The Ikea cult

Business Week recently ran a cover story on Ikea, arguing that in its global reach, its obsession with low prices and its idolizing of its founder, Ingvar Kamprad, the Swedish funriture chain was comparable to Wal-Mart. The article also stresses how Ikea attempts to sell a lifestyle as opposed to mere goods, linking Ikea shopping with a whol frugal, eco-conscious approach to life. My feeling has always been that shopping at Ikea gives a sacrifice-free inkling of what a social democracy/welfare state could be, both in its spartan sterility and its underlying sense of cooperation and sincere interest in the general welfare– the methods by which they try to entice shoppers and encourage their loyalty seem akin to the ways ideally a society might gently manipulate the priorities of its citizens: stylize thrift so that the society can more fairly distribute its product. The store uses, according to a Harvard B-school study, “gentle coercion” to get customers to stay longer — caring for their kids, feeding them, etc. These are what liberals like to imagine government could do, just as easily.

But the idea that everyone buys into the Ikea ethos is part of the fantasy visiting the store helps construct (making it easy to overlook its annoying traits — that it makes you build all its cheap stuff yourself, and the incompatibility of many of its housewares with anything non-Ikea). All the faux rooms and the waferboard furniture with streamlined designs, its kitchy language of product names and its free pencils and measuring tapes and its Swedish meatballs, the orderly way you are guided through the maze of offerings, all these things tend to suggest the competence we hope for in government. But it is easy for Ikea to do this — we aren’t expecting justice from it, just cheap furniture. It’s success is in suggesting that cheap furniture is all that matters in the world.

Ikea plays on the idea that style can redeem all things, and that a well-designed personal space is tantamount to a well-orgaznized life; that all the rest of one’s life can fall naturally into place if you construct an effective enough room for it to happen in, perhaps with the jelp of Ikeas many model rooms you tour at the store. The superfluity of furniture, of cabinets and storage devices and chairs and so on really make it seem that you just need one more file cabinet and all your business will be taken care of –if you just have the right place for something, the chaotic forces that displaces it will be forever held at bay. No one model room creates this effect, instead it is the overwhelming multiplicity of rooms that builds the fantasy — that for every situation we can imagine ourselves in, we could have a room that would provide the appropriatre stagecraft for us to act it out successfully. (The article notes that an actual play is being staged in an Ikea near Seattle. This is supposed to testify to the reality of the rooms, but shows instead that Ikea must ahve a healthy sense o fhumor about itself, since it is hard to imagine this play not using an Ikea setting to comment on the sterility of the lives of the play’s characters.) The end result of an Ikea tour is the sense that style and design can rectify all of live’s shortcomings and that design is a kind of functionality that strips the friction out of everyday life. This is potent fantasy, but dangerous — stylized one’s everyday life ultimately means subjecting one’s intimate sense of self to the vagaries of fashion cycles; it means finding discontent in oneself for purely external and arbitrary reasons cooked up by designers, who’s mandate who’s reason for being. is to constantly work to convince people that the perfectly useful things they already have are completely inadequate. Perhaps the comfort we sense in the potentiality of design is the dream that we ourselves can escape the need to be useful, and that we can refine ourselves to a minimalist point free of wasteful thoughts and gestures. That we will become like our well-designed objects and will have a perfect place built in to our society for us that requires no effort of our own to fit into — by surrounding ourselves with the appropriate design we’ll automatically fit into a specific social niche. All shopping cults work this way; they convince consumers that the difficulties of maintain a position in society can be reduced to a series of shopping decisions that the store itself will make for you. You don’t have to do anything, not even think — it’s wonderful!