Death to Disposable Furniture - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Death to Disposable Furniture

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Woodworking Blogs

In many ways, the Europeans are ahead of us in the United States (like it or no). Their recycling programs far outpace the ones in the Midwest. Public transport is worlds better. Even the basic coffee is better than our basic Folger’s. They are even ahead of us in switching over to flatpack furniture. And this is a dystopian future.

During the last seven days in Germany and Austria, I’ve paid close attention to the waste that is awaiting pickup in the big cities (Munich) and small towns. The amount of disposable furniture – a lot of it from IKEA – is shocking. Piles of it that stretch for 10’ or more on the sidewalk. And stacked up to 6’ high.

To the amusement of my family, I’ve stopped to inspect these piles of destroyed pieces that were destined for the Island of Misfit Termite Barf. At first I wondered: Do these piles represent a complete remodeling of a kitchen? (Answer: No. The pieces are in a variety of finishes, styles and colors.) Do these piles represent someone gutting an entire home or apartment to move? (Answer: Perhaps. But few places throw our four coffee tables and three dressers.)

In the end, I concluded that these piles are typical. I saw them everywhere, and I’ve never seen anything like them in the United States. Not in Chicago. Not in Cincinnati, Ohio. Not in rural America.

In many ways, our culture is just beginning to get a taste for flatpack furniture. In 2016, Europe had 275 IKEA stores while the North America had 56. We haven’t quite embraced the idea of throwing your stuff away every six years or so.

But I fear we will.

This week did have one piece of poetic justice. As I was inspecting several piles of decimated furniture in Salzburg this evening, I looked up and saw a ray of hope. An antique furniture store named Dorotheum that featured big plate-glass windows filled with furniture pieces – both high and low styles – that were overlooking the piles of particleboard across the street.

Good work survives. And it still has value. Perhaps what we do as woodworkers isn’t a total waste.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 19 comments
  • HlyGhstRydr55

    No one ever heard of RTA?
    Ready to Assemble has been around in the office furniture world for a long while.
    I have sold RTA at the BIG 3 office supply chains since back in ’94 and it was big before then. I even remember (and owned) folded cardboard file cabs.
    Think banker’s boxes on steroids.
    I don’t think Ikea just recently started the dispo movement, but they did bring it into the home.

  • john2t

    Back in the 70’s I used concrete blocks and 1 x 10’s for some of my furniture. Here in Texas we can find almost any thing we need in yard sales.

  • mark_ragnar

    Chris, I hope you ask the locals what is going on with those piles and get their perspective on it. I’m curious.

  • Jim

    Not to change the subject or anything, but how about that chair in the window? I first saw a “Moravian chair” (if that’s truly what they’re called) in Strasbourg, France a couple of years ago. An antique store across from the cathedral had a number of examples and although they looked a bit delicate, to my surprise the proprietor encouraged me to (gently) plop my 250 lb frame down on a couple and try them out. (They were quite comfortable.) I found the design quite interesting and thought it might make an interesting project. Have you ever made one?


    Jim Lancaster
    Dallas, TX

  • Tim Celeski

    Ikea. Flat pack. Cheap. Disposable. Four terms often merged together. But, beyond the negative, there’s more to consider. good design, easy to ship and bring home, flexible, functional and scaled for a compact living, more mobile society.

    Look a little deeper. Furniture like this doesn’t have to be unappreciated.and disposable. It could be so much better, desirable, functional and just as beautiful, lost lasting and treasured as the finest custom furniture if you made it that way. What’s missing from the equation are the very things that woodworkers could add: craftsmanship, fine detail, quality, longevity and desirability. Add good design and skill in natural and inviting materials and you have a whole new equation. For clever craftsmen, it’s a creative opportunity. A tantalizing one, in fact.

  • kotarak

    Nobody in their right mind disposes of the kitchen when leaving a flat. Everybody is ussually happy to take over the kitchen from the previous renter for a reasonable price, since having to buy a new kitchen is usually much more expensive.

    Also, I don’t know anyone who throws out their furniture after six years. The average german cannot afford that. And also the average flatpack furniture lasts much longer than that. My Ikea wardrobes still look like on the first day after eleven years in use. Also my flatpack Ikea bookshelf is made of beautiful massive birch with robust fasteners which survived several knock-downs and moves now. It will probably be still around when I die. What’s the difference to what you describe? The price tag. I learned that “Ikea” means nothing. It heavily depends on how much you pay. As always.

    Do I like the Preßspan furniture? No, I do not! Can I afford new solid wood furniture? No, I do not! Only small pieces or second hand. But that doesn’t mean I’m buying into a “disposable culture” which supposedly is in place here*. Recently a hinge of a solid wood cabinet we bought second hand failed. The wood around the screws tore out. Since it was solid wood I could fix it with a small patch of wood I glued into a shallow mortice. Cabinet door works again. If it were a Preßspan cabinet, the fix would have been more duct-tape like, but I doubt that the cabinet would have been thrown away.

    That all said: I’m trying to go down the Anarchist’s road** and build stuff by myself. Will it work for small things? … Maybe? For whole a kitchen? Very likely not.

    * Which is very surprising to read. I think that protection of the environment, recycling and proper (ie. low) use of resources are valued very highly by the society in Germany!
    ** There are a lot of similar movements here, too. eg. growing your own vegetables and such.

  • keithm

    It’s not just “flat pack.” I see a lot of Asian import furniture with wet or weak wood, bad joinery (if three staples joint is good, 12 is 4 times as good? well maybe only 9 of them catch both parts of the joint), poor finishes, upholstered furniture with not the best fabric or “faux leather” that peels, cheap foam, and particleboard frames. I give most of it 5-7 years before it looks so bad it needs replaced. Just take a look at Craig’s List (especially the “free” topic) to see what I mean.

  • adavidson8

    I’m currently on a quest to replace every item of furniture in my house with something I have built, or someone I love has built. Coming from a line of woodworkers ranging from my father, my grandfathers, and my wife’s grandfather, its surprising I don’t really have much that has been built by any of the them. Those pieces are coveted.

    In college I went through several flat pack pieces of furniture. Some of which have made several moves, some of which collapsed when moving across the room. I’m well on my way down this journey, and perhaps my grandchildren will at least have a piece or two of real furniture from me.

  • MikeV

    When I moved from Chicago to Brooklyn, most of my furniture would not fit up the stairs, so I had to ship most of it back. We did pay $250 to have a brand new sofa cut in half and patched back together (you would never know. Look up “new york sofa doctor”).

    We had no choice but to buy a set of flat pack dressers and chests from icky-Ah. Two moves later (including back home to Chicago) and the stuff mostly fell apart. The IKEA lingerie chest did survive, and ironically enough I use it as a tool chest of drawers in my shop. Eight years into this hobby and I have yet to build any shop furniture other than an outfeed table and table saw sled. I will play house in the shop when I am done building house furniture, I guess 🙂

  • Kevin0611

    As long as the furniture isn’t moved frequently, IKEA furniture is plenty durable. But, yeah, the particle board when racked weakens those dowel joints and things start to go south.

    I have two dressers, a bed and a nightstand purchased in my 20’s when I was single and broke, that are serving my little kids well, twenty years later.

    Maybe one day I’ll replace them one at a time with stuff I build but it’s been a great value over the years.

  • C. Stanley Plane

    Flat pack furniture may not seem that sexy but, one in ten Europeons were conceived on an Ikea bed

  • D Moriarty

    I’ve been in Munich since 2012: I have never seen anything like this. As someone mentioned above you could have hit the “one day a year” when this occurs, but not in my experience. From what I’ve seen people hold onto their furniture here a LOT longer than in the US and are generally overall less wasteful. And when you do go to the flea markets on the weekend, you see furniture in really bad shape (meaning that the 2nd hand market isn’t as thriving as it is in the US). There’s a severe lack of something like Craigslist, although they have a version of Ebay (Kleinanzeigen) which serves roughly the same purpose for used goods, and they seem to sell at a higher % than in the US for the same used good.
    However, who knows, maybe I will start seeing these piles now that you’ve pointed this out!

    • Christopher Schwarz
      Christopher Schwarz

      I may have been there on the day in Munich when you can dispose of big items. And then in Salzburg the next week on their special day for big items.

      But I haven’t seen piles of decimated flatpack like this in the States. Not even on “big item pickup day.” Sooooo…..

  • Joel Jacobson

    It’s not unusual in my area (DC and suburbs) to see several Ikea items offered in the “Free” section of Craig’s List.

  • dkratville

    When I lived in Germany, 26 years ago, they had one day a year where everyone the their old furniture out for pick up. We would drive around town looking for things we could still use. I was in the Army and we were issued a wall locker a bed and a desk with desk chair. We would go looking for used and free couches to sit on in our rooms. Might be something like that still happening, although there was no IKEA furniture back then on the streets, it was real furniture.


    • jglen490

      That was my experience also back in that era. I was in Germany from 1979 – 1982, a single enlisted guy, and with the rank I had was required to live “on the economy”. German homes are taxed by the number of rooms – a closet counts as a “room”, so they would use an enormous “schrank” (basically a wardrobe cabinet) in place of the closet space.

      Built-ins were not typical in kitchens. My kitchen had a sink, but no cabinets. The bathroom had a tub, sink, and toilet, but no cabinets. The bedroom, plenty of space, but no closet. So all the furnishings, were custom to the room, but not a part of the room. Moving to another apartment would probably have required leaving some furniture and acquiring something else, just because of that. I think it was also tax-related. Another difference between the U.S. and Europe – for better or worse.

      The annual ritual of disposing of furniture was also typical then. Around U.S. military areas, the running joke had to do with Germans disposing of old furniture, for the Americans to pick up at midnight! It was all good. The current result is probably related to te increasing use of the convenient “flat pack” furnishings, rather than older crafted (to some extent) furniture.

  • delong1974

    Having to supply a whole kitchen when one rents in Germany (and dispose of it when one leaves the unit) doesn’t help the disposable culture there.

  • Nouwanda


    Indeed IKEA is a big thing in Europe. I read a piece once explaining it destroyed the “linen” bed with the invasion of the IKEA’s duvet from northern Europe (opposite to south Europe with cotton and linen sheets). From a French (and young) perspective, I completely agree on your view of the European flat furnitures consumption trend, with the I change everything every 3/5 years because everything crumble the last time I mooved…
    On the other end, that’s funny to see the USA/Canada (as far as I know these countries) as wood construction countries. In Europe most housing is made of stone/concrete or concrete-like materials, mainly for durability (with recent trends for wood constructions). So the long term view for furnitures does not apply for housing ?
    Anyway, I love your work.
    Best regards,

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A great use for fast-growing oak. Rear posts for ladderback chairs, some in the bending form, others just mortised for the slats. These posts are 11⁄4" in diameter and have about 6 growth rings.