'Peak Stuff'

the recently-opened research and development space for IKEA in the Meatpacking District in Copenhagen

I don’t usually comment on posts on other internet sites or blogs but I have to confess that I was more than a bit curious about various reports on an event in London, hosted by The Guardian, where Steve Howard, Head of Sustainability for IKEA, suggested that in the west we may have “hit peak stuff” 

Is business action on climate change believable? - was a panel session with questions from the audience and was held shortly after the Paris summit on climate change.

Steve Howard talked about ‘sustainable abundance’ and at one point suggested that one aim should be to ‘de carbonise growth’ that both sound rather like business as usual but he also talked about IKEA reducing the impact of their transport systems and their stores by using renewable energy and mentioned their move from halogen lighting to the lower energy consumption of LED for lighting sold in the stores which are obviously part of a proactive approach to reducing the use of energy both by the company and by their customers but, to be glib, with 2 million customers visiting an IKEA store each day then the reality is that each day more people in the world must be replacing and dumping more products from IKEA than from most other single companies and the business is not sustainable if it does not continue to sell. At the least, 137,000 people employed by IKEA depend for their livelihoods on selling stuff. 

The remark about peak stuff came in response to a question from the audience that asked the panel how the problems of sustainability and the threat to the planet from climate change can be tackled while governments and business see us all as customers rather than as citizens.

Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research admitted that in a ‘complex system’ change is difficult and several points were made about the problem for investors and governments if they have to create policies for a market that inevitably cannot be based on growth. Sasja Beslik from Nordea emphasised that transparency in business is crucial, presumably so we can see what they are or are not doing about energy use and sustainability, and it was pointed out that one serious hurdle is to get governments and major companies to not only focus on a longer-term perspective but also to confront the reality that we cannot have infinite ‘green growth’ but that the trade off might be that we consume less but have more free time … something that Kevin Anderson called ‘steady economics’. It was at that point that Steve Howard, I think in trying to be positive, said that in the west we have “hit peak stuff … peak home furnishings” but it was not clear if he meant peak production or peak demand or a saturation point where everyone in the west really has no space left for an IKEA product.


Will Hutton in his column in the Observer on 31st January gave his well-considered reaction to the idea … if having more no longer satisfies us, perhaps we’ve reached ’peak stuff’.

the cost of good design - the value of good design


A friend opened a design store in England selling Nordic furniture and there was usually a group of the stools designed by Alvar Aalto in the window or close to the door - the Stool 60 that was designed in 1933 and still produced by Artek.

Several times when I was in the shop, people came in, the stools would attract their attention, there would be a comment, maybe about the attractive colours, and then they would look at the price tag. Invariably the reaction was the same and the wording almost predictable … “WHAT” …. “I’m not paying that for a stool. I can buy exactly the same stool from IKEA for virtually nothing.”

The customer is always right and it was not my shop so I said nothing but every time wanted to say … “Yes. You can get a cheap stool in IKEA but it’s not this stool and surely you can see the difference.” 

I told the story to another friend and showed him the two stools from Artek that I have and tried to explain why there was no comparison. Next time he went to IKEA he bought a Frosta stool for me as a present … and a joke.

The Frosta stool in the UK is £8 and a Stool 60 by Artek is about £200 - depending on the colour and finish. This was a challenge. There is a huge difference between the two stools but is the stool from Finland better than the stool from IKEA by a factor of 25?


Stool 60 was a groundbreaking design that came from Aalto’s understanding of wood and carpentry techniques and his understanding of the specific qualities of local timbers … his grandfather had been a chief instructor at the Evo Forestry Institute. The design exploits a specific technique developed by Aalto himself where, in order to bend wood, he made a series of vertical cuts in the top, inserted thin sheets of ply and glue before steaming the wood and bending it to shape. It could be bent at a sharp curve but would retain that shape with the same strength as the main solid-timber part of the leg. Normally legs would be housed into a frame on the underside of the seat but with the Stool 60 the bent legs are screwed directly to the underside of the seat so that it does not need the skill of a cabinet maker to form a circular frame and housings or joints for the legs which, if badly made are a weak point. This makes the stools light and strong and the arrangement of the three legs meant they were more stable on an uneven floor and could be stacked … a distinct benefit when using the stools as temporary seating in the schools and libraries that Aalto was working on as an architect

The stool was robust and was designed to last and last it did. It became a standard item found in many Finnish homes and it was passed down in families from generation to generation. They were painted different colours over the years and personalised so most Finnish families have a Stool 60 - much as many Danish families have a PH5 lamp. That’s really how a design should become an icon. Not the easy way by being declared to be iconic by a design magazine or an advertising department.


As to the Frosta. To make it much easier to produce and much cheeper to produce, the legs are cut from a sheet of plywood and then bent at the top. That is why the bottom of the leg is rounded off … to try to stop the plywood splitting where it is cut across … and that is also why, when you look at it, the whole leg is slightly bent or warped and certainly gives or flexes when anyone sits on it. The proportions are thin … slightly mean … and I really can’t imagine anyone passing this down through the family … if it lasted that long. But then IKEA would argue that for that price, what more could you expect.

And before someone who is too clever for their own good points it out … I do know that with the IKEA stool, for the money, you even get an extra leg.