Thursday, December 16, 2010

The International Unity of I*KEA or Why I feel symbol-challenged

[Note on reposting this entry 4/8/2014. As I recall, I hid this post because of heavy robot traffic, presumably because of the popular store name. I've disguised it, so let's hope the robots stay away.]

It has come to my attention that I am seriously symbol challenged. The other day, I snipped care tags off a pair of curtains that Miriam and I bought at I*KEA for her bedroom window. The tags were affixed along the top band of the curtain so that they made neat, opaque squares where they blocked the daylight. Exactly the wrong look for a curtain, in my opinion. Risking that I would never again know what those washing instructions were, I removed the tags for aesthetic reasons. Before setting them aside (should I affix them to the wall in the utility room where the washing machine stands?), I took a moment to notice the list of words for "cotton" on the reverse of the labels. 31 different languages.

Fascinating. These curtains--a soft, semi-transparent white cotton weave with an attractive nubby texture--might find themselves hung in any and all of the countries where the associated languages are spoken. KZ. Kazakhstan? PT. Portugal and Brazil. If you're curious, take a look at Wikipedia's entry on ISO-3166-2, International Standard codes for countries around the world.

The care instructions on the other side offer a row of those symbols, the ones that always have me wondering just what they might mean.
Use water that's 60 degrees (celsius, I assume). Don't triangle. Sew on a button? Wear a strange boot. Never use a circle. *SIGH* I know it must have to do with things like dryers and bleach. And then I notice that just below the line of symbols, there's a special set of instructions preceded by the term, "US." I relax. That's what I'm used to. Plain old words that tell me what to do. Right, the triangle is about bleach. The box that looks like a button is a dryer, on medium heat. The next one, the iron, is high heat (so that must go one dot, two dots, three dots). The x-ed out circle is about (not) dry cleaning.

I'm a little mortified to acknowledge that a good deal of the world seems to get along by agreeing upon symbols they can all interpret, whereas I, from my monolithic culture, am accustomed to having things spelled out exactly for me. Likely the US market is large and profitable enough (and Americans inexperienced enough with the symbols and inclined enough toward filing liability lawsuits) to make it worth it to IK*EA to follow our custom. The label is like a little tutorial for me, quite helpful, really.

But, honestly, who the heck thought up these symbols? What aspect of a triangle reminds you of bleach, or a circle of dry cleaning? I kind of get the ones that are supposed to look like a dryer and an iron. I'm interested to see that another strong market has made it onto the label as well: Japan. (I recall enough Japanese to discern that the symbols include katakana.) The Japanese symbols work a lot better for me. I see a washer, 60 degrees. I see a crossed out beaker (seems like bleach). I learned the iron from the other symbols. And the last one, by process of elimination (and the kana that say "do-ra-i," which is the closest you can come in Japanese syllables to the word, "dry") is about dry cleaning.

IKE*A. There's one 15 kilometers to the south of us in Ludwigsburg. A few years before we left Utah, one finally came to the Salt Lake area. Before that, we were I*KEA tourists in the US, loading up when we visited my sister in Canada, or when we made it to the San Francisco Bay area. I have a mixed relationship to the place, but I do admit to owning a number of their products, notably storage units and linens. Have you ever been to IK*EA on a Saturday? Regretted that choice? I like to take a moment on a Sunday afternoon, though, and imagine just how many thousands--millions?--of people across the globe are puzzling over the same wordless drawings to guide the assembly of a bookshelf they lugged into their home on Saturday from IKE*A.