, and determined that the box which the chair must come in would fit into the car. So we jotted down the sector, region, quadrant, aisle, shelf, zone and area numbers from the handy tag, as well as the product code, the color code, the description code, the country code, the demarcation code, the pricing code, the taxation code and the desperation code, and made our way to the pick-up area. There, using GPS technology, a bloodhound, a bat and a divining rod, we located the chair AND the accompanying footstool. We were in shopper heaven.

The chair was hiding inside a large box; not the flat accommodation we expected. Was the chair really in there? Was it actually in parts that would more easily fit into our car? Was it in fact the body of Harriet Vanger? Rather than waste time trying to find an IKEA employee to open the box, I whipped out my tool – relax, it was a Swiss Army Knife – and opened the box. Long ago I adopted the ethical stance that usually it’s more expedient to ask for forgiveness than permission. Instead of flattish parts, the chair was wrapped in an impressively voluminous cocoon of paper. It was time to get help.

I found a helpful young man who told me that the legs of that particular chair were indeed detached, and in a plastic bag inside the box. But he also said that the rest of the chair was already assembled into one large thing. Hmm.

Michelle and I studied the amorphous shape heavily wrapped in paper, and calculated that it would fit into the car. With the young man supplying most of the horsepower, Team Douglass loaded the chair and footstool onto our cart, and we headed towards the cashier.

The cashier section of IKEA is much like the Fire Swamp in “The Princess Bride”. To safely navigate it (nearly inconceivable) means you have to pass the equivalents of exploding fireballs coming out of the ground; rodents of unusual size; and lightning sand, or “snow sand” as it’s called in the book. When you exit you feel like you’ve really accomplished something.

Michelle stayed by the cart at the loading zone, while I braved the rain as I walked the thousand yards back to the car. Once the car was in the official loading position, we unwrapped the chair from the paper, and our hearts sank; it looked too big. But we were troopers, and tried turning it this way and that way, moving car seats and folding down interior sections, and having zero luck. I squinted into the middle distance, and saw what appeared to be an IKEA employee. Using a Blästeflär, an emergency flare I saw in a bin next to the Swedish meatballs, I flagged him down.

Julio sized up the situation, grabbed the chair like a toy, and then wrestled it into every position we had already tried. It wouldn’t go into the car. Finally, in heavily accented English, he said that we should “purchaso uno tarpo mucho grande.” I had no idea what this meant. He pointed to a door, and used International Gesture Association hand signs suggesting I go in. There I explained my predicament, and the fellow said, “Oh! Julio was saying that you need a tarp, which you can buy for $5. He must have meant that then you could transport the chair on top of the car.”


So I bought a tarp, and brought it back to the loading zone. There, Julio seized the chair, which was already protected to some degree by a plastic covering, and in moments he had used the tarp to encapsulate the chair like a cupcake with a New York Times. It looked perfectly shielded and protected, and I applauded his diligence. Now the chair needed to be protected from me.

IKEA supplies limitless string for tying down purchases, and I must have used several miles. To my credit, I engineered a combination of techniques, taking the best from sailing and Christmas present wrapping, along with some Uruguayan basket weaving blended with spider web management, and after a while the chair was secured to the top of Michelle’s Honda. We took off into the night.

The Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton began his epic 1830 novel with the trenchant line, “It was a dark and stormy night…” Bulwer-Lytton was not with us that night, but if he were, he would have agreed that the night was indeed dark and stormy. And as I mentioned before, rainy. It was awful, not the kind of driving conditions one wants when transporting a large, non-aerodynamic object tied to the top of a car. No way was I going to drive as fast as the speed limit; prudence lifted my foot from the accelerator, and we slowed down to the same velocity that a pregnant sheep can waddle. Lots of friends honked their approval behind us.

At one point, Michelle shrieked, my stomach vaulted, and I pulled over. She could see through the sunroof that the chair had shifted. This was not good. We did not wish to litter the highway with a living room chair. I got out of the car and, avoiding the cars and trucks that roared by several inches away, I examined the load. It had indeed shifted, the result of a poor tying job made worse by physics. I tried to tighten the cords and move the chair back into a more secure location. Somewhat satisfied, we took off.

Soon after that Michelle heard something, and was worried that maybe we had a flat tire. We’ve all had flat tires, and the feel is unmistakable. Her Honda is, of course, front-wheel drive, and so I thought the feel would be even more pronounced, but it didn’t strike me as a flat. In addition, I couldn’t hear that troublesome sound. Just to be sure, I pulled over anyway for a look. As Bulwer-Lytton noted previously, it was very dark and raining, and even with my little utility flashlight I couldn’t get a good look at the tires. So I dodged a few more cars and trucks, and got back in. At that point I had to take a minute to wipe my glasses and hands, since it had been coming down in buckets. I was pretty damn scared, and even though I’ve faced my fair share of danger – heck, quite a bit more than my fair share – my pulse was racing. I just wanted to get us home safe and put the damned chair in the living room.

My grip on the steering wheel tightened, my blood pressure went up up up, and I went from Nervous Wreck Class 4 to Nervous Wreck Class 5, the highest one. The rain made it hard to see; there was a surprising amount of traffic, and not only were the other cars, trucks and monster SUV’s going too fast, they were also too close to the vehicles in front of them; and thumping away at the back of my mind was the possibility that we really did have a flat tire.

Sensing that I was still going too fast, I slowed down even more, generating another chorus of honks behind us. Tough.

We kept on rolling. After an eternity of nerve-wracking driving on I-5, we took our exit, and soon after we were driving through downtown Seattle, the most direct route to our flat in Magnolia. In the reflection from a building’s large glass windows, I could see that the chair was still up there. Bless my soul.

A few minutes later we pulled up our street. Michelle suggested that instead of going into the basement parking lot where the car is kept, it might be better to park the car on the street, since the car with the chair on top might not fit under the automatic garage door. She’s from Boston, and she’s a wicked smaht girl.

We parked on the street, and hurried inside, carrying the other stuff we bought; cleverly, we had forgotten to buy the large bags available, since IKEA – inexplicably – does not supply them. From the junk drawer I grabbed a boxcutter, since my pocket-sized Swiss Army penknife was not up to the task of cutting so much heavy twine. Soon I had freed the chair from its bonds on top of the weary but unbroken Honda, and carried it to the building’s entrance.

There was no elevator to help us get it up three floors, so I chose the moment to develop a long and carefully constructed stream of curses directed at Mother Nature, IKEA, chairs in general, small cars, large SUV’s, diets lacking in fiber, and the Bush Administration. When I came back inside, I was astonished to discover that Michelle must have come back downstairs, found the chair, and carried it up all by herself. She is amazing, and one day I’ll tell you about the time we moved into a flat together in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Minutes later we had a fully functioning chair and footstool, and a fully functioning glass of single malt scotch, and my blood pressure began at last to decline.

But we’re not done yet.

It had taken only a few minutes to assemble the chair, plop it into place, and begin the admiration phase. Only it was too big. You gotta be kidding – we go to all this trouble, and I mean all this trouble, and the bloody chair turned out to be too big for where we wanted it. It looked crowded and wrong, and when your wife is an art history major, you learn that things have to look right.

We were exhausted, and while we agreed we liked the chair – we both got to test drive it – by far the best part of the chair-buying experience was the smoky, peaty 12-year old Bowmore, the reward for getting home alive with the chair.

That next morning, I got up late after sleeping horribly. My shoulders ached from the highly agitated drive home. I had had all sorts of bad dreams about snowboards and hungry bears riding on me piggy-back, and scary Daleks bearing down on me shouting “Exterminate! Exterminate!” By the time I zombied my way out to the kitchen to make some life-giving coffee, Michelle had already left for work. While preparing the brown juice I naturally glanced over into the living room. Holy cow. Was I in the wrong home?

The living room furniture had been completely rearranged. The couch and chairs, the Thai coffee table that looks like it’s running away, the end tables; everything was all herumgekehrt. (I’ve got to use my German now and then or I’ll lose it.) But when I walked in and gave it a closer look, and thought about it, I saw that it was much better. The spatial geometry was improved, it was more conducive to group conversations, and there was lots more space; it worked.

Michelle had made an executive decision, and before leaving for work, had cast a magic spell on the living room furniture.

Later that day, the plan was for me to pick up Michelle after work, and then we were going to do our Friday grocery shopping. About fifteen minutes before she got off work, I headed out the apartment and down to the parking garage. I started the car, backed out, and then headed towards the exit. But something was wrong. In the echo chamber of the basement garage, sounds are amplified, and as I crawled towards the garage door, I could hear the distinctive blart blart blart of a flat tire. I stopped the car and got out, and sure enough, the right front tire was flat. A chill flooded its way through all my warm parts, which are pretty much the only kind of parts I have.

Not only had I white-knuckled my way from IKEA back home in awful conditions, sick with worry about losing the chair or worse, we had made the perilous journey with a flat tire. A flat front tire, the more important of the two kinds of tires. Och.

As for an anticlimax, I took off the offending tire, which had a large broken snow chain link embedded in it, put on the donut spare, and took Michelle grocery shopping. The next day I drove to Les Schwab, where I waited in a long line, but they earned considerable customer loyalty because they repaired the flat for free. At last I went home, sat down comfortably in the new chair, and didn’t care a bit what my butt width was.


Death of a Shelf, Man

September 12, 2011

The bookshelf is the noblest of all furniture. For it is upon those polished, wooden shelves of erudition that the repository of all written knowledge and literary endeavor rests. Books are much more than paper pages bound together. When Robert Hutchins, the President of the University of Chicago, in 1952 announced the completion of the Great Books project, he said, “This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage … This is its meaning for mankind.”

The maple, pine or particle board shelves that support these books are nearly as significant, and now they are passing into oblivion. There is no future for the furniture of the furniture of the mind.

Sure, there are other important kinds of furniture that populate our homes. Here in the sophisticated West, we sit on chairs, rather than the floor or on oppressed citizens. If there are no tray tables handy we eat off of dining room tables. The couch is crucially important, since without couches we might never learn about sex and the joys of being horizontal with girls. In front of those couches are oddly shaped contrivances where we place our coffee cups and large bowls of the universe’s most mysterious substance, potpourri.

In one of my old homes I had not one but two credenzas. These long and low structures were perfect for stereo systems, and conveyed an old-fashioned sense of prestige. Hard to believe that many of my friends had never seen a credenza, or even knew what they were. Odd furniture seems to run in the family; in our living room, when I was a schoolboy, my mother once had a commode, which caused no end of vulgar jokes. Such pieces of formal furniture are as rare nowadays as marriage chests.

In the bedroom, along with the bed, naturally, will be an armoire or a dresser  of some kind, and the kitchen would not be a kitchen if there were no cabinets in which to store cups and plates and other eating utensils, along with cooking tools and equipment of every description.

But the bookshelf has stood alone in its noble purpose: it stored, displayed and protected books, and it has fulfilled this elevated mission for thousands of years. However, some feel that it is soon to be extinct. History shows that species die out when they no longer fit in, and can’t defend themselves from the changes that occur around them. On the credenza behind me, as I sit at my desk here in my office, a treasured copy of Darwin sits on top of my old 8-track tape player, as a kind of evolutionary joke.

In Darwin’s devastatingly important work of 1859, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, he tells us that to survive, a species must change with the times and adapt. I believe that the dodo died out, not because the flightless bird was easy to catch and then eaten in vast quantities by hungry sailors, but because it couldn’t go along with the designated hitter rule of 1973.

Recent articles suggest that the bookshelf will follow this unswerving path to obsolescence. But why?

People don’t read anymore. If you attempt to start a conversation with the classic gambit, “What are you reading lately?” a blank expression will come over the person’s face. If you ask someone if they have read a particular book, they will tell you, ”No, but I have seen the movie” or “Did they turn it into a movie?” or “Why on earth would I want to read that?”

When a friend of my wife’s planned a trip to the UK, and announced her intention to visit London, I handed her my 1152-page copy of Edward Rutherfurd’s wonderful historical novel, London.  Rather than thank me, she frowned and turned it over and over again in her hands, more focused on the thickness of the book and the challenge it represented, rather than the delights that awaited within.

To prepare for this story, I designed a scientific survey about reading habits, and queried 11,032 people while at the coffee shop yesterday afternoon. I have summarized the results thus:


Q: Do you like to read?  A: Nah. It’s too hard, and it takes too long.

Q: What do you read the most often?  A: My grocery list.

Q: Do your kids read?  A: I think they have to read books in school, but I’m not sure.

Q: Do you own any special old books that your parents or grandparents owned?  A: I have my dad’s old Playboys.

Q: Do you read anything? Anything at all?  A: Billboards if there’s a hunky guy in his underwear.


Among the people who answered my questionnaire were a few from New England, who revealed that they do not read speed limit signs. Lots of people evidently don’t read No Smoking signs, or Don’t Park Here signs. There are quite a lot of citizens out there — who vote and procreate — who simply don’t want to read at all.

What’s wrong with these people?  Don’t they know that reading is fun? It’s stimulating, it’s rewarding, and it gives you lots of pleasure units.

America prefers to look at pretty pictures.  Europeans still read; why not Americans? Do we have shorter attention spans? Do we need more stimuli and need pleasure fulfillment quicker? Are we lazy and dumb? Have our eyeballs radically changed from eons of watching TV?

Of those few dinosaurs remaining who do still read for pleasure, the vast majority has purchased a Kindle or a similar device for reading e-books. If you don’t read actual books, and you don’t own books, why would anybody need a bookshelf?

According to the Economist, IKEA sees the future, and it does not include books. As everybody knows, IKEA is a multibillion dollar business started by a Swedish boy with big ideas. (Presumably, Ingvar Kamprad likes to read.) Nearly everyone in the United States either has IKEA furniture in their homes or knows someone who does. The bread and butter of IKEA’s bookshelf line is called the BILLY, which is a masculine Swedish name. The BILLY bookshelf is in approximately 58.2% of all American homes. (I just made up that statistic, but it feels right.) Within a radius of a couple miles from a college campus, the proportion is even higher. The BILLY comes in a variety of sizes and color finishes, and is popular because it is inexpensive and represents good value. The Swedish product planners are constantly looking for new products, and are sensitive to changing tastes.

IKEA’s designers are revamping the specifications of the ubiquitous BILLY. The shelf part itself will be deeper and is intended to hold decorative bric-a-brac and curios like little statues, glass figurines, grandma’s collection of porcelain cats, football trophies and so forth. IKEA’s marketing materials are pushing glass doors as an important add-on to the BILLY system. This is to enhance the idea that, when tricked out with fancy glass doors, the new BILLY would be perfect for consumers to display their stuff. This reinforces the idea that consumers want a place for their possessions to be seen, rather than used. The new revised shelf, which is already appearing in IKEA catalogs, is being called the “stuffshelf,” to reflect the fact that it will never hold books.

The new stuffshelf even comes with an unusual document, which new owners must sign: if you buy one of the new shelves, you must promise to never use them to store books.

Thoroughly dejected, on the way home from the coffee shop, I asked one last random passerby what was the last thing he read. He told me it was the assembly instructions for his new BILLY stuffshelf.

Boston Boxes

August 7, 2008

Greetings All.

I hope your world is a sea of tranquility, and better than mine.  Yesterday was pretty rough.

You could say I experienced a spot of bother.  A tsunami of bother is more like it.  As you may know, Michelle and I have at last moved into our condo in East Boston.  It had been rented, so we couldn’t move in until the first of August.  We painted the living room and bedroom, and assembled monster IKEA bookshelves, since we own lots of books.  Friday the new bedroom furniture arrives, and Saturday the movers will bring all the rest of Michelle’s stuff that she has had stored at her parents’ house when she left for Scotland, including a new mattress to go on the new bed.  Sleeping on an air mattress is best left to children and dead people.

Of the three bookshelves, we thought it would look good if one of them had the optional glass doors, but one of them was missing the little black knob.  Plus one of the bookshelf panels didn’t look right.  Rather than face the bureaucratic hell of getting IKEA to fix my problem, I went to the hardware store just down the street to see what Adid could do for me.  I grabbed a small panel with the color I wanted and left.

As you know, I bought a gorgeous 1996 Audi A4 Quattro 2.8, with paint that looks new since the ophthalmologist who owned it kept it in a garage.  It’s no surprise: I like to look at my car.  As I walked out the back door I glanced lovingly in the car’s direction.  Gulp.  It wasn’t there.

I shook off the sucker punch and walked out into the street for a better look.  Wait, did I park it there or somewhere else?  I parked it RIGHT THERE, dammit.  Then I noticed that there were no cars on the street at all…?  I glanced up and saw the sign on the pole, informing all that on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of every month cars are not allowed on the street due to scheduled street-cleaning.  My car had been towed.

I called Michelle, and she suggested I go to the police station in the neighborhood, since they would know what company handled the city’s towing needs, and where the car would be.  Great, so now I faced a towing charge, at least one day’s “storage” fee, PLUS a parking ticket.  I went off to find some advice.  Adid said that there are complicated scheduling arrangements involving street-cleaning and snow-removal, and that parking tickets and towing are pretty common in this part of the city.

Michelle came home for lunch to help me out, and we walked the few blocks to find my car, which somehow had escaped dents, scrapes, nicks and other heart attack-inducing flaws.  One hundred seventeen dollars to the towing company, and another forty for the parking ticket.  Great.  Oh, we were just getting started.

Maureen, my contact at the Edinburgh shipping company who sent home twenty boxes of my stuff, emailed me a shipping document and told me to expect my stuff to arrive around Monday, August 4th.  Sure enough, I received a call from British Air Freight that the pallet of boxes had arrived, and that I could come and take possession after it had cleared Customs.  In order to collect the boxes I needed to rent a van, which I did in Braintree.  It was large and bulky, with steering and handling like a smallish oil tanker.  We set off for South Boston, where the big commercial piers are, trying hard not to hit other cars and trucks on the convoluted highway system Boston has evolved over thousands of years of highway engineer inbreeding.

We found our way to the right place, and were told to take the paperwork up to Customs, just upstairs and across the hall.  We had a nice chat with the police officer with the Scottish last name, who told us that he married an Englishwoman.  (I tell my “Scotland story” whenever I run into someone who might find it amusing.)  We compared notes regarding little British expressions that make themselves at home in our speech, such as “bloody”, “dodgy”, “loo”, and so forth.  The guy wouldn’t stop talking, but I see that as a good thing, since such a person will help people he likes if they need it.  Soon we were heading back downstairs to show the completed paperwork and get my hands on my stuff.  (This all took place this way because I was told that either a shipping broker could handle the paperwork or I could do it myself and save the broker’s fee.)

Back at British Air Freight the guy took our documents, now stamped with the approval of Customs.  He said everything was OK, and gave me a form to take to the warehouseman.  We walked over to the fenced area of the secure warehouse, handed over the document, and waited confidently.  Oops.  One of the lesser lackeys came over and told us there was a “little problem” with my property, and that they were “looking into it.”  Uh huh.  Then the more important guy came over, with a smile on his face.  He told us that the shipping company guy was 65 and couldn’t read anymore, and then showed me the document the old guy had handed me, which had someone else’s name and address, and listed the contents of the shipment as “cat”.  He laughed and asked me for my original paperwork, and then zoomed off to get my stuff with his forklift.  He even helped to load it all into the van, this while we compared stories of studying in Scotland and his kids in college.

At long last, with my 20 boxes of books, clothes, CD’s, DVD’s, shoes, hats, kitchen miscellany, glassware and everything else — my entire life, in other words — we headed back to the condo in East Boston.  Arriving safely, I backed the van into the tiny lot, to better unload it all.  Of course you can’t see a damn thing, even with a plethora of mirrors, and while I was making sure to not hit Michelle’s car, there was a modest crash and the tinkling of glass.  Whathef*ck!

I had hit the phone pole, breaking one of the rear door’s windows, and now the inside of the van’s cargo area, and most of the street for three or four square blocks was now decorated with tiny bits of broken glass; street bling.  Michelle sprang to my aid — she is phenomenal at doing this — and assured me it was no big thing, and not to worry about it.  My heart was pounding as we unloaded the van in record time.  I carried each box to the top step of the first floor landing, and there Michelle grabbed it and piled them into a previously unknown space in our 457 square-foot condo.

My blood pressure was still off the charts as we finished, and as we got back in the van to return it in its less than pristine condition, my love reminded me again that it was OK, everything would be all right.  God she’s great.

As we drove back to Braintree, every little bump, which would have been smoothly absorbed by the Audi, brought more silicon-based cacophony.  Michelle, a senior insurance claims investigator, said this sort of thing happens all the time with rental equipment, since people have rarely driven such vehicles, and all we’d have to do is pay the deductible.  Sure enough, when we returned the van and told the guy at the counter with the long pony-tail, he was equally blasé and appreciative of our honesty; he noted a fair percentage of renters who damage equipment simply park and dash.  Michelle whipped out her credit card and handled the deductible charge, and suggested we go to her parents’ place —  two minutes away — to relax before heading home.

She recounted the story of my bad day to her folks, who were sympathetic and kept saying “poor man!”  Her mother had been incredibly helpful and generous — both of them have — and so I had sent a dozen pink roses that morning to her mom, who couldn’t get a smile off her face.  Herb brought me a small, restorative bourbon.

On the way back, we stopped at a grocery store we like, where I bought my Sugar Doodle a couple bottles of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, her favorite wine, and a steak for me.  We eat mostly fish and chicken, and she is dead-set about fitting into her wedding gown, but I needed a nice piece of dead cow, which helped me, after a couple martinis, to forget the worst day I’ve had in a while.