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An Idea called IKEA!

June 18, 2013

custom-made permanent study-cum-work station

a custom-made permanent study-cum-work station (work in progress)

IKEA VS. LOCAL CUSTOM-MADE FURNITURE IN INDIA – A HOUSEWIFE’S PERSPECTIVE

I came to hear about IKEA the first time only when it was in our headline news last year, for our cabinet cleared a massive investment proposal by IKEA in India.  Until then to me and a vast majority of Indians IKEA simply did not exist.  Shortly on my visit to Dubai, I had a first time opportunity to see some nice IKEA furniture in a friend’s place.  Went past the ‘Festival City’ that houses IKEA that everyone insisted I must not miss as the concept is unknown in India but I gave it a miss anyway.

Finally IKEA is open here in Doha where i am visiting and where i could finally step into the ‘Festival City’ of IKEA for the first time.  Meanwhile i have to list the reason now as to why IKEA is stalling its India operations.  Supposedly even if our congress stooges gave the ‘nod’ to IKEA, the pre-condition laid down  is, IKEA has to source a good percentage of its products  from within India, from Indian small-scale manufacturers/industrialists that has put the global manufacturers in a fix.  (All IKEA has to do is take care of some of our politicians in business and the hurdles will be cleared, so IKEA will have nothing to fret about; its all a bit of  melodrama by the Congress govt of ours IKEA guys, wait a little  🙂   Must be sorted out in a matter of time, anyway as of now, atleast  IKEA is on back foot with this pre-condition in India which they might never have faced in other countries.  Walmart is in a fix for the same reason about its India operations.  (which i welcome, reasons later)

http://www.thehindu.com/business/companies/fipb-clears-ikeas-rs10500crore-proposal/article4116591.ece

http://www.thehindu.com/business/Industry/govt-disallows-ikea-from-selling-food-items-in-its-brand-stores/article4644362.ece

http://www.thehindu.com/business/companies/ikea-seeks-relaxation-of-sourcing-norms/article3565953.ece

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/Govt-clears-IKEAs-Rs-10500-crore-FDI-proposal/articleshow/19840651.cms

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/Govt-set-to-clear-air-on-retail-FDI/articleshow/19997253.cms

So oh yes IKEA, it won’t the same for you in India like around the world!

So with all this in mind and from great glorious stories about the phenomenon called ‘IKEA’ I entered theirshowroom last week with raw anticipation.   Spent almost four hours shopping there for everything from light furniture to kitchen accessories.  It was like a family picnic for us, and because its our first IKEA experience, we greatly enjoyed the detour.

Let me make it clear here why I looked forward to IKEA shopping so much.  Its much touted about by everyone for the starters as I explained earlier.  Then the curiosity factor like I said.  And thirdly and most importantly for the honest reason that my husband is eligible for new furnishings in his company once in two years.  (Still i am not greedy to want to buy everything new every two years.  Coming from a poor country like India, i hate wastage outright and use all the stuff till they fall apart in our small furnished apartment.)

So we went to IKEA for weekend shopping having waited long enough and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves the experience.   For all my reservations about IKEA, i did like the giant and would very much want them in India if we aren’t such a poor, agrarian, labour-intensive nation.

About furniture, i won’t say the IKEA furniture looked sturdy but the kitchen accessories were good.   Was disappointed on finding only duvet covers and not bedsheets and then i was reminded that these guys are Swedish so duvet is the one for them whereas for a hot and sunny India, duvet is unthinkable.  So for the sheets, i have to look elsewhere.  I don’t buy duvets as we have less use for them in India, and even in Qatar i find it amusing that local arabs are buying duvets over sheets, this being a desert country basically.  The winters are pleasant here, not blood-chilling cold that one has to sleep in duvet.   Somehow i find the arabs embracing anything handed down to them from America to Europe without a question, be it ‘Starbucks’ coffee or KFC chicken or whatever.

About the furniture that can easily be assembled at home, its an easy guess that most are chinese products under Swedish licence (from the Swedish manufacturers’ China plant is a good guess).  We have this type of furniture made in Indonesia and Malaysia imported into India, that are made from compressed wood.  Its not good, NOT AT ALL good, but looks stylish and contemporary.  How i very much long for our old desi furniture made of solid teak and rosewood.  I very much regret having disposed off my grand teak cot but still hold on to century old antique furniture that are our family heirlooms:  a rosewood dresser and a rosewood almirah with a mirror (mirror had to be replaced).  Recently i had them varnished again after changing locks and  I am positive they will last another hundred years with a little care.  They have hardened like into cold stones in the decades that passed by.  They feel like steel presently, not like the weaker warmer wood.  They don’t fit into my contemporary home somehow, but losing them is so difficult for me.  Walking into some ‘desi’ furniture shops in Chennai that still hold on to selling teak furniture, i found that the current prices of teak furniture are staggering.  Very few takers for them now because the designs are outdated and dismal (in some cases) and might not suit the current age lifestyle, and they weigh a ton literally!

Anyway, teak is not allowed to grow in India like it used to be once upon a time, cut short way too early before time, and I am told, like hybrid coconut trees that bear coconuts in matter of five years that we now plant at home and grow in groves for those which we need not have to wait for twenty years like in our grandpa’s time for our first harvest, even teak matures and is somewhat ready for chopping in five years (that somehow makes me sad).  Kerala seems to be the only state in India wherefrom our last teaks will be arriving and a keralite friend admitted, the strength of teak is weak like diluted tea these days, given that teak tree is never allowed to grow to its full potential.  Like chicken butchered for chicken-65 too young, today’s teak furniture are also in a way weak unlike their solid and sturdy ancestors of the past.  (for great and intricate teak woodwork in residences and temples one has to visit Kerala; avowed by what i saw there).

And again when Malaysian and Indonesian furniture are here anyway, what is the need for IKEA in India.  Now that i have Malaysian and Indonesian furniture at home in India and that i have also seen firsthand the IKEA furniture guess I can do a mental comparison between the south east Asian manufacturers and their Swedish counterparts.  Not much of difference seriously, but the packaging is good, the showcasing is good by IKEA.  The south east Asian furniture too comes in boxes with the pieces to be assembled at home.  The greatest advantage in India is that the showroom sends trained personnel to assemble the furniture at home given that we are a labour intensive nation.  I have seen how these staff assemble the pieces faster with practised ease looking at the printed material.  I doubt the same can be done at ease by any of us because i have seen over two dozens of nails being driven into place and holes drilled for the same.  IKEA says assembling for purchases of over 2500 QR is free but that is just not enough.

Still for many IKEA looks like a good IDEA  i guess.  Neat presentation like none other i have been before.  As an Indian citizen who is unexposed to this kind of consumer market, it looks fabulous to me at the outset.  IKEA is cheap, that we cannot deny.  And way too cheap over Malaysian and Indonesian furniture.  One greatest advantage.

Making our way through the IKEA showroom, we reached the eatery midway.  (By this time we had wound through floors and separate sections for bedroom furniture, living room etc. )  Surprisingly there were one or two vegetarian dishes like mashed potato and french fries for me.  In the pastries glass-case, i could n’t  help noticing Swedish cakes and pies arranged in an alluring manner for customers whose stomachs must be rumbling already pacing up and down the showroom floors  partitions.   I found Turkish coffee and Shwarma also on the menu which seemed to be the only Asian fare.  Being a vegetarian, i am somewhat used to settling for mashed potatoes, french fries, donuts, coffee and fruit juice everywhere, besides green salads.  So somewhat i know the difference, don’t I?  I found the mashed potato to be the best i have ever tasted in my life although i admit i have been hardly to three or four countries.  But years of having the same stuff has somewhat given me an idea of what to expect and what could be the right standard, so this is my inference.  The men in my family said they were surprised that a retailer could have stuff like that in their menu because unlike me both are familiar with international cuisine and relish very much the Arabic, American, Mexican and European and other Asian food in equal measure (even if beef and pork are a strict ‘no-no’ for them too).

If not for IKEA, we would have been chilling out somewhere else anyway, that being the weekend, so it was like unbelievable that we were snacking at the showroom, relaxed like in a proper restaurant, savouring the moment.  The billing was neither too high nor seemed to be subsidized.    What we liked the most was how everything was nicely streamlined, seeming to blend seamless,  making the entire trip look like a visit to the zoo or cinema.  The comfort factor is what i am talking about.  In fact i want to return to the ‘Festival City’ for the sake of the mashed potatoes alone again and again!

Having finished the snacks we continued our leisurely trip once again taking our own time for close inspection of everything on display – from the china to curtains to utility racks to towels and napkins.  I have never felt at ease like this anywhere else shopping.

I have to mention here the inch tape that we were presented with for measuring the furniture and duvet covers and things like that – a very thoughtful gesture.  I remember while making my own purchases in India i had to carry the tape myself everytime.

I found a nice wardrobe which was not too wide to waste space but tall enough with a good storage finally – which i was looking for.  I have to mention here the permanent wardrobes i recently got made in my home in Chennai.  I had hired a team of local carpenters who had a good experience and did everything with their hands instead of machines.  I handpicked the mica sheets and even the plywood grades.  I also got a work/study table custom-made which runs the entire width of a room almost.  The carpenters spent over two months making it all for me.  In the end i must admit i don’t have stylish wardrobes but functional and anti-termite proof and sturdy wardrobes that are permanent fixtures in my home.  I can’t change them atleast for 20 years now i know and even after that only if I want to.  One thing i did was saying a strict ‘NO’ to chinese hinges in the wardrobe doors and insisting on the regular old fashioned Indian brass  hinges that are longlasting and don’t need replacements or repairs ever.  All that make my wardrobes not so goodlooking but again combined together with the upper lofts i save so much space for storage which was my main goal.

Making custom wardrobes is still cheapest and best in India with local labour/carpenters.  These guys are very good at their work.  And believe me with labour wages and the material its all still worthy and way too cheap over ready-made wardrobes like you find in showrooms of IKEA or Malaysian/Indonesian imports gallerie that are nothing but powdery MDF stuff.

Some friends do buy the assembled sort like IKEA but personally I prefer the custom-made that suits our room dimensions and that which are sturdy and that which never go out of fashion and are least expensive and that which are hallmark of good workmanship over those furniture that come in cartons straight from factories untouched by human hands and ready for assembling with nuts and bolts.

In India therefore wardrobes and other such furniture are totally a different concept.  My kitchen is a modular one in Chennai which is very much space saving for its tiny size but i think the semi-modular custom-made kitchens of our friends are the best.  I would have had the carpenter make my kitchen but i wanted to save space so consulted a kitchen specialist.  Not that my home is a palace its a simple dwelling place – a flat after all.  But every square inch of space is important to me because every square foot is so very expensive in my city.

So what we Indians think about wardrobes is way too different when compared to what foreigners think.  We want long lasting furniture  as we are not the type to change them every now and then like many others do.  Carpenters in India are known for their craftsmanship – and better that IKEA team visit our homes to see how good our wardrobes and how functional kitchens are even if they may not be very modern or chic.

I also worked out mentally how much it would cost me if i had store-bought my wardrobes in India.  This i am estimating without the loft spaces closed in all rooms over the wardrobes that give me the much-needed extra storage.  I found that i would have needed to shell out over twice i paid for the entire wardrobes in three rooms plus the added lofts apart from some storage shelves and cupboards i made in addition.  Not only are the wardrobes made by skilled carpenters in our country long lasting but they also fit our modest domestic budget.  Not even IKEA with their base prices can undo this greatest advantage local skilled workers have in India over foreign imports stylish and contemporary and sleek as they could appear.

But then in Qatar i have no other option than settling for ready-made assembled wardrobes.  We have a couple at home here that are good enough but feel so like plastic.  I wanted one more so the IKEA trip.  But one option is that we can dispose off this one with ease and substitute it with a new one whenever we want to.  Can have a theme about our bedroom and all other spaces  – we can see to that from curtains to bedspreads to wardrobes everything will go together – one thing we just cannot have with local custom-made wardrobes in India that become our permanent home fixtures.  So most of us Indians tend to opt for neutral colours and concepts that will never go out of fashion for a lifetime naturally.

Ever since i came out of IKEA so this is what is going on in my mind.  I had had an argument with my head carpenter about costs but now very much i regret it sincerely.  I can see what a master craftsman he is given his vast experience and knowledge.  A semi-literate that he is he still updates himself with technology and tries to incorporate a thing or two from the west into his own creatures to give the woodwork he makes a modern touch.  For instance he was all for easy chinese hinges that make it possible for us to remove the entire doors of wardrobes if we want to.  But on my insistence on our own old Indian hinges he complied with my requests and made the wardrobes the way i wanted.

While i did enjoy my shopping experience in IKEA i still have to say its nothing compared to my experience in India when it came to choosing material for our woodwork at home.  I had to make numerous trips to carpentry shops that line a locality that is well known for these materials being wholesale and retail suppliers.  I chose my own ply looking at the unlimited options but my carpenter helped me with my choice keeping my estimated budget in mind.  I chose my own mica.  I chose the nuts and bolts and locks.  I designed the wardrobes – in the sense i showed the carpenter the space and described to him what i wanted.   He for his part showed me a number of illustrated manuals and home design magazines and together we chose something to fit my own expectations.  I went to the place being done every day practically for over two months and oversaw a team of carpenters working to gave shape to my dreams.  Not that i am rich –  only middle-class.  Still the way i could shape my dreams into actual reality gave me such a pleasure.  And i am a layman in that.  I can imagine then how women with a taste for this kind of thing and those like home designers, interior people and architects can fare in this field.  Given the wide range of choices and designs to choose from in India this is rightly the place where we MUST go for custom-made wardrobes in my humble opinion.  Its a sheer pleasure that can never be equaled with assembling from a box of cartons the way IKEA delivers to you so stylishly.  I don’t mean to find fault with them – the guys merely made me realize our own potential that we seem to be so unaware of.

I look more at IKEA experience here in Doha like a weekend shopping or a relaxed evening-out.  The tour helped me come clear of some many doubts that had been persisting for years in my mind.  A friend who is all for IKEA type wardrobes said she was aghast Indian homes were still opting for lofts over wardrobes that is out of fashion.

As for master craftsmen in India like carpenters, silk weavers etc, the decline in their breed has long since commenced insists a family friend who is a civil contractor.  Says he, its now getting very tough to get carpenters like old time and the new generation of carpenters prefer screwing nuts and bolts into places like in IKEA furniture than sweating day long sawing the wood, shaping and polishing custom furniture that so lovingly the older men used to do.  Varnishing is such a tough job to do manually.  The number of skilled workers to do this specialized job, for instance, is forever decreasing with enamel polishing with machines making their way into this segment.

I can’t help remembering a carpenter my grandfather used to employ when i was a little girl.  I have vivid memories surprisingly even today of the young craftsman working with a block of teak wood sawing it raising a cloud of saw dust  everywhere, then shaping it and polishing it for days into wardrobe doors etc.  The wardrobes stood like steel safe vaults for years before the building started getting torn by the demolishing contractor.  Same is true of my in-laws’ home in Chennai which was very recently demolished.  Going strong at 60, the house used to boast of all handcrafted cupboards, doors and windows in solid teak.

With the passage of decades, it is easy to note how we have quietly moved over to the plywood instead of plain block wood that needed so much sawing, carving and shaping.  Choice of the ply in itself is a tough task today.  One can go about it keeping in mind our budget constraint and also our actual requirements.  Same with the mica.

But i have come to accept lately the inevitable fact that someday all of this old world charm will disappear totally from our lives.  I am resigned sadly to this fate awaiting us in near future in India.  One day very soon, all good things like these will give way to quickly-assembled furniture like the Malaysian/Indonesian/IKEA with nuts and bolts, not with long steel turning keys.    The MDF and hardwood furniture (made from padaak wood and rubber wood i understand) have already swamped the Indian markets in the cot and couches segments.  Compressed wood for one thing, how many can guess, hardly can withstand the great Indian heat conditions.  Rubberwood after a while starts coming out in powders and with MDF we know how the handling has to be – as if we are handling glasses and crystals.  For the heavy Indian usage and wear and tear and local climatic conditions, what do you think is the best?  A friend got a leathery couch that started to powder soon as the great Indian summer started.

IKEA is convenience, claim my friends who like it (those of them who are using it abroad).

Well i cannot round up this blog without writing about the stacking of furniture stocks by IKEA in their stores.  The ceiling seems to be some 30 feet up and the entire structure is steel so the crates of furniture pieces to be assembled are neatly labelled and stacked according to computerized serial numbers/codes for easy retrieval, in horizontal and vertical rows.  I counted atleast 3 horizontal rows one above the other.  How the heavy wooden crates will be brought down will be interesting to watch.  Immaculate orderliness like i have seen before in my life in this area.  This one discipline about them is enough for me to gauge the reason for their universal success.

I gave a sweeping glance and learned from the men in my family that the entire structure is plain with just 4 huge surrounding walls with everything else done in steel which gives the impression of vast spaciousness about the galleries.  Simple but efficient.

Still,  IKEA guys,  by now you must clearly  have an IDEA as to why our government insists on 30% of sourcing from local small-scale entrepreneurs in India.  If you are to be in India one hundred percent, just think how much creativity you will be trampling upon, how many doors you will be closing down forever. how many livelihoods you will be extinguishing.   It pains me so much to think that this has to happen to my country, to our local industry, to our labour population.

Still IKEA will sadly succeed in India like nowhere else in the world, because this is a nation where we have 500 million upwardly mobile booming middle-class who are bored with everything Indian and can’t wait to embrace anything western at any cost.

Not denying the fact that the furniture import from foreign countries into India will SAVE A LOT OF INDIAN TREES FROM BEING CUT DOWN – which is one great positive way to look into the entire scenario.  Looks like we win some, we lose some.

Before exiting IKEA, I noticed near the billing section a counter that sold Swedish jams and jellies and biscuits and chocolates.  A wave of jealousy washed through me as I pondered to what length the IKEA guys are going to protect and promote their own local industry.  Why in the name of globalization, we Indians have to compromise all DESI values, i found myself asking.  Putting thousands of desi carpenters out of work means first of all we have to find employment for them in other sectors which is not an easy task.  It’s pretty unfair to do this to a 1.2 billion population labour intensive nation.    Innovation – to what extent, is the question we all have to ask ourselves.

I am quite content with the Malaysian and Indonesian furniture that are already here, even if they are a bit expensive.  They are expensive to the extent of discouraging lower middle-class Indians and the price-conscious to opt out of them which is a good deterrent.  Right now i guess there is already a good balance in Indian woodwork market between imported and local custom-made furniture.  The entire modular kitchens are anyway imported to cater to upper-end customers.  Where IKEA will fit in and what all they will displace in this country is for anyone to guess

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PS:

From snacks in the eatery to the kitchen food savers when everything is from Sweden, imagine having this kind of a store in India – IKEA says its ready to open in 22 Indian cities.  I say, lets sing our National Anthem for one last time and down the shutters on all small scale Indian industries and cottage industries.   Already illegal chinese goods along with legal ones have penetrated the Indian markets.  What a shameless government we have in the center.   Are we going back to our colonial times.    This is NOT GLOBALIZATION and if this is what it is then I don’t want it.  I wonder whether the Swedish government will allow any Indian business to open up shops in entire length and breadth of their country.    Qatar and UAE and others are oil rich and can afford this kind of luxury (?) but can we Indians?  Some nations are subdued by force, some like our foolish one can be broken in a manner we might never have thought possible.

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