A Tale of Two Bookcases

L.We start with two bookcases.

Both consist of simple, robust jaws that are conveniently connected to each other. One thing will probably be known: it is the primary unit of the Ivar shelving system, which has been manufactured by Swedish mega-brand IKEA since the late 1960s. His name rhymes with the name of the company’s founder Ingvar Kamprad, who died in 2018. It costs $ 69.

The other shelf, characterized by its diagonal brackets, is part of the Autoprogettazione Furniture system developed by the Italian designer Enzo Mari. It’s a word that is difficult to translate (“self-project” isn’t particularly grammatical, but comes close), but easy to explain. Mari wanted to bring the means of production back to where he believed they belong: in the hands of the people. So he devised a family of shapes that could be made by anyone from cheap lengths of pine and a few nails using the simplest of joints.

If the similarity between these two bookshelves is striking, then the ideological inequality between them is far greater. Kamprad had been a Nazi sympathizer as a young man and began his close association with the Swedish fascists in 1942 when he was 16 years old. After the war he remained a politically conservative man, and of course the company he founded is now considered the friendly face of consumer capitalism. In contrast, Mari was a committed Marxist. When he passed away last October, he was widely hailed as the conscience of design, someone who had spent his life chastising his fellow product designers for their relentless submission to the profit motive. “What producers do today is shit,” he said in a 2015 interview, “because they eat shit…. I have worked half my life to ensure that the world is not what it is today. ”

How is it possible that two bookshelves that are nearly identical in appearance and construction can exemplify both left-wing critical design and the world’s most successful capitalist furniture-making strategy? This question becomes even more provocative when looking at both the Ivar and the Autoprogettazione as manifestations of modernity, the movement that emerged in the 1920s with a program of egalitarian functionalism. Kamprad’s famous “A Furniture Dealer’s Testament” (1976, published just two years after Mari’s DIY plans) epitomizes these themes: creating a better life for many; achieve more with less; Simplicity is a virtue. Mari also stood up for these values. He created hundreds of designs that were always easy to conceptualize, practical to use and affordable in price – children’s games, plastic vases, pen holders – and made by big brands like Danese, Artemide and Zanotta. Even Italians who don’t know his name know his work. It’s the stuff of everyday life.

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