Considering Diderot, IKEA, and Furniture

Two pieces of ‘mail’ this week got me thinking.  One was e-mail – I subscribe to Joshua Becker’s blog Becoming Minimalist, and an e-mail came in telling me of a new post.  The second was traditional mail – a new IKEA catalogue.  I realize those two things seem pretty unrelated, but bear with me.

Becker’s post, Understanding the Diderot Effect (and How to Overcome It) refers to an essay I read in my late teens by the French philosopher Denis Diderot, about how his comfort with his worn surroundings disappeared when a friend gave him a beautiful new dressing gown, which contrasted with the shabbiness of his rooms.  The IKEA catalogue reminded me of Douglas Copeland’s description of the lives of three ‘twenty-somethings’ in his novel Generation X, which included the term ‘semi-disposable Swedish furniture’, and I thought about how we are pressured to constantly replace things – our dishes, our clothes, our furniture.

And then I took a mental step back, and considered our house and our furnishings.  We bought this place – a four-square built in 1911 – in 1984, as a near-wreck, and after a long weekend doing some basic patching and painting of the interior, we moved in with the furniture from our much smaller previous house, much of which had come from IKEA.

Twenty-one years later (and another coat of paint), we still have that IKEA furniture.  And it’s not in the basement.  It’s in our living room, and our sun-room, and the bedrooms, and the library.  The cushion covers on the three chairs and two couches have been replaced,  three times, I think, in the last thirty years – twice by my amateurish upholstering, and once, most recently, professionally. Over that time we’ve added to our furniture:  some came from one aunt’s house, some from another; some was bought second-hand, a very few things bought new, and the rest built by BD.  It’s often a combo:  BD built the dining room table, but the chairs came from IKEA, and the two china cabinets came, one each, from my aunts’ houses.  He built the desk at which I write, but bookshelves from IKEA line the walls of the library; I bought the library rug at a yard sale, and my desk chair came from Staples.

The picture that accompanies this post is a shot into our living/dining room. The rug in this photo is new, bought just last summer, replacing two large hand-braided rugs, made by a friend of my mother’s, that after about seventy years of good service had finally just fallen apart. It’s the piece that could have (should have?) set off the Diderot effect. Everything else – except the footstool and lamp – is at least thirty years old. (You can’t see BD’s armchair, off to the right side, but it’s the same as the couch.)  But somehow, there was no Diderot effect (at least for us – you may think differently!). Perhaps it’s just that I’m comfortable with things not matching, perhaps its the associations I have with each piece of furniture. But whatever the reason(s), I like the way everything looks together.

In the end, furniture is functional, and as long as you like it and it’s comfortable, that should be all that matters.  It doesn’t need to match; it doesn’t matter if some things are more worn than others, and, it’s only ‘semi-disposable’ if you choose to view it that way.  As with just about anything and everything in our lives, if we value our furniture, are mindful of keeping it in a safe and useful state – tightening bolts, working wax into wood, fixing fraying seams – it will serve us well, often for more than one generation.

2 thoughts on “Considering Diderot, IKEA, and Furniture

  1. When I first saw the title and the picture I assumed you were contemplating replacing it and I thought, “why would you want to change that? It has such character!” I’m glad I read it through.


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