Your Taxpayer Dollars at Work

Well, I was shocked to find that my blog has still not been included on the State Department’s recruitment page. Even with all the posts about fab Italian vacations, which are, after all, absolutely typical of the Foreign Service lifestyle. I guess I’m still not topical enough, sigh.

So, I decided it was time for a one hundred percent Foreign Service post. About the one thing that we all have in common, no matter where we are in the world. The one constant, from Angola to Austria, from Swaziland to Switzerland, and beyond. The finishing touch that makes all our government housing feel like home.

Yep, I am talking about everyone’s favorite piglet on the government teat quality furniture company. Drexel.

Recently, GSO sent a guy over to do an inventory on our apartment. The most interesting aspect of which was the valuations assigned to the furniture. They are a hoot. I mean, really, as a person who routinely shops thrift stores and Craig’s List in the States, they crack me up. You could never, not in a million years, get anyone to pay that much for this furniture in the States. Quite honestly, it wouldn’t even occur to me to sell it if it were mine. I’d donate it or freecycle it.

And then consider that the U.S. taxpayer has actually paid a gazillion dollars and burned tons of fossil fuels to ship this stuff from North Carolina to everywhere in the world. Including places where they make very nice furniture. Cheap. Or places like Vienna, with an Ikea selling furniture made nearby in Eastern Europe, and small apartments in which beat-up old American hotel furniture looks even more ridiculous than usual.

So, just for fun, I thought I’d look up what it would cost to replace my furniture versus what it would cost to buy brand new from the local Ikea. All these prices include VAT, which I don’t think the Embassy would have to pay. So, feel free to mentally knock 20 percent off the price given.

Also, keep in mind that all the Drexel prices are replacement cost for the furniture in “used, fair” condition. Lord only knows what it cost new…

Drexel “18th century” sofa in the dreaded blue-and-poop polyester brocade pattern. Does not look like it has ever been re-upholstered, so we are probably the fourth or fifth family to use it. GSO valuation: $1003.83. If I actually bought upholstered furniture in thrift shops (which I rarely do because of a slight ick factor) I might pay $100 for this, tops—and plan on reupholstering it right away.

Brand new Ikea “Ektorp” sofa with washable slipcovers in a variety of colors (how awesome would that be??) €519 or about $636. Heck, toss in an extra slipcover and it would still cost less than the Drexel sofa in used condition.

Drexel “18th century” easy chair in dingy “greige” brocade. GSO valuation $475.18. Weird and wobbly little “Aunt Mabel” side table to match, $151.00.

Ikea “Ektorp” easy chair, again with the washable slipcovers (in purple, O joy!) €199 or $243.00.

Ikea “Hemnes” side table, €79.99 or about $98.00. OK, nothing special, but functional and unobjectionable.

No, that is not an icebox or a safe. It is the standard kids’ room dresser. It is a Drexel “Windjammer II” (some kind of sailing motif from the 1970s?) chest of drawers. GSO valuation $384.64.

At least this stuff is solid oak and more durable than the cherry veneer furniture like the Aunt Mabel table, above. But imagine what it must cost to ship.

Ikea “Hemnes” dresser, Euro 199 or about $244.00. I think even my 16 year old son would like it.

I decided this was the best way to show what the rest of the furniture looks like. It is dark. Very dark. Pine or maple with a fake cherry veneer that scratches way too easily.

And lots of brass. Just think about the last Marriott you stayed in and remember the furniture in the room. That would be the look, more or less.

There may be some people in the current Foreign Service who love (or even like) this stuff. I haven’t met one yet. I have talked to a few who think it’s just OK, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Of course, not everyone is going to love furniture that is purchased to please some North Carolina congressman primarily for utility and and suit the widest variety of tastes. But that truly does not explain how we end up with such incredibly fuddy-duddy stuff. I mean, what is the average age of a Foreign Service officer nowadays? Heck, what was it when this furniture was purchased? Unless it was about 86, I really can’t understand how we got here. Deep into Drexel Hell.

I used Ikea as an example because everyone is familiar with it. And we have one in Vienna, so I occasionally daydream about what my modern apartment would look like if I could set all this Drexel junk on the curb and buy furniture that actually looks like it belongs here. Wouldn’t that be awesome? If the Embassy could buy furniture locally, they couldn’t possibly do worse than Drexel, and even it Austria, it wouldn’t cost as much as shipping it several thousand miles from the U.S.

Of course, you can’t just go out and buy furniture at every post. But could it be ordered from a neighboring country? Or ordered from a company other than Drexel? Would even Pottery Barn really cost more than Drexel, if the furniture was purchased in bulk?

Pottery Barn Basic sofa, $1,299 new. Comes in lots of different fabrics, NONE of which are poopy polyester brocade. And, get this: it’s made in U.S.A.

I rest my case.

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27 comments

  1. I would LOVE to have any of the Ikea or Pottery Barn stuff you posed. Oh my gosh — not having to look at that awful Drexel stuff every day would increase my quality of life HUGELY. And the money thing is what really gets me. We’re paying SO MUCH for hideously UGLY stuff. There are other options! Better options! Thanks for taking the time to comparison shop.

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  2. When I was in Brazil, we were just standardizing all of our homes with the Drexel furniture. I got a bright red brocade sofa and two gold brocade armchairs (similar to the graige above -could it have been a brilliant gold once?!). It was like living in a brothel. But! They were new, which is nice when we’re talking ownership by 5 or more families in a 10 year period.

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  3. for valuations, they are supposed to use a six year devaluation flat line – as a former GSO I can tell you that those valuations he gave you are nowhere near the devalued cost.

    Also, we just tricked out our post with brand new (yes still drexel) Louis Phillip which is one of the four styles they let you buy vs. the god awful 18th century and the bizarre modern (which is the dresser in brown). its absurdly expensive to ship this stuff around, but it should be replaced every 6 years or so on average. You have a bad management section that doesnt do that (for giggles, take a look and see what furniture your management officer and GSO have in their houses).

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    • I have to tell you that I have never, not once, in six tours, ever gotten furniture that looked like it had been replaced in the last six years. In fact, this furniture is in much better condition than some we have had in the past. In part because we told them to take the worst pieces back to the warehouse.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Just to clarify for my own selfish purposes, does the Foreign Service allow you to bring your own furniture (as long as you stay within the weight requirements)? My husband just got into A100 and though it seems shallow this is one of my key concerns. I am an avid collector of Mid-century modern pieces and would hate to leave them all behind.

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    • Yes, they do, and there are a couple of things we always bring, like real computer desks and office chairs. And here, I have bought extra bookshelves used from someone who was leaving (will probably resell those when I leave) and work tables and nice shelves for my office/studio. Those I plan to take with me when I leave. It is also very common to bring your own mattress because the government ones are awful. We bought a sleep number bed to bring with us to this post, and I am so glad we did. It isn’t very heavy for shipment either (air mattress, basically.)

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    • Just a warning: I lost beautiful furniture I purchased in India and an heirloom rocking chair to horrific mold (not to mention rugs, cribs, etc.) due to delayed shipment. I wasn’t the only mold victim at post. If it’s really lovely, make sure you have great insurance and weigh whether bringing it is worth the risk. Also, at my current post we have no warehouse, so the GSO section can’t remove excess furniture if you bring your own. Ask the section before you PCS if there is warehouse space, what their furniture policy is, and if there are any weather or shipping issues that have historically damaged shipments. One upside of leaving your own things in storage is you have an insta-house when you return for longterm training or a DC tour. Our damaged shipment took 4 months to arrive in DC, so we had to live with what we had in storage in the interim.

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  5. Though I am fond of Ikea, and I cringe whenever I see the old Drexal furniture here in Jackson Hole, I have to say that at some posts where labor is very cheap (Pakistan, India) we had some locally made furniture, and it was hideous. All made to t he local style with local flourishes. And heavy as heck. Couldn’t move them at all. The Drexel stuff is at least consistent.

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  6. I have the newest Drexel furniture (the benefit of a newly created position) and I can promise it is better though still not likely the top choice of most officers. Furniture has been on a 10 year replacement cycle and that was just extended to 12 so that Drexel collection will be around for a long time. I love going to the homes of FSNs and seeing exactly the same furniture that they have purchased at Warehouse sales!

    I can offer no my fervent advice to new officers than to BRING YOUR OWN MATTRESS! I have always done so and the difference between the bed I cope with until my stuff arrives and my own mattress is astonishing. BRING YOUR OWN MATTRESS!

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  7. I had that exact couch in Manila and we had slip covers made because it hurt my eyes to look at it and the idea that if my kids stained it I would have to pay large sums of money for it. Our Manila stuff was just plain terrible. Here in Ethiopia we have a new set of furniture and I have to say I like some of it. My girls’ room has a great dresser with non-brass handles and a simple dark wood twin bed set. I’m not saying I love it but I think it’s the best we’ll ever get. For me the issue is about entertaining. How are we supposed to entertain with the dowdy old stuffy furniture. It’s embarrassing to have people over, it reflects badly on America.

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  8. I second (third, fourth?) bringing your own mattress. And in the interim, I always mail myself good sheets and a mattress pad to use until my bed arrives. Because FS mattresses are uniformly crap-tastic.

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  9. I must admit that I am not one that has to live with the dreaded Drexel, but have family that does…so take my comment with a grain of salt of someone with an IKEA sofa in my living room. BUT I do wonder if something like the IKEA sofa would stand up to the test of time of 5 families in succession (maybe the Drexel doesn’t either…). But I do agree there has to be a better solution to the ugly hotel furniture you all have to live with. Local would be great, but sadly Congress would never let that happen.

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  10. FYI, the Ektorp slip covers fit the Drexel perfectly. Before the shared services furniture, DEA and DOD folks routinely had lovely furniture at every post where we were colocated. I had a brand new set of this crap at my last overseas post, and the quality was still so bad that some of the couches were butt-slung within the first year. It’s pretty when it’s new and no one sits on it… That being said, I am headed to an LQA post and have nowhere near the furniture necessary to fill a house for representational work. Rugs and artwork, absolutely. Ikea here I come!

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  11. On the other hand, in my 20 year plus career, I had only one furnished post, Madagascar. As CAO did lots of representational work and loved having my own stuff for both my own pleasure and part of the rep work – a window into at least one American’s life/style. The repeated moves did take a toll on my furniture but it was worth it to live “at home” not in hotel drexel.

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  12. In several of our posts (i am now retired and living in south africa), my wife routinely managed to gain access to the gso warehouse to try to find something, anything that didn’t make our home look like a bad residential hotel in the midwest in 1955. Then we finessed some money to reupholster the stuff in some sort of bland material that allowed artwork to be seen rather than drexel navaho sunrise sofas or metallic blue chairs….but gawd it was a titanic struggle! And we routinely had lots of host country visitors in our house for rep purposes. When all else failed, we bought throw cloths to hide that damned junk.

    Also, way back in 1979 we bought locally made cane furniture in indonesia to supplement our drexel ick. With an occasional revarnishing, it is still in nearly new condition. Each chair cost about ten or fifteen dollars…

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  13. I served at one post where, when we did the actual inventory of furniture that I had been told was “new,” found a 1986 sofa (the year was 2007!), and even worse, a 1994 mattress, dirty on top of that. I have been issued every piece of furniture pictured here at some point over the past 22 years. Probably too late for me, but ELOs, fight the good fight and save yourselves!

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  14. Wow, that’s the exact furniture that we had in London! Also, when we lived in Malaysia, we had locally made furniture and it was awesome a nice change from the “norm”.

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  15. Oh my goodness, this was hilarious. We’re on our way to our first post and I recognize the couch and chair from the photos of our apartment. Guess we’ll be getting a slipcover from IKEA before we go! And apparently we have to buy a new mattress!

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  16. The one piece I was okay with was the windjammer, and we don’t have it here. So sad. I can’t believe this stuff gets auctioned off after going a few rounds with the likes of us. Who would buy this stuff? Love your idea about locally-sourced items, it is shameful how far this stuff travels. And yes, if they *have* to have USA made, at least make it Pottery Barn. Also wouldn’t mind some Crate & Barrel or West Elm. A girl can dream,right? As she sits on the most uncomfortable chair at a desk poorly designed to do its job.

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  17. I just read this and am cracking up! Hilarious!!! The money wasted is well…something that probably needs to be discussed at a later date. Ha ha. Thanks for the smile for the day … and for letting me know how much I am NOT missing that ugly furniture now that I am back in the states and had for over 7 years! 🙂

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  18. After four Drexel tours I’m finally at an unfurnished post and feel more at home with my own stuff, having slipped a DC tour in between where I bought a houseful of furniture. But going back to the second time I got the lovely green and gold Drexel sofas etc, I found SureFit which makes a variety of slip covers in sizes that fit the Drexel quite nicely. From then on I had my own style overlaid on embassy furniture. Those move easily to each post too. And yes, bring your own mattress!!!!

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  19. Any chance you know the details about the bill that supposedly requires purchase of FS furniture from North Carolina companies?

    I was putting sliders on the bottom of my Drexel chairs and noticed a big fat MADE IN CHINA on the bottom of them. It annoys me even more that that pork is going directly into someone’s pockets who outsources the production of the furniture!

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