We have gotten bigger, fatter, wider, and heavier. Our furnishings have increased in girth and heft accordingly. Even our houses have increased in size to provide some sense of proportionality to our burgeoning Henry VIII-like profile and lifestyle. The present generation may be the first to enjoy a shorter lifespan than their parents, a trend attributed to obesity and its complications.
I have spent the last 25 years as the owner of a furniture moving company, witnessing and wrestling with these trends firsthand. The most obvious common feature that I have seen between the homes and the furnishings, aside from size, is the fact that neither one is being built to last. The throwaway school of furniture manufacture has been echoed by the booming home building industry’s use of cheaper materials and diminishing craftsmanship. Now, we the occupants are following suit with the nutritional equivalents of particle board and super-sized fast food construction.
The problem now is that if the oversized house or ‘McMansion’ trend is dead and we can no longer afford the mortgage, no less the cost of heating and cooling these newly unfashionable behemoths, what do we do with them? Furthermore, once we lose all that weight we’ve been promising to lose and our oversize trappings no longer fit, where are we going to find someone bigger, fatter and more ostentatious than us to buy our bloated lifestyle second-hand? Russia? Texas? Moreover, how do we fit that oversize furniture in standard sized homes?
Geraldine Baum writes in the L.A. Times about a trend beyond ordinary furniture moving of sofa doctors. These are specialists who disassemble and reassemble oversized sofas that even professional movers could not get through doors or hallways. “Just 15 years ago the maximum length of a typical couch was 84 inches and the width 34 inches, or thereabouts. But as Americans fell in love with McMansions and grew in girth, the demand for bigger and cushier couches expanded. Furniture stores began offering couches as long as 120 inches and as deep as 43 inches …” (Baum, G., 2008).
This newer, oversized scale of furnishing is not only more unwieldy but much less durable and easy to transport. Larger pieces require more material so simple economics would suggest the efficacy of using cheaper materials. Much of the furniture designed in the last 30-40 years has been geared toward a more mobile populace. This increase in population mobility has been mirrored by a decrease in the functional mobility of the furniture itself, leading to a trend of what is essentially disposable furniture. Take a look at the materials and craftsmanship used in a piece of antique furniture and compare it to that of one its modern counterparts. An antique china hutch may still be going strong at well over a hundred years old and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. A particle board bookshelf with an attractive veneer probably won’t survive the next move. Even if you hire a top-notch professional furniture moving company, the first thing that they will explain to you is that they will insure the china hutch but not the bookshelf because the flimsiness of particle board furniture makes it uninsurable.
Megan McArdle, writing for The Atlantic, considers throwaway furniture both bane and boon and a trend not likely to end soon. While arguing for the mobility that cheap furniture allows, she also admits “… IKEA furniture is not quite as adorably minimalist as its marketing implies. Making a whole bunch of disposable furniture places certain stresses on natural resources, not all of which are renewable, or, arguably, even legal.” Sheer economics may be the driving force behind the IKEA/Copenhagen/some assembly required trend, but the author points out two advantages that border on the inarguable. First, disposable furniture gives us the means to amend our design mistakes more affordably. Secondly, much of the well-crafted, sturdy, used furniture with years of life left in it that we can pick up cheap on Craigslist may be infested with bedbugs.
Disposable furniture for disposable homes has become so large and cumbersome that it may also require a more disposable workforce to mitigate the increase in injuries among furniture movers. Leanne Stanley, writing for the Health and Safety Laboratory, says “Current trends in furniture design are seeing an increase in size and weight … The size and weight increase is likely to make handling products more awkward and will place all individuals along the supply chain who have to handle them at increased risk of musculoskeletal injury.”
The consumer is also at risk when trying to handle unstable and poorly constructed furniture. A student at Arizona State University (anonymous) was cut and literally scarred when a bookshelf she was moving collapsed. Adding insult to injury was her discovery that underneath the wood-looking veneer was a flimsy substance she described as “cork.”
Homes, and the furnishings in them, have not always been like this but there has been a steady trend of increased size that parallels increases in economic prosperity. “For a little historical context, 1,200 square feet was the average home size in America in the 1960s. That grew to 1,710 square feet in the 1980s and 2,330 square feet in the 2000s.” The downsizing trend is reflected by real estate site Trulia who say that only 9 percent of Americans they surveyed were looking for homes over 3,200 sq ft. The trend is an obvious and logical response to the economic downturn and is certainly the prudent choice. The McMansions are not only falling out of favor but they are also contributing some of the largest, most garish and potentially hazardous corpses in the sub-prime real estate graveyard.
Christopher B. Leinberger, writing for The Atlantic, asks if these monstrosities might not become “The Next Slum?” Citing areas with a 1 in 4 foreclosure/vacancy rate, he points to the increase in crime that accompanies an increase in abandoned and empty homes, even in more affluent areas. The lack of workmanship and use of cheaper building materials are problematic for designing the re-use of these buildings as well. Comparing the multigenerational cycling of older, urban brick buildings that are still functional and sturdy today with the questionable longevity of the cheaply made homes of the last few decades, the author does not envision a bright future for the McMansion-dotted suburbs.
Other Works Cited:
Baum, G., “Big Sofa, Tiny Hall? He’ll cut a Deal.” The Los Angeles Times, November 27, 2008,
Olshansky, S., Passaro, .D., Hershow, R., M.D., Layden, J.M.P.H., Carnes, B., Brody, J., Hayflick, L., Butler, R., Allison, D., and Ludwig, D., “A Potential Decline in Life Expectancy in the United States in the 21st Century”, New England Journal of Medicine, 352:1138-1145, 2005, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsr043743