Thursday, July 7, 2016

C of IH - the great Canadian MALM recall, part 2 - Good Design and Common Sense

Chapter 1 - why I think IKEA's MALM chest of drawers is great design;

IKEA is not going to like this one - people are now talking about the quality and the design of their products. I've been scouring the web reading up on the subject. I read an opinion that for North Americans, attaching furniture to the wall, such as MALMs [I call that 'to fix something to the wall', permanently] is not intuitive. I read that traditional 'American furniture' - I presume locally made, organic stuff - is heavier and sturdier, holds up better with moves, 'doesn't tip over'.*** 

I am glad these things are sorted by reasonable people and lawyers, otherwise the court of public opinion would have IKEA disassembled. 

Do you know what the weakness is? 

People don't follow instructions. 

The instructions are clear - attach to the wall. And as IKEA and all other regulatory bodies agree - if your MALM dressers [or several others dressers affected by the recall] is fixed to the wall - it is safe. Use it. A MALM that is attached to the wall is awesome. 

But people don't follow instructions. 

Every single little [or big] thing that you will buy at IKEA will come with instructions, and from now, I want to you to think about those instructions as a contract between you and IKEA - if you want to have IKEA's back on your purchase, you got to follow those instructions. You need to fulfill your end of the bargain for it to work properly - because IKEA has a vested interest that it work properly - IKEA's survival depends on you completing their design. I never thought about it that way, but IKEA's business model - end user assembles the product - saving on the labour costs - is actually quite a weakness of their model - liability. 

But there is such thing as common sense, right?  There is - it would appear to me, and it apparently appeared to IKEA as well, since they produced millions of these units - BUT -  the product is only as good as the assembly job done. And it is a fact of life that some people are better at it than others. 

I have not read a single well qualified opinion out there* about the design of the MALM, and arguments put out were just non-arguments - no need to point at fingers around the web. But you know what, I am qualified to express an opinion - I am a furniture designer by education. And I will tell you, that I love the MALM chest of drawers, I think it is [or was....] a very functional, incredible value, well designed piece, that was well suited for IKEA Hacking. 

Plain a simple, MALM chest of drawers, is not an exercise in expensive good taste - if one could purchase such - it's a functional buy, modern and minimal - you can't really have a more pared down design for a dresser.  You buy the MALM [from here when I type MALM it means the chest of drawers specifically; because MALM is an IKEA furniture line that carries specific design detail] it is because you need to increase your organization of small things - it has only 1/8 bottom so you cannot load up those drawers too heavy****. This 1/8 bottom also an advantage because - and this is a speculation on my part - because the bottom is likely to give out under the weight of the dynamic load, before the unsecured piece tips over. The other advantage of the dresser were the slides - they were those nylon rollers in steel channels - they last [all my other IKEA dressers with the precision ball bearing type have failed, I recently restored an IKEA dresser of that type - you can read couple of issues back, I even gave it a trendy paint-job - really good hack]. The beveled top edge of each drawer face served as the pull - cleanest look of all. It came in a selection to satisfy any taste - white, light wood, dark wood; but there were some other colours that came and went. 

I think it was that minimal look that really yield itself well to being 'hacked' - 'IKEA Hack'. If one googles the IKEA MALM dresser hacks - there are numerous examples of dressers painted, surface application of vinyl and decals, or even examples of trim put on. And the sheer number of them sold would indicate that it was a successful design. I have been reading forums, comments sections of websites, personal blogs, and the consensus seems to be that people enjoyed it. There are numerous on-line tutorials that show how people turned that dresser into IKEA hack.

So why the failure? Why the recall?

Only IKEA is able to do something like this - a massive furniture recall. Try to understand, dear reader, that IKEA is attempting to do something that has never been done before - they are essentially 'nullifying' their entire product line and by doing so they are eliminating a multi-million dollar liability. I am still trying to grasp the size of this - imagine that this is on par with a car company recalling AND destroying their most successful iconic design - Honda recalling and destroying their Civics; Dodge removing every Grand Caravan off the road [I own one, and I love it! so versatile and amazing value! it's my work van/swagger wagon]. What went wrong?

I think I know. It all boils down to IKEA's business model - I think they unintentionally died by their own sword - it was IKEA's advantage that turned against them - unanticipated outcome of customers lack of understanding of safety in design, put together with a results-oriented government agency [an easy, actionable item]. When I heard about the recall - my first thought was, 'only 6  deaths in the history of 30 million or so MALMs? I bet more kids die each year from falling TVs?!'

 But nobody legislates against or recalls TV stands that let TV units fall on children.

So I will come out and say it, if there is a reasonable chance that this thing may tip over and fall, then fix it to the wall! Common sense!

*and if you do send it my way, I want to read it. 
** geopolitics will start entering into the equation though....large manufacturers are contemplating how to deal with China's aggressive stance on South China Sea, and that even includes Apple with their iPhones....
*** Which immediately got me thinking about these American Masters from Fine Woodworking, or Fine Homebuilidng - two fine publications which do nothing but scar people with unreasonable standards which are very challenging to execute. Do they build ASMT compliant dovetailed chests of drawers? 
****This is where I kind of surprised myself, after restoring that dresser from IKEA, with all the mods I did to it, how much sturdier that piece was - an heirloom piece people! heirloom!


One of the reasons why I fabricate and install - I adhere to the best practices, if I can improve it, I always do - the way that I do, is not only because I enjoy executing great craftsmanship, but also because it makes it safer. There always is a back-up to the back-up. I am insured for catastrophic events, but I rest easy knowing that build well. If I am 'hacking' - what I do is essentially re-size the pieces, at the same time keeping all the work done by IKEA - like the edging, pre-drilled shelf supports, etc. - and then the pieces get assembled to a commercial standard. Billy bookcases are easy - they are essentially 'sheet goods' and I throw in a sturdier back, through which I can fix the unit to the wall + a base+ top; and it looks good.  That's why HEMNES hacks are expensive, because they are all solid wood and any fabrication involves executing solid wood joinery. LIATORPs are hopeless, you cannot do anything with it - it's just a dressed up BILLY, and you actually have quite the flexibility at that point - you can make those BILLYs look fancy. BESTA units - go with custom doors on those, that's always my advice - modern Italian laminates done well - looks like a million bucks. I like SEKTION for ...kitchens and they need doors, so go with custom doors - IKEA kitchen with custom doors and elements, like large design elements - panels, cladding and columns - I like doing modern, and give preference to 'modern projects'. 

And my first instinct is to always go with panels from IKEA - you can get one 3' by 8' in any finish, but not all of them cut well - some I just avoid, because it is difficult to execute clean cuts, on professional equipment. If you are trying to merge 2 different systems - like SEKTION for lowers and BESTA for uppers - you will need a transition point - like a nice, thick horizontal slab, add element of curvature if you can, even 1" over 12 feet 'is felt' . You can achieve a good finish with paint - I use foam brushes, Benjamin Moore paints with an extender and paint flat then install. All the things I am mentioning you can see images of if you read the blog back - my work is exactly what I write about.

There are limitations to what I can achieve with IKEA hacking and I observe a specific standard. To overcome that problem I also do custom work. I recently launched a an offshoot of my design practice called 'film cabinetry' - so I reproduce the furniture or built-ins, or even interiors, from your favourite movies. 

How efficient is IKEA Hacking? It's the most efficient method of building cabinetry and millwork- I use it to build for myself [and a very busy family of 4 kids]. Any need that I require for furnishings or organization  I am certain that IKEA can at least partially satisfy, and do it in an efficient, affordable, environmentally sensitive way - I just have to adapt for my functional needs and my aesthetic requirements. But I am certain that the same principle can be applied to your situation - whether you do it yourself or you hire me to do it. 

I once received an 'inspirational image' of my own work, without the sender realizing that it was my work. 

And always best practices observed. 

I decline jobs which I feel the clients asks to compromise on design safety - they may not even realize where the risk might be. But it is my job as a designer and craftsman to identify those risks and eliminate them by suggesting solutions; typically that's where the increased costs lie - more work is required to achieve the desired effect in a safe manner. I really anticipate the un-anticipateable - I mentally run the project through worst case scenarios - I imagine the unreasonable - and I design accordingly. 

You really can't predict how your product will be used or instructions followed. 

I once built, as a design exercise at school, 'lightest chair ever'. When finished, it weighed a believe about a kilogram, I want to say - definitely no more than a 2kg bag of sugar.  I used a 1/4" Baltic Birch to construct the structure with 3/8" by 3/8" poplar fillet to increase bulkness of the corners, where the plywood met - I should upload a pic when I find one. I stress tested the chair extensively, and if I may add, the seat did not contribute to the strength of the structure, it was un-attached. Anyhow, most people did not enjoy the chair, because they found it to be 'too light' - it was a psychological barrier.