Pleasure into the bargain

It’s certainly no Aladdin’s cave, but on rare occasions you can strike gold in a pound shop. Hugh Pearman comes clean about his cheap, cheerful pursuit

Let’s talk about cheap. Really cheap. So cheap you can hardly believe it. A product you can buy, which somebody has designed and somebody else has made and yet another somebody has transported, which is domestically useful and reasonably good looking and will last quite a while. How cheap is that? £1.

Before I tell you what it is, let me share a guilty secret with you. I like pound shops. I love the fact that, although everything in them costs exactly £1, you still get daft people in the queue in front of you asking ‘How much is that?’. I like the tackiness of pound shops, their fairground lucky-dip atmosphere.

And although I know that it is foolish to buy anything there – because it will be rubbish, obviously – I still do buy things occasionally, so beguiling is the pound shop proposition. There’s a small torch I keep in the front of the car. That works. It came with its own batteries, too. One pound well spent. I can’t say the same, however, for a miniature radio I fell for, complete with earphones. That was so bad it was comical. So I chucked it and kept the earphones, which work just fine. Some good salvaged from pound shop madness, then.

I bought two bamboo fishing rods, complete with line, weights, floats and hooks, from a pound shop when I was taking the children on a boat holiday once. The rods were finely crafted in China. We even caught fish with them. Now their disassembled sections may be seen supporting various plants in the garden, an example of creative recycling. But don’t get me wrong: I’m not an addict. Much as I might like the idea of acquiring a complete set of painted plaster garden gnomes for a quid, even though I make a mental list of design-conscious friends into whose gardens I might surreptitiously introduce them, I do not go there. The thought is the thing. The pound shop is alternative Saturday morning entertainment of a high order, but I can take it or leave it.

With Ikea, I’m not so sure. Ah – now we’re coming to it. It has been quite a while since I’ve been to Ikea, but recently I’ve been back. As everybody knows, Ikea is wholly maddening and disturbingly addictive at the same time. It sells mostly to young people without much money setting up home, but come on – you’ve bought stuff there, I’ve bought stuff there, Ron Arad has bought stuff there, I bet even Terence Conran and James Dyson have bought stuff there. You come across some surprisingly expensive new houses with Ikea kitchens. I know a very serious top-end modern furniture retailer who once worked in the Ikea kitchen department. That’s how democratic it is.

Ikea is like a designer pound shop, only it’s more dangerous because it seems dirt cheap but isn’t really. With certain exceptions. Which brings me to my tea tray. It is made of injection-moulded plastic, it is big enough to be handy, it is rigid enough to take a fair bit of weight, it is designed to fit snugly in the hands. It works. The world is full of bad expensive trays, and this is not one of them. It is a good cheap tray. It is called Smula, it is designed by Tord Björklund, and it costs £1.

What’s to say about it? You could buy four of these trays for the cost of a return Tube journey into the centre of London. You could buy dozens, string them up on wires and make room dividers. You could use them as picture frames, make garden paths out of them, all that kind of stuff. They are made in Italy. It is just possible that such vast numbers are made that the cost of the design, the moulds, the material, the manufacture, the transport, the warehousing and the retailing are all contained within that £1, with enough left over to yield Ikea a profit. But it is not very likely. It is presumably a loss-leader. We feel so good about buying a fairly good tray for £1 that we go on and spend thousands on furniture. And the token pound is important. If they gave them away free at the checkouts, we wouldn’t value them nearly so much.

We’re back to that William Morris thing about design for the masses, aren’t we? Morris railed against the ugly gewgaws of the rich, craved a kind of budget beauty, but always favoured quality and craftsmanship over price. He knew John Ruskin’s dictum: ‘There is nothing in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper.’ Which leaves me wondering: what would Ruskin or Morris have made of the admirable £1 Ikea tea tray? Much ingenuity, much craft, has gone into its genesis. And it is presumably made by robots.

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