News & Politics

Real Furniture Isn't for People with College Loans

It's people like me buying IKEA furniture that put my father's mill out of business.
In my bedroom, my father crouches close to the ground. He's wearing jeans, a long-sleeve collared shirt, and a dark-green fleece vest. In his right hand he holds a hammer. His face is solemn, and his eyes are focused down. He's staring at a small plastic bag of screws, pegs, and nails. My dad understands how to use all of these fasteners. He's worked with wood since high school, when he built a bed from scratch. The man knows his oak from his pine, his awl from his planer. But right now, my dad is confused, hesitant.

He is helping me put together my IKEA "Aneboda" bed.

My father pulls open the plastic bag and dumps its contents on the ground, separating the different fasteners into little piles. While he's doing this, my boyfriend and I start laying the particleboard pieces of the bed around him like we're reconstructing a newly discovered dinosaur. We think we know where everything goes based on other beds we've seen, but we can't be completely sure.

Dad takes two pegs from the peg pile and sticks them into the end of the footboard. We haven't taken out the instructions yet, but he doesn't care. He twists the pegs to nudge them into their holes, then lifts one of the bed's long side pieces, balances it on his knee, and pushes it into the other side of the pegs. I rush over to hold the long piece for him so he can tap-tap, tap-tap on the end of the particleboard with the hammer. I hold the piece tight. I am there for him. I am there to help.

I am there feeling guilty.

Downstairs, I have a very nice hardwood headboard. It was constructed of ash by trained craftspeople who took the time to shape it, to sand it, to varnish it right. My father gave me this headboard two weeks earlier. It was a gift, part of a bedroom set that I had picked out myself from a catalog. And the set was beautiful. I absolutely loved it.

But buying furniture is one of those adult rites of passage, like doing your own taxes, that is full of secrets. One of those secrets, I discovered, was that a headboard was only that -- a chunk of wood that sits at the top of a bed. It doesn't include a bed frame or a box spring. Two items that, for a kid just out of college, are a lot of money.

As guilty as I felt returning my father's gift, I couldn't deny that buying a bed from IKEA would be much, much cheaper. IKEA doesn't sell traditional bed frames or box springs. Rather, they sell what I would describe as mattress podiums -- fully formed, relatively stylish beds with no metal frame, box spring, or hardwood headboard required.

So here we are now. At the foot of the bed, my boyfriend screws a metal runner to the inside of one of the bed's long side panels. Up at the head, my father and I pick up a veneered overhang. It's a little shelf that sits at the top of the IKEA bed's headboard, wide enough to hold tea candles but not anything useful like an alarm clock or a lamp.

There's a little ball of tension in my stomach. Since graduating from college, I've put together an IKEA desk, an IKEA bookcase, two IKEA tables, and two IKEA chairs. Like almost everyone else my age who relies on the functional, somewhat fashionable IKEA furniture, I've gotten to the point where putting these things together is intuitive. I know what kind of joints have the wooden pegs and what kind of joints have the screws.

My father, however, doesn't have this knowledge. As I hold the overhang in place, he pauses, briefly flustered, before he starts screwing it in. It's especially frustrating to watch knowing that wood is in my dad's blood. My grandfather, a French-Canadian immigrant, founded a small wood products mill in 1958. My dad started working there when he was in 14. He left the mill to go to college, and he eventually found work as a civil engineer. After a few years, however, he came back to help with the mill, and he took over the business entirely in 1979. He oversaw everything from the creation of chair seats to a complex European machine that produced bendable wood. But in my bedroom, where we are working with veneer and pegs, my father and I put the headboard's little shelf on backwards. It's sticking out so that every time I lie down, I'll hit my head on it.

"Is this the way it goes?" I ask.

My father stares at it, then says, "I don't know.

I pull out the instructions, looking at the happy-man outline that points out what to do. "No," I say, following the happy man's instructions. "I don't think that's right."

I start removing the screws we just put in. Like a drifter, my father moves on, restless. He helps my boyfriend attach a second metal strip to the inside of the bed frame. My dad pushes the screws tight into the particleboard so they stay. He pushes them in tight like he's trying to hurt the bed.

See, it's this stuff -- this put-on-the-curb-when-you-move, OK-to-break-it stuff -- that forced my father to eliminate his employees' health insurance in 2002. It was this stuff that forced him to make layoffs. And it was this stuff that forced him to shut down the mill entirely in 2005.

Or, to put it another way, it's people like me buying this IKEA stuff that put my father -- and hundreds of men and women like him -- out of business.

Standing in the middle of the frame, my father picks up two pieces of metal that are supposed to cross and make an X in the center of the bed. They look flimsy, these crossbars. Shady. If I met these crossbars on a street corner and they said to me, "Hey, Meg. Put us in your bed. We'll keep it together," I wouldn't trust them. But they came in the box from IKEA, so I do.

My father is wary of them as well. He finally takes a peek at the instructions, turning his head from the happy man to the bars and back again. Hovering outside the bed, my boyfriend leans in and says, "Just put the screw in where the metal meets," while pointing at the cross of the X. My father moves to put the screw in.

"No, put it in the other way. Up," says my boyfriend.

I stand off to the side, balling and unballing my hands. The tension is harder to break than the particleboard. My boyfriend looks at the instructions and moves to put the screw in himself, but holds back. Tentatively, my father puts the screw in the center of the X. My boyfriend and I exhale.

When my father made the decision to close the mill, he and my mother took a deep breath and then started calling the companies that owed them money. Not surprisingly, most of them were in bad shape as well. My parents became reluctant debt collectors, calling and recalling chair makers and bed makers, hoping that they could pay their dues before filing for bankruptcy. Not all of them did. To one of the companies, my parents made an offer -- instead of money, they could pay my family with a few bedroom sets. That's how I received the hardwood headboard that I gave back. I feel awful for refusing it. But like so many of my peers, I'm not living in a world of real wood anymore. Real wood isn't for people with student loans, and it isn't for people who think they might want to move across the country. It isn't for people whose friends drink cheap cans of beer without coasters. We might like real wood, and we might covet it. But it's not what we dream of. For right now, I live a life that is closer to particleboard than ash.

It's a fact that my father knows all too well. Once the frame is together, he goes downstairs. I pull my mattress on top, and I dress it in clean sheets. I smooth out the blankets and the comforter. I grew up supported by real wood, being fed and clothed by real wood. But when I lie down tonight, I will be supported by IKEA.