Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will

somehow work for the benefit of all.

(credited to John Maynard Keynes)



How a multinational furniture company honours John Ruskin’s and William Morris’



“Sure, somewhere there’s someone who always gets things done according to plan. Someone who’s perfect. Who never speaks with their mouth full. Who never lets the pasta boil over. Whose kitchen is always spotless. Have you ever met anyone like that? We certainly haven’t. [...] Imperfect is perfect enough. The ›perfect‹ dinner party doesn’t exist. And it’s a myth that stops many of us from throwing open the doors and inviting people over.” [1]

This astonishing endorsement of the perfection of imperfection was not authored by John Ruskin, the intellectual pioneer of the British Arts and Crafts movement, but can rather be found in the current IKEA catalogue; and what may appear frivolous at first glance—a comparison of John Ruskin’s and William Morris’ approach to the written work of Swedish marketing strategists—in fact proves a highly fertile subject for critical analysis of the present upon closer inspection. Very much in accordance with the era at the end of the 19th century, the intention here is for a more beautiful domestic life to form the nucleus of a globally

oriented life reform. The catalogue subtly suggests that social change can still be induced through aesthetic reform, given that a world apparently out of joint beyond the pleasure principle seems to force the inhabitants of western European detached houses to brush up their neighbourly ways and extend their “welcome home” to a global scale.

Gone are the days when paradigms such as the absurd slogan “Wohnst Du noch, oder lebst Du schon?“ (“Have you started living yet or are you still dwelling?“) were fit to regulate the emotional equilibria of habitants; [2] foreign neighbours and uninvited onlookers convey a sense that it may not be the best of all possible worlds awaiting the man outside. It would probably be easy to depart from the IKEA paradigm shift to a post-ideological Nirvana with the instrumental help of irony and radical chic, but let’s cling to the illusion just for a moment, that the promise “this catalogue stands on your side against all the negative expectations“ were serious, as were the conviction that saying “goodbye expectations“ [3] was possible.


Following the example of Slavoj Žižek’s lucid analyses in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, [4] a crash course in the Arts and Crafts philosophy as well as John Ruskin’s and William Morris’ instrumental terminology using selected scenes from IKEA. Design for Everyone then would seem appropriate. Ruskin’s and Morris’ ideas and writings have been widely marginalized in the contemporary art and design discourses, a fact that is commonly explained with their exaggerated appreciation of the Gothic and an overly one-sided focus on

craftsmanship. Since artisanal methods of production have persistently reoccurred throughout the history of design, a common agreement has been reached that craftsmanship is to be considered an atavism of industrial design, and that hence it is recommended to simply wait for the hype to ebb off whenever a revival takes place. [5] Nonetheless, a very special form of blindness is required to repeatedly select only those sequences in Ruskin’s and Morris’ writings that allegedly verify how the two men “[shared] utopian notions of an idealized future derived from a romantic glorification of the past, leading to unrealistic results” [6]—“preindustrial alternative romanticisms” [7] as it were.


Ruskin’s untimely meditations on the nature of the Gothic period in Stones of Venice [8] took place exactly at a point in time when western civilization was lodging itself into “an artificially air-conditioned and house-like inner space” which would come to be symbolized by the Crystal Palace, opened in 1851 by Queen Victoria, the “World Interior of Capital” as coined in the eponymously titled book by Peter Sloterdijk. [9] The inhabitants of this new and uncanny dwelling, however, are denied a cosy home to feel comfortable in; [10] instead they are afflicted by phantasmagories, be it the spectre of communism, the spirit of capitalism or said apotheosis of craftsmanship, identified by Ruskin as the nature of Gothic—despite the point that as a dangerous supplement, these uninvited guests are constitutive of the overall household, not only with regard to the much quoted Outside-Text. There is a certain irony in the fact that Jacques Derrida developed his supplementary logic following the example of the Confessions by Rousseau, who in 1755 created the archetype of all global capital bubbles with his metaphor of the ‘fence master’, including the telos of human perfectibility. [11]


Hence, Ruskin’s story does not end in the raw posthistoire of artisanal activities; instead, after the Stones, the “Luther of the Arts“ [12] concocted a new version of the Christian primordial soup, focusing on social justice with Unto This Last, [13] a proto-structural analysis of the myths of wealth in early capitalism. Friendly critics have gone as far as claiming that reading the book renders any bashful denial of rampant bourgeois kleptocracy impossible. [14] Those finding it difficult to believe that the market’s invisible handicrafts can lead to a fair distribution of profits, will focus primarily on how what has been cooked up here is eaten thereafter, given that “it doesn’t really matter where we eat—just that we get to be together.” [15] Ruskin’s “Joy in Labour” [16] is applied at the stage of preparation; to ensure that the meal itself is fun no “matter where, how or what,” [17] it has to happen “together.” [18] For this reason, Ruskin bid all previous notions of what a political economy could look like farewell, aiming instead to inspirit capitalism’s gristle structures once more. Far from raising a crowd of wrathful peers, who were being cheated out of the fruits of their labour, against the employers, Ruskin wanted to see an upvaluation of the domestic via a revolution of the ‘taking hand’ as well as a new acknowledgement of debt drawing on the tested methods of the kleptocracy of the state. [19] Sensing that Victorian England and its metropolis [20] could be doomed to a similar fate when describing the demise of Venice, Ruskin heralded the beginning of a crystalline revolution with his views on political economy, in the wake of which the glass palace would lose the majority of its exhibitors. The Commonwealth of Nations of cooking, consulted by the IKEA magazine [21] to set your kitchen free, [22] and especially warped reports on the future of labour, are no more than weak offshoots of the subtropical whirlwinds unleashed when Unto This Last was read by adepts such as Ghandi.


A report entitled “The Thing About Quality” seems like a passionate pledge for the artisanal: “For me, the future is about handicraft. You can go to IKEA and buy a rattan chair that’s handmade. A human being has made it. That’s amazing! So actually—it’s a work of art!“, [23] Jan Ahlsén, an employer of forty years in which he held various positions, currently as a Material and Innovation Specialist, explains in an internal interview.

He seems to have been inspired by many people but it is particularly Mies van der Rohe’s minimalism that appears to correspond with his nature and the nature of his work. According to Jan, the raw materials of the future are bamboo, rattan and paper, though this doesn’t account for why they have to be crafted into astonishing furniture creations by hand rather than with the help of e.g. a 3D printer. [24] Perhaps this is the case because otherwise it would be impossible to tell stories “about the person that wove the chair” [25]as in the report titled “Stubborness Is a Virtue” on the reanimation of the 300-year-old Indian craft of handweaving, plus fair wages, good working conditions and safe jobs. [26]


What then does it mean, when Ruskin’s thoughts suddenly people pop culture via the IKEA catalogue, “the world’s most widely distributed book (...) with a print run of an astounding 220 million copies”? [27] Are these the first stones that will eventually smash the glass house of capital or does this merely reflect Karl Marx’ rebellious dictum about commodity fetishes: “They do not know it, but they are doing it”? [28] After all, in his infamous analysis of national sanitary facilities Slavoj Žižek already exemplified how profoundly ideology remains at work in our allegedly so post-ideological era. [29] Indeed, the catalogue, which thematically revolves mostly around the stomach, results in the consumption of imperfection, thus proving another of Žižeks‘ theses: that it is easier for us to imagine the destruction of the world than the destruction of the world interior of capital. [30] The IKEA community, by no means a global movement but rather concentrated in Europe and North America, [31] holds a similar status of privilege to the clientele of Morris and Company, the firm founded by William Morris. Morris can thus confidently be named the Ingvar Kamprad of his time, an entrepreneur [32] with an idea for a start-up that took the hearts of the wealthy by storm, merging art and handicrafts for the production of premium interior decorations. The often quoted “Joy in Labour” from Ruskin’s key text is much more important to Morris the theoretician than to the practitioner, whose main focus always remained on living more beautifully and the question of “what makes a home a home.” [33] “If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer, A beautiful House.” [34]


In contrast to, for example, Immanuel Kant, who opted for separating judgments of taste from politics, and who wouldn’t even be seduced by the exquisiteness of French cookeries in his assessment of the beauty of a palace, [35] the call for a politicization of aesthetics inherited from Ruskin was a promise hard to keep in the hothouse-like climate of early capitalism. [36] The rather late peripety—Morris & Co, known in brief as The Firm, mutated into one of the most popular and profitable multinational furniture stores within twenty years—took place in the wake of the renovation of St James’ Palace and Morris’ famous statement that he was no longer willing to “minister to the swinish luxury of the rich.” [37] From now on, Topsy [38] invested all his hope in humane socialism, leaving the creation of angels of history to Edward Burne-Jones and John Henry Dearle, the company’s Art Director. Far from being an emotional socialist, [39] Morris remained suspicious of anything schematic, honouring the motto of roughness he had adopted from Ruskin’s Stones of Venice. [40]


With respect to the “European wing of the Crystal Palace“ [41] Ruskin’s critique of economic conditions and Morris’ activism have largely been rendered obsolete after the formation of the Western solidarity systems. Even if not everyone can indulge in the Joy of Labour at the same time, the often faultless leisure of so many at least remains comfortable courtesy of furniture stores such as IKEA. The reason that we will hardly be able to enjoy any Southern Comfort in the near future is likely due to the fact that it is a shadowed Outside that allows for our systemic social peace in the Western show house, which we only allow to be viewed temporarily and under rigorous restrictions, or, put differently: global capitalism has its favourite spots, with a preference for “certain places, countries, populations.” [42]


It’s about so much more than meatballs in the end, and despite all the lip services regarding democratic design, sustainability and social engagement, IKEA continues to nurture the swinish luxury of the rich with furniture presumably too expensive for the very one-room units which the IKEA foundation developed in cooperation with Swedish social enterprise Better Shelter and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to “improve opportunities for children and youth in some of the world’s poorest communities.” [43] A pleasure of the special kind: a multinational furniture group is given the dubious part of the Lacanian subject that is supposed to know, and relieves us all from having to take care of “what is really important,” permitting us instead to continue “indulging with hearts pounding.” [44]


Post scriptum: Perhaps things are even worse and the Crystal Palace has long since been infested with a lousy reversal of the Marxian formula “They do not know it, but they are doing it” [45]: “They know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.” The liberal idea then, according to Žižek’s presumption, may only camouflage a particular form of exploitation, while Western civilization continues to follow its telos of freedom. [46] What is to be done at the end of history? Whether he is aware of it or not: Peter Sloterdijk faithfully follows in John Ruskin’s protestant footsteps when he praises the supranational extension of the social welfare state and the end of the exploitation of our eco systems as the “macropolitical duties” of a post-historical future. [47]


Ikea. Design for Everyone, cat., 2017, p. 3/12.

Cf. Wolfgang Ullrich: “Konsum als Design“ (2015):


 3 Ikea, loc. cit., p. 4.

In the first part, for example, Žižek compares the mother’s house in Hitchcock’s Psycho to Freud’s structural

model of the psyche. Basement, ground floor and first floor in his view accurately represent the three instances

of subjectivity, Id, Ego and Superego. Sophie Fiennes: The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Präsentiert von Slavoj

Žižek, Berlin 2016.

Cf. Melanie Kurz: Handwerk oder Design. Zur Ästhetik des Handgemachten, Munich 2015, p. 13.

Ibid., p. 99.

Gert Selle: Siebensachen. Ein Buch über die Dinge, Frankfurt/Main, New York 1997, p. 192.

Cf. John Ruskin: Die Steine von Venedig, neu komponiert von Catharina Berents und Wolfgang Kemp [“The

Stones of Venice“], Wiesbaden 2016, particularly the chapter entitled »Das Wesen der Gotik« [“The Nature of

Gothic“], p. 141-177.

Peter Sloterdijk: In the World Interior of CapitalTowards a Philosophical Theory of Globalization,

Frankfurt/Main 2005, p. 267 et sqq.


Cf. Ikea, loc. cit., p. 4.

 11 Cf. Jacques Derrida: Grammatologie, Frankfurt/Main 1983, especially p. 274 et sqq. According to Rousseau,

the economic realities of bourgeois society are the result of land grabbing: “The first man who, having fenced in

a piece of land, said ‘This is mine,’ and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder

of civil society .“ Cf. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Abhandlung über den Ursprung und die Grundlagen der

Ungleichheit unter den Menschen [“Discourse on the Origin of Inequality“], Stuttgart 2010, especially “Second

Part“, p. 74 et sqq. To Rousseau it is perfectibility that structurally sets humans apart from animals, i.e. “the

faculty of self-improvement, which [...] is inherent in the species as in the individual.” ibid. p. 45 et sqq.

12 Cf. Catharina Berents, Wolfgang Kemp: “Die Lehre von den Steinen“, in: John Ruskin: Die Steine von

Venedig [The Stones of Venice], loc. cit, p. 47.

13 John Ruskin: Diesem Letzten. [“Unto This Last“] Vier Aufsätze über die wichtigsten Prinzipien der

Volkswirtschaft, Norderstedt 2015.

14 Sociologist James L. Spates notes in his preface for the English edition that in Unto This Last Ruskin not only

caught his contemporaries red-handed with their fingers in the till but also made it impossible for them to deny

the embarrassing scene or object effectively. Spates also notes that understood correctly, Unto this Last is

nothing less than social dynamite clad in prose and a flawless recipe (sic!) for a humane redesign of our culture’s

priorities. James L. Spates: »Vorwort zur englischen Ausgabe« [“Preface for the English Edition“], ibid., p. 19.

15 Ikea, loc. cit, p. 24.

16 Berents, Kemp: »Das Wesen der Gotik« [“The Nature of Gothic“], loc. cit., p. 146.

17 Ibid., p. 11.

18 Ibid., p. 24.

19 Peter Sloterdijk concludes that the present “social market economy“ displays by far more socialist than

capitalist traits and that chiefly through the fiscal redistribution of property, ”the selfish and direct exploitation of

the feudal era was transformed into an almost selfless, legally bound kleptocracy of the state in Modernism.“ Cf.

Peter Sloterdijk: »Die Revolution der gebenden Hand«, in: Frank Schirrmacher; Thomas Strobl (Ed.): Die

Zukunft des Kapitalismus, Berlin 2010, p. 60-70, especially p. 67 et sqq.

 20 Cf. Pat Kirkham: »William Morris. A Life in Design«, in: Diane Waggoner (Hg.): The Beauty of Life. William

Morris and the Art of Design, Los Angeles 2003, p. 25.

21 More about the transformation of the catalogue into a magazine in: Frauke Schobelt: »Der Katalog wird zum

Kundenmagazin« in: W&V (23/08/2016):; Merkur (22/08/2016): »Revolution

beim neuen Ikea-Katalog«, auf:


22 Cf. Ikea, loc. cit. p. 54.

23 »Die Sache mit der Qualität. Ein Interview mit Jan Ahlsén« [“The Thing About Quality. An interview with

Jan Ahlsén”], ibid., p. 193 et sqq., here p. 195.

24 Cf. ibid.

25 Ibid., p. 195.

26 Cf. »Hartnäckigkeit ist eine Tugend« [“Stubbornness Is a Virtue”], ibid., p. 240 et sqq.

27 In 2015 literary critic Hellmuth Karasek reviewed the Ikea catalogue in the promotional video Ikea. Die

kleinen Freuden des Alltags. [“It’s the little things that matter”] Cf. »Hellmuth Karasek rezensiert den IKEA

Katalog« on:

28 Marx, Engels: Werke, Volume 23, Berlin 1993, p. 88.

 29 Illustrating how ideology dominates everyday life in the post-ideological age, Žižek analyzed the different

modes of construction in American, French and German toilets to illustrate the European ideological trinity of

Anglo-American pragmatism, French revolutionary politics and German philosophy/metaphysics. While the

French toilets flush away fecal matter immediately (guillotine), it remains visible in the German counterpart

(inspection) while floating freely in a basin of water in the American case (pragmatism). Cf. Astra Taylor:

Slavoj Žižek. Der Elvis der Kulturtheorie, DVD, Cologne 2009; Slavoj Žižek: The Plague of Fantasies,

London/New York 2008, p. 3.


The phrase “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” is sometimes ascribed to

Fredric Jameson and sometimes to Slavoj Žižek. The latter has frequently used it in his talks, e.g. “Look at the

movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so

on. But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism.” Slavoj Žižek speaks at Occupy Wall Street

31 According to statistics, IKEA held 389 branches in the fiscal year of 2016, distributed among the following

countries: Europe: 268, North America: 54, Asia: 44, Middle East/Africa: 13, Australia: 9, Caribbean: 1. All

African branches are located in Egypt and Morocco. Cf. Statista (2016):

32 Kirkham, loc. cit., p. 21.

33 Ikea, loc. cit., p. 94.

34 Quoting Diane Waggoner: »Introduction«, in: id.: loc. cit., p. 10.

35 In the beginning of his Critique of Judgement Kant emphasizes that neither the existence of a palace, nor the

social status of its inhabitants or the burdens of its constructors should play a part in the assessment of its beauty:

“If anyone asks me whether I consider that the palace I see before me is beautiful, I may, perhaps, reply that I do

not care for things of that sort that are merely made to be gaped at. Or I may reply in the same strain as that

Iroquois sachem who said that nothing in Paris pleased him better than the eating-houses. I may even go a step

further and inveigh with the vigour of a Rousseau against the vanity of the great who spend the sweat of the

people on such superfluous things. [...] All this may be admitted and approved; only it is not the point now at

issue. All one wants to know is whether the mere representation of the object is to my liking, no matter how

  ndifferent I may be to the existence of the object of this representation. “ Cf. Immanuel Kant: Kritik der

Urteilskraft [“Critique of Judgement“], edited by Karl Vorländer, 7th edition, Hamburg 1990, p. 40 et sqq.

36 Cf. Boris Groys: “Kunstaktivismus. Die totale Ästhetisierung der Welt als Eröffnung der politischen Aktion“,

in: Lettre International 106 (Autumn 2014), p. 88-92, especially p. 90.

37“It is only that I spend my life ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.” quoted from Fiona MacCarthy:

William Morris. A Life for Our Time, London 2010, p. 210.

38 Topsy is the name of the little slave girl in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The nickname was

given to Morris by Burne-Jones on account of his curly hair. Cf. ibid., p. 74.

39Friedrich Engels had dismissed Morris as an “emotional socialist“. Cf. Marx/Engels: Über Kunst und Literatur

[“On Literature and Art“], Vol. 2, Berlin 1968, p. 315. Morris however had studied The Capital diligently, his

copy, which he read before the book was translated from French to English, had to be re-bound twice. His

unorthodox take on socialism was more closely associated with his friends’ Sergius Stepniak’s and Peter

Kropotkin’s anarchism. Cf. Waggoner loc. cit. p. 29.

40 “Ruskin was the first to negatively read the ‘system time’ […]. System means the correct application of

science and the canon of visual arts and architecture. […] The system leads to pride and pride is a vice. This

provided a key to the value system of an art history striving to be more than aesthetics, a tourist’s guide,

history—namely a political economy and a sort of religiously based social ethic.” Berents, Kemp: loc. cit., p. 46

et sqq.

41 Sloterdijk, loc. cit., p. 341 et sqq.

42 Ibid., p. 365.


43 Cf. Ikea, »Eine Unterkunft für Flüchtlinge« [“What Home Is for a Refugee Without One”], loc.cit. p. 160-163,

here p. 163.

44 Ibid., p. 5 & 22.

45 Cf. Peter Sloterdijk: Kritik der zynischen Vernunft [“Critique of Cynical Reason“], Berlin 2016, p. 37.

46 Cf. Slavoj Žižek: The Sublime Object of Ideology, London/New York 2008, p. 30.

47 Cf. Peter Sloterdijk: Zorn und Zeit [“Rage and Time”], Berlin 2008, especially the chapter entitled “Die postkommunistische

Situation“ [“The Post-Communist Situation”], p. 61-73.