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A clean, well-lighted place: Not another IKEA rant

 

As I prepared to visit my first-ever IKEA last week, I realized how little I knew about the retail chain. They were from Sweden. They made birch-colored, ready-to-assemble furniture with charming names that was cheap but pretty cool. The giant stores were located on America’s exurban fringes — usually but one or two per city.

When we were dating, my fiancé, Nicole, often suggested road trips to the closest IKEA, in Covina, California, outside L.A. (distance: 249 miles). I always begged off. When she moved into a new place, she had plenty of IKEA furniture shipped, and we grabbed our Allen wrenches and got busy. There’s a whole literature online about the perils of Couples Who Put IKEA Furniture together, but the furniture itself survived, and so did we. (The visual directions are exceptionally clear.)

But that was it. Ultimately, IKEA was the place you went to when you moved into your first apartment. Then you moved on. To judge by the many thousands of Las Vegans of all ages jamming the new store, I was wrong.

IKEA is, no surprise, big in every way. According to its website, the IKEA Group runs 328 stores in 28 countries; another 40 are run by franchisers. Last fiscal year, 771 million visitors came to their stores; 1.9 billion people visited the website.

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Now, at long last, it’s our turn. Last week the Swedish home furnishings giant opened its 42nd United States outlet in Las Vegas. The store is 351,000 square feet. The restaurant seats 450. The parking lot parks 1,300. The 110,000-square foot warehouse can stock 10,000 items. A piece in the Review Journal notes that it is the largest store ever built in Southern Nevada.

It looks the part, this blue fortress, an instant landmark, commanding the pie-shaped slice of land where the 215 curves toward Summerlin. Its triangular sign serenely announces the retail chain as master of all it surveys. I mean, even Walmart usually anchors a shopping complex with reliable sidekicks like Lowe’s or Home Depot or Office Max tagging along. IKEA stands alone.

Nicole and I visited on opening day, May 18. We drove by around 4:30, but there were too many people. The left-turn lane to get into the lot was 20 cars deep. Cops were out directing traffic. Cars were parked in the desert across the street. We had dinner instead, and came back after sunset. Surely the crowds will have thinned. Well, no, but we eventually found a spot at the far reaches of the lot, near 215 and Sunset, out where generators powered temporary lights.

I posted a note to Facebook before we headed in and received plenty of sage advice. Take the maze backwards, Ted exhorted. Tackle the store only with a to-go cup full of mimosas, Melissa warned.

A Welcome to Fabulous IKEA Las Vegas sign greeted us at the door. Fitting. Tonight we were here as tourists, but this was also a scouting expedition. Nicole is moving in, and we have stuff to buy. Nicole handed me a large yellow bag as we entered. She also had a piece of paper to write down the location of items in the store — it looked like a score card — and a tape measure like you’d get at your tailor. We rode the escalator up to the second-floor showrooms.

I imagined IKEA would be, basically, Home Depot on the inside, one floor with double height ceiling, industrial-looking, stuffed with shelves. And while the self-service warehouse — where customers retrieve their boxed-up furniture — is this space, the showrooms were something else: a carnival ride. A glimpse of the future.

What is on display here is the ease of your own seduction. At one level, IKEA seduces you with a dream about total organization. Everything in the home can be considered, accounted for, provided and curated: your socks and bags and pens and pencils, your stamps, your shoes, your forks and spoons and spices. But at a larger level, when you consider the store as a whole, I felt the opposite. The so-called “natural way” of moving through IKEA, where you are encouraged (or forced) to experience the totality of its products, rather than picking what parts of the store you’ll visit, is a kind of disorienting surrender to All Things IKEA. Don’t catalog. Don’t think. Just go with it.

The showrooms are discrete yet flowing spaces, and along the path that meanders among and through them, all sense of direction is lost, all sense of relation to other parts of the store is gone. I’ve always been good at orienting myself inside a space. But here, just five minutes in, I had to stop and mentally redraw the map of where we’d gone, where I was. Facing … west … I think. Five minutes more and I had no idea.

My landmark became other customers — as diverse a crowd as any on the Strip — who entered the showrooms when I did. I saw them here and there amidst the throng of gobsmacked visitors shuffling through the store, like recognizing the same travelers at the airport as you make your way from ticketing counter to plane.

The path through the store was a board game, like Candy Crush or Candyland. Push Here, Open This, the signs invite. Touch. Explore. The chairs and sofas and mattresses and wardrobes, the kitchen appliances, the desks and storage bins, the drawers that close themselves, the subtle lights winking on underneath cabinets, the lamp that you could explode and unexplode with the tug of the string — they were confections out of Willie Wonka’s factory. Only this was better, because here we wouldn’t get punished for indulging all of our home-furnishing fantasies.

On this first trip we lasted but an hour before the store closed. Just as well, the crowds and the spectacle and the sheer choice had worn me out. We didn’t buy anything, but I came back a few days later to get a second look at a mahogany bookshelf and to explore the rest of the store: the first-floor marketplace, with its smaller household products; the cavernous, Raiders of the Lost Ark­­-sized self-service warehouse. A day after that, Nicole came home with a bag full swag.

So it begins. One-stop shopping. From cradle to grave, apparently.

Most of the wayfinding maps at IKEA stores that I’ve seen online show a floor plan of the showrooms and then trace a lazy path through them. It’s like those tilting wooden labyrinth games where you have to maneuver the steel ball around the holes. Our map, by contrast, is a single line subway map: All the showroom names are laid out in a line. There are transfer points on the map where you can cut ahead to another showroom (or back — but I never saw anyone moving in the opposite direction; maybe Ted was right). They were like portals that would whisk you from one realm of the space-time continuum to another.

What a perfect fit in Las Vegas. After all, we invented large interior spaces with no windows and no clocks, whose sole purpose is to happily hypnotize people away from caring about the outside world. Everything you want is here. Enjoy yourself. No one’s been clamoring for a Swedish-themed casino, but if we were, it’d look a lot like this. Just add some slot machines — and on second thought, don’t bother. People are spending plenty of money in here as is.

 

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For all IKEA’s no-doubt sincere desire to, as the company puts it, “create a better everyday life for the many people,” the hubris of all this is astounding. The chutzpah! These guys are like, “We’ll just design everything. Like there aren’t plenty of good companies out there making sofas and office chairs and pots and pans? Apparently not, for IKEA, in its relentless cheerfulness, doesn’t trust anybody else to design the world’s home goods and has taken on the heroic work of designing it all. They even make appliances. They even sell food. (But damn, the Swedish meatballs are good.)

IKEA’s supply chain is massive. A separate company sources all the wood — and the Internet will tell you that IKEA uses a full 1 percent of world’s commercial wood supply. Behind its byzantine corporate structure, IKEA, despite selling $35 billion last fiscal year, is apparently a nonprofit. It is run by a foundation that does all sorts of charitable goods, works very hard to make IKEA sustainable, and pays little, it seems, in the way of taxes.  

To this point, the Apple Store had stood as my exemplar of Retail as Experience or Retail as Religion. No longer. But I can’t help but see IKEA and Apple as partners in crime. IKEA’s carefully planned environment feels just like Apple, which famously designs its own hardware and software and cultivates a benevolently despotic attitude of “Use our device this way. Trust us. We’ve thought of everything, and we know better than you.”

Both companies have helped elevate The Designer to a chief position in the culture. Designers are our new priests, shamans of aesthetically satisfying solutions to complex technical and logistical problems. If we once looked to artists and poets to make sense of the world and provide it with meaning, we now look to designers. Half engineer and half artist, they can, we trust, sort out all the messy realities of 21st century life while making the world, and those of us in it, look good.

 

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IKEA says its researchers spend time in people’s homes around the world, learning how they use their spaces. Their acumen shows: In the store was an absolutely brilliant 590-square-foot mock urban apartment with a lovely bedroom, living area, kitchen and secondary sleeping space in an alcove. It was snug but not cramped, clever without being pretentious. Man, to live here, I thought. I imagined I was back in New York. If I could have found a place like this I might still be there. These are the kind of intimate reveries that IKEA inspires.

Drifting in and out of kitchens and living rooms and bathrooms, my mind settled into an agreeable haze of aspirations — these kitchen cabinets, those shelves — so much that I briefly forgot where I was. A couple were passing out of a bathroom showroom. I was in some sort of closet space nearby and, for a split second, I felt like I was in their home and catching them in a private moment and I looked away.

IKEA drives home a crucial point about American life. Despite the migration of Gen Xers and Millennials back to the urban charms of the city, which are chiefly about the pleasures of shared spaces, the real public spaces in America are (and perhaps always have been) our homes. Inside and out, this is where we gather and show friends and family and, most of all, ourselves, our limitless taste and creativity. The world grows ever larger, more complicated, and grand unified narratives of how it all adds up are increasingly under assault. There’s a sense that the world, fundamentally, does not add up. It only grinds on impersonally, run by forces too large and powerful to understand.

So we retreat back to the home. We retreat back to the sweet dream that everything can be made as ordered and sensible and legible as IKEA. Home is the last place we feel empowered. For better and for worse, it’s like home has become the final place — the only place? — that we feel capable of making better.

T.R. Witcher is a frequent contributor to Desert Companion.

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