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Monday, December 20, 2010

IKEA and me

I was in a hurry. I had something I wanted to tell my wife, and it’s so easy to forget things these days that I didn’t want to waste any time. So I not only rushed to find her, but I went against traffic to do so. I was in one of Berlin’s four IKEAs – the magnificent, outrageously successful Swedish big box store that has become a staple of urban life in all corners of the disposable-income globe.

I slid past the POANG chairs. I jogged past the EKTORP sofas. Halfway through the kitchen section, with its deep reds, stainless steel glimmers and those light Scandanavian wood countertops, I noticed a couple, probably in their early thirties, sitting on a KIVIK chaise lounge. They were disheveled in the practiced way of the creative class. Sitting at oblique angles to one another in order to avoid eye contact but still be able to track the other’s movements, they both looked terribly distressed. He glared at the IKEA list with a mixture of disgust and confusion; she looked as if she might weep.

I slowed for a moment, forgetting my earlier urgency. Pretending to inspect a BAGVIK sink, I furtively watched the distraught pair. The man had slightly scuffed blonde hair, sports glasses with clear lenses and a two-day beard; the woman had just enough lines around her eyes and mouth to allow one to take her beauty seriously. I was not able to hear their words, but their body language told of an age old struggle: You just don’t understand my furniture needs.

Most of us are able to go through life without facing this issue more than once or twice; some of us spend our lives trying to avoid it altogether. But if there is an IKEA within 400 miles, the attempt will be futile. Some day, the allure of cheap meatballs and free coffee refills will be too strong, and you, too, will end up here, facing those marital demons.

Remembering my earlier mission, I tear my attention away from the couple only to notice that an inordinate number of yellow- and blue-uniformed staffers are standing nearby, all feigning nonchalance while watching me through the corners of their eyes while muttering things into their shirt collars. I understand immediately what’s going on: I had been rushing through the furniture, and to hurry through IKEA, whether it’s in Burbank or Berlin, Phoenix or Salt Lake City, is taboo. I wanted to tell them that I understood their concern, but they had no reason to worry. I would turn around and follow traffic and do it at a proper pace. Not only that, but I belong here: You see, I’m Swedish. Okay, I’m ¼ Swedish, which is surely enough to give me a direct connection to everything IKEA. When I smell the meatballs cooking in the IKEA cafeteria, I get the sense that my ancestors are texting me from the Nordic climes. I have a natural aptitude for wielding the little tools that come with every IKEA flat pack -- my wife has assured me that I can assemble a STYRØN bookshelf almost as well as any guy she’s met. And I have a deep bond with the tall, blonde Scandinavian super models that the company plants in all of its stores to evoke authenticity.

Instead of explaining all of this, I slow my pace and make sure I stop occasionally to write down a product number on my little sheet of paper, and this seems to work. It occurred to me, then, how odd this slow pacing thing really is. I understood the slow food movement, and even the slow travel movement. But slow crass consumerism?


In late November, the people of the United States were once again subjected to the annual ritual known as Black Friday. In the pre-dawn darkness on the day after every Thanksgiving, people line up in vast big box store parking lots all over the country, giant Starbucks pumpkin pie-flavored frappolattachinos in hand, in order to get in a good position. When the doors open at an ungodly hour, the throng surges into the store in order to take advantage of discounts on flat screen televisions, video game consoles, and other gadgetry. People do not take this ritual lightly; nearly every year, news reports of serious injuries, even fatalities, rise from the scuffle of the stampedes.

This ritual is and has been repeated on various scales across the capitalistic spectrum. Once upon a time, blue lights flashing in K-Marts would ignite a Pavlovian response in blue-haired women throughout the aisles, and the need to get a Cabbage Patch doll for their kids turned otherwise mild-mannered mothers into clawing, biting animals. This primal response is predicated on the notion that these objects will all be gobbled up by competing consumers, and the resulting drought of said objects will threaten the survival of those unlucky ones who did not sprint fast enough for the blue light, did not wake up early enough from their post-gluttony slumber. No matter that the said objects are produced by the hundreds of thousands in far-away factories, and that the discounts on them will be even deeper in a few weeks, when the new models come out, it’s the ritual that matters. It’s our way, I suppose, to get in touch with our hunter-gatherer roots, and this frenzied consumption has become a primary component of our capitalistic society.

But not at IKEA. At 4 a.m. on Black Friday, the IKEA parking lots of the world were empty, the lights dark. They waited until mid-morning to open, just like any other day. They offered free breakfast as consolation, along with a few one-day only sales. But to try to race for the specials would have been futile because of the way IKEA is laid-out. There is no simple grid system here, no going in, getting what you need, and heading out. Upon entering the store, IKEA customers are first given the opportunity to drop off their kids at free daycare. This seems pretty progressive and pro-parenting, sort of like Sweden's generous maternity/paternity leave policies. Except that it's really just a way to give parents more time to shop and more room to spend. It's also a way to keep kids from the ugly truth: Their parents' marital bond can be snapped in two by a $39.99 light fixture.

Childless, customers then head up an escalator to a sort of staging zone from which there are only two ways out: by following the meandering maze through the entire store, or by taking a "short cut" to the restaurant. One cannot simply turn around and leave an IKEA any more than Dante could have called it quits after reaching the third circle of Hell. It just doesn't work like that.

So customers end up wandering through the store like rudderless rafts on a slow river, all the while slightly disoriented, following the arrows along a path that must, after all the turns and twists, be at least a mile long. This, of course, is intentional. It makes for a more contemplative shopping experience, as well as one in which goal-oriented shopping is virtually impossible. This puportedly leisurely shopping pace gives the illusion that one has plenty of time to consider which items to buy, seemingly making rash purchases impossible. It's only an illusion, though. Once, my wife Wendy and I, needing furniture for a new house, made a 10-hour drive to the nearest IKEA, in Phoenix, Ariz. We entered the store at 9:30 a.m., for breakfast. We did not emerge until 7 p.m., dazed and confused, with no real understanding of what we had just purchased save for the knowledge that our credit card company was now $3,000 poorer.

Extensive research of '80s-era sitcoms shows that shopping like this was once the provenance mostly of women, with the men only getting involved when they saw the receipt, which then caused them to go into some sort of epileptic, but entirely comic, fit. In this new hunting and gathering society, women became the hunters. But today’s IKEA shoppers are of a more liberated ilk, and almost always come in pairs. If one does not have a life-partner or spouse, then she brings a roommate or friend. And here, among the light fixtures, sofas, office furniture and prefab kitchens, they talk in hushed tones and serious voices as though they were discussing Soren Kierkegaard, not SØREN couches. If the Wal-Marts of the world have lowered shopping to some kind of primal, stone-age urge, then IKEA has elevated shopping to higher philosophy. I’m not sure which one is worse: Judging by the huge lines at ever checkout counter during every hour of the day all over the world, the end result is exactly the same.

After I had broke free from the unhappy couple and the suspicious IKEA staffers, all about half my age, I moved through the crowd once again until I found Wendy in the dining room table section. She was crouched underneath a round, glass-topped table, inspecting it intently. I was going to tell her something brilliant to prove my theory that Berlin’s populace has a disproportionately high amount of injuries of hands, fingers and arms (another story altogether), but I completely forgot. Instead, I blurted: “Hey, don’t you think it’s time to head to the cafeteria for some meatballs?”

She peered up through the glass at me, bewildered. “It’s only 11:30. (She pauses to let me consider how base and uncontrollable my desires are). What do you think of this table? I’m thinking it would fit nicely in our kitchen.”

I looked at the table, and the price tag. I did not mention that we had no kitchen. No living room. No bedroom. At the time, we were still looking for a place, and were having no luck. The search for a Berlin apartment had slowly disintegrated into a nightmare that involved bumbling bureaucrats who didn’t seem to be conscious of the world outside their office doors, evil real estate agents who engaged in a particularly caustic brand of passive aggressive behavior, and which offered a glimpse into the naked psyche of the German people -- even now, months later, the wounds are too raw for me to talk about it in any detail. So, at the time, the IKEA trip was still purely hypothetical, a form of wishful thinking, perhaps.

“Yeah, it’s okay, I guess.” I searched for something more to say, something intelligent about the lines of the table’s base, or something insightful about eating off a glass table. I really, really wanted to converse with my wife, my soulmate; to connect with her here amongst all this furniture. But a table is just one of those things in life that I may never truly understand, and I just don’t have a whole heck of a lot to say about it. It’s just four legs on which rests a plank sturdy enough to hold dinner, a few bottles of wine and maybe a drunken dancer every once in a while. So why were there so many choices? I looked across the vast plain of tables, long skinny ones, square ones, plastic ones and wood ones. I longed, suddenly, for the “generic” products of my youth, with their non-descript black and white labels promising nothing but what was inside: Orange Drink, Cheese, Hot Dog. What about just: Table? “I like the name,” I said, finally. “Sounds like a Scandinavian philosopher or something, doesn’t it?”

This is not what she wanted to hear. I mumbled something about light fixtures, and scurried off, until I came across the place where, in a seemingly impossibly small space, they had set up an entire apartment, complete with kitchen, bathroom, living room. I plopped myself down on the OLEBY sofa underneath the STYRØN loft bed and stared at the dead screen of the TV. I marveled at the self-contained efficiency of the faux flat. These are in every IKEA in the world, and they are my favorite part of the store (after the free coffee refills, of course). They exude an almost erotic sense of comfort. Someday, Wendy will find a man who can converse about tables, and I’ll end up alone, no doubt. These little places assure me that when that time comes, I can find a tiny apartment, call up IKEA, and have them deliver this very setup to me. And like the little apartment, I too will be self-contained.

Perhaps that’s the IKEA secret, and the reason some Swedish dude has made millions of dollars on wrecked marriages. These particular stores are not just a collection of discreet items to be purchased individually; they are instead a collection in which the sum makes up more than the parts. IKEA’s not about buying objects, which seems base but is just what shopping should be. It’s about purchasing a sense of self -- an identity. We don't really fully become members of the post-industrial graphic designer class until we purchase our first flat-packed sofa couch to fit into that tiny, 250-square-foot apartment. We don't really become post-post-modern parents until we've spent at least 12 hours in the IKEA kid's section. And we're not really post-divorce, bitter old bachelors until we've once again furnished a 250 square foot apartment with IKEA, this time leaving a few empty feet on the floor where the kids can sleep on their occasional visits. 

As I sat in the prefab-apartment thinking about all of this, I felt a bit as if I had been duped. My anti-capitalist tendencies had been confused by the IKEA approach, and here I was, sitting in just another big box store, longing to spend my credit card company’s money. It was no less crass than Black Friday, I figured, maybe even worse. What’s weird is that people don’t see that – they boycott Wal-Marts and burn down Starbucks, but the only people who scorn IKEA are hipsters, at least when they’re not too busy tossing scorn at, well, hipsters. I considered getting up and telling Wendy all of this, and insisting we get the hell out of this place and go build our own stinking table. Then I remembered, I don’t know how to build a table.

My daughters finally found me in the prefab-apartment and rousted me from my thoughts with their lists of all the things they had to have for their still non-existent bedrooms. By this time, the yellow and blue-suited staffers were getting really worried about me. So I pulled myself out of the couch and we all headed down to the restaurant to stand in line for our meatballs. I ate happily and drank a coffee with my meal. Then I drank another. And, since it was free, I lined up for a third. That’s when I started to see the light, and understand what it was all about. That’s when I heard my ancestors calling to me: Buy the table, you idiot. Just buy it. It will save your marriage. For now. Besides, it’s flat-packed, and will only take a few minutes to assemble.


Beth said...

Our nearest Ikea to our Munich apartment=15 minutes on the S-bahn. Number of times I've visited this Ikea=0. Rented a furnished apartment instead. Marriage still in tact. Another option for you, too:)!

Beth said...

Went to Ikea 2 weeks ago for the first time--your post was in my mind the whole time. You captured this bizarre shopping experience perfectly!