Mass production is all around us: our homes are full of things made by machines in massive numbers. I'm writing this on a Chinese-made laptop ordered over the Internet, on a prefab desk of laminated maple, drinking from a machine-milled cup of tea that comes in a box of 500 identical sachets.
Mass production enables us to have many things we couldn't otherwise afford, but these luxuries have their own cost. Because machines produce them in massive, identical lots, they lack individuality and human affect. The difference is one of fit and specificity - the same as between a personal conversation and a broadcast.
Henry Ford is the name indelibly linked with the concept of mass production, but perhaps no one has taken the concept further than Ingvar Kamprad, the man who started IKEA in 1943. You can find many driveways that don't have a Ford on them, but precious few homes that don't contain at least one IKEA chair, shelf, wine glass, lamp or toilet scrubber. In 2008, 565 million customers went through 253 IKEA stores in 24 countries.
Recently, IKEA invited me and four design editors to its headquarters in Almhult, Sweden for a tour of the company and a thumbnail sketch of Scandinavian design. (Full disclosure: The company paid for my trip.) My experience there got me thinking about how we regard design from certain places, and what shapes those ideas.
People's general idea of Scandinavian design is that it's practical, clean-lined and economical. But this wasn't always the way. I hadn't realized that, up until the Second World War, Swedish design in particular was rife with elaborate displays of craftsmanship and decoration - a clear connection to the long history of guilds that served the monarchy.
It was the scarcity of raw materials in wartime that caused the design we today associate with Scandinavia to emerge: bent plywood furnishings (hardwoods were expensive and difficult to get), modern textiles and moulded plastics (produced with the new technologies of the day).
The point is, the Scandinavian situation shaped its design values. The same equation holds here in Canada. On the West Coast in particular, our ethic has always been rudimentary and essential, shaped by the abundance of natural materials and our frontier mentality. Things are big, chunky, raw and unfinished.
That was because we had to build everything from scratch, using what was close at hand. For Canadians, building materials have never been difficult to find - although our ideas about their proper use appear to be changing now. The environment is of higher concern than it used to be, and we're more aware of how our consumptions affect the planet. That, paired with the decline of B.C.'s forestry industry, has architects and designers in the West experimenting with innovative uses for wood and rethinking our approach to natural materials.
No longer, then, is it enough for us to be hewers of wood and drawers of water. We are learning how to do more with less. And in this way, Scandinavia's past may bear some resemblance to Canada's future.
One of the highlights of my trip was meeting Wiebke Braasch, the woman who designed the VIRRE - a bent plywood slide you can now find in the homes of hundreds of thousands of young families around the world. She spoke at length about the limitations of her assignment - the cost, the safety issues, the philosophy of design.
She chose bent plywood because, aesthetically, it exists beside adult furnishings more easily than plastic. She had to consider all the mischief children could get up to - playing hide and seek, chasing, climbing and jumping. The slide had to be safe, every joint and cut tailored to avoid little heads or hands getting stuck.
The finished quality of the piece is high, and despite its being mass-produced and arriving in Canada on a ship from China, unassembled in a cardboard box, it has character. That's the strength of its design.
This, at root, was the tangible lesson I took from my trip: Good design has power. Take a look at the objects around you now. If your vista is like mine, almost nothing is made by hand. No matter. In a world where nearly everything is manufactured en masse, good design humanizes. It bridges the gap between the individual and assembly line; it's the quality you interact with as a person. We need more of it.
And we need more of it here. For beautiful design of industrially manufactured furnishings, Canada is home to a few pioneers. Bensen (bensen.ca), Bocci (bocci.ca) and Molo (molodesign.com) are three West Coast companies that spring to mind. Otherwise, the only furniture Canada produces that can hold it its own against Scandinavia is made on the craft level - generally making it inaccessible to most consumers.