The next IKEA catalog is going to be late.
For over 70 years, fans of the Swedish furniture giant have eagerly awaited the annual publication teeming with new products and home decorating ideas for every domestic situation. With a print run of over 200 million copies, IKEA’s meticulously-constructed catalog ranks with the Bible, the Quran, and the Harry Potter series in terms of mass circulation.
One photograph in the middle of the 296-page book is the reason for the delay. IKEA has requested that the image not be reproduced for this article, so a bit of imagination is required to grasp the issue:
Imagine a full page showing an injured young black man wearing a leg cast and a finger splint, presumably from a skateboard accident based on the props on the left of the frame. He is shown looking down, appearing to need help assembling a coffee table. The page is essentially an ad for the IKEA-owned TaskRabbit furniture assembly service. The model’s t-shirt is the locus of the controversy: An IKEA employee pointed out that the sequence of numbers across his back (45678) might be construed as serial numbers on a prison inmate’s uniform, thus fueling a negative stereotype of black youth.
“After reviewing the photo, we agree that it could lend itself to negative interpretation and reinforce negative stereotypes,” explained IKEA in a statement sent to Quartz explaining why they’re proactively recalling the printed catalogs which were scheduled to be unveiled in the US last August. ”As a purpose-led organization where diversity and inclusion are core values, IKEA strives to be a force for positive change in society. An important part of advocating for change is acknowledging and taking action when we get it wrong. We are committed to doing so in an open and transparent way.”
Earlier this year, IKEA’s US retail arm also pledged to donate $3 million to organizations working in service of black communities.
The numbers on the shirt, IKEA explains, “were intended only as a design detail.” It takes over a year to create each edition of the IKEA catalog, and it’s feasible that this wouldn’t have raised a red flag before the reckoning around racist narratives around the world triggered by George Floyd’s killing in May.
In the corrected digital edition, a black man is shown puzzling over parts and instructions, an image that pokes fun at a more universal IKEA customer archetype.
In some eyes, associating numbers on the back of a shirt with prison culture is a stretch—especially for a minor ad in the catalog. Spending the resources to re-call thousands of books also seems counter to IKEA’s efforts to lower its significant carbon impact. IKEA didn’t disclose exactly how much they spent on addressing the issue, but assures Quartz that they looked for solutions that were “both economical yet sustainable.”
A spokesperson explains that they won’t have to redo the entire print run and will simply rip out pages 133-134 from the perfect-bound books. Corrected editions of IKEA’s 2021 catalog will be available in US stores later this year. All digital versions of the catalog have been updated.