"Recreational Consumerism": The Ikea Experience

Until recently, until that fateful two days ago, I had only heard of “Ikea” in rumor and hearsay. The furniture and furnishings, yes, those were familiar, but the interior of the blue-and-yellow (if you go cross-eyed, it’s green) store remained terra incognita. I’d heard stories of it. Travelers’ tales and legends, songs, lays, and canticles. The bards spoke of the Fountain of Youth and Fantastical Beasts. Dragons of ferocity and terror were said to lay within its caves, and Ikea’s storied glens and forests were thick with Unicorns and creatures of Faerie. I knew not what lay in store (in this store) for me, as I set out in my gilded chariot (by “gilded chariot” I mean “my girlfriend’s Volvo”) for a new land of wonder and inexpensive modernist furniture.

Ikea, so long rumored, did not disappoint.

Stepping into the display rooms I was immediately impressed by how everything was, first and foremost, contextualized. Ikea does not start by showing you aisles, boxes, or even displays of buyable merchandise. Before any of that, it puts you in the right mood, it romances you properly. Most furniture stores show you goods in a manner that is totally divorced from how the merchandise will look in real life, i.e., you see a couch and it’s in a row with a bunch of other couches. Or, there’s a chair displayed on a pedestal, with nothing else. Such methods of display are utilitarian, perhaps, but they are not natural. Ikea’s strategy, though, is to show its merchandise off in idealized domestic settings, to put its chairs, tables, and sinks in the sexiest contexts possible, and it works. Before I was able to pick up or handle anything buyable, the display rooms got me good and ready with a heavy dose of mercantile foreplay, and boy, did I appreciate that.

The displays were aspirational, inspiring, and, best of all, I could relate to them. Unlike so many catalogs and architectural advertisements that feature heavy furniture that costs more per pound than I do per hour, I could actually see myself assembling these bits of particle board and screws into a delightful modern living space. I had been located, demographically, and hopelessly seduced. Gazing upon the desks and tables and beds and curtains and television sets and spatulas I couldn’t help but enjoy myself. My girlfriend referred to it as “recreational consumerism,” and, yes, that was the perfect word for it.

Stopping for lunch midway through the excursion, I couldn’t help but order the Swedish meatballs. There was no other option, really. The meatballs were too distinctively Ikean to pass up, too much part of the idealized experience. They were small and distinctive, manageable and delicious like so much of the merchandise that the store offered. Gravy and all they were wonderful, and I looked at a picture of Stockholm on the wall.

By the time Ikea hits you with the part that looks like an actual store, the part where you get a cart and put things in it, you are raring to go. You want it. You’ve had your aspirations piqued and sweet nothings of consumerism whispered into your ear. Ikea has suggested and shown to you all that it can offer, all that can be yours. You want to stroll through the housewares section, inserting things into your cart with capitalistic abandon. “I don’t know what this is,” one of us would say, holding some kind of houseware or domestic gadget, “but I get the sense that it’s somehow useful. I want to do things with it!” Indeed. I did manage to control myself, to not buy a shoulder bag that I found useful-seeming, but the final part of the store has you wanting to recklessly consume, and things that seem like large purchases look like impulse buys under Ikea’s seductive spell. By the time I handed over my debit card (I bought a nicely inexpensive dresser, by the way) a wave of relief and satisfaction coursed through me, fantastic release.

The next day I opened my new box of furniture, and got to relive a bit of the Ikea experience as I assembled my new furniture. (I’m even actually reorganizing my room.) That’s what Ikea has going for it, and that’s why it’s great: It offers an experience. Most of the time when I’ve bought something, I think little of where I got it, and mostly I just want to get home with my purchase. Ikea, though, has managed to make itself a kind of theme park, a sort of temple that is a font of affordable and neat-looking things. You can’t really say that about anywhere else. I’ll stop, before I start sounding too much like Ikea’s bitch.

I will simply say: Ikea, you sold me furniture, took my money, and I liked it. You win at capitalism. Congratulations!

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