Inside Story

Decluttering with IKEA

What we are looking for when we wander through IKEA stores?

Richard Johnstone 1 April 2011 2270 words

“They’re having a picnic!”: IKEA’s Beijing store. Peter Morgan/Flickr

The Truth About IKEA: The Secret Behind the World’s Fifth Richest Man and the Success of the Swedish Flatpack Giant
By Johan Stenebo | Gibson Square | £12.99

Tools for Living: A Sourcebook of Iconic Designs for the Home
By Charlotte and Peter Fiell | Fiell | $85

In Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China, the China-based journalist (and Inside Story contributor) Duncan Hewitt describes a visit he made to IKEA’s new Beijing store shortly after it opened in 1999. He marvels at the enthusiasm of the crowds, and interviews the equally fervent store manager. “It’s amazing,” says Mr Gustavsson. “On Saturdays there are people sitting in all the sofas and the easy chairs; they have their own tea, their biscuits, their newspaper, and… yeah, they’re having a picnic!”

A young woman tells Hewitt of a friend who recently brought her mother to IKEA for the afternoon. After several hours in the store, her friend’s mother summed up the experience: “I really think I should throw out a lot of the stuff we have at home.” As that reaction makes clear, the IKEA experience is as much about divestment – or rather the idea of divestment – as it is about acquisition. It represents an opportunity to start anew, with clean lines and blond wood and no clutter.

The founder of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad, understood from the beginning the sense of opportunity his stores could provide, and the potential their inventories offered for personal renewal. It is all there in Kamprad’s nine key principles, first promulgated in 1976 in his “Testament of a Furniture Dealer.” “Doing it a different way,” says the sixth principle, neatly capturing the idea of a fresh start, even while leaving the “it” open to individual interpretation. And the lead-in to the final principle is, in effect, an injunction to employee and shopper alike to leave the past behind and just get on with it: “Most things still remain to be done. A glorious future!”

The idea that IKEA can help us to start again also crops up in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second volume of his massively popular trilogy. His heroine, Lisbeth Salander, has buried her old identity and created a new one. So when she buys an apartment, it is logical that she should furnish it entirely from IKEA. She begins with matching KARLANDA sofas and works right down to “a starter pack of stainless steel cutlery” and “a huge quantity of office supplies.” Nothing in her choice of furniture or homewares offers a hint of her past, real or imagined, which is of course a major part of their attraction.

Larsson describes Salander as browsing the store and then writing down the product codes of the items she has selected, emphasising the mechanical and unaestheticised nature of the task. It is, literally, interior design by numbers, which is perhaps not quite what Ingvar Kamprad had in mind when he formulated his fifth principle, that “simplicity is a virtue.” It does, however, offer a kind of liberation, which is certainly what he did have in mind.

Highlighting the virtue of simplicity in the design of the modern interior is not Ingvar Kamprad’s invention, nor is it characteristic only of IKEA. It is part of the modernist aesthetic. We have been taught to admire spareness and space – Lisbeth Salander “wanted to have a pleasant, sparsely furnished apartment” – and the roots of that admiration go back a long way. In 1898, when the novelist Edith Wharton and the architect and interior decorator Ogden Codman published one of the first modern manuals of its kind, The Decoration of Houses, they were quite clear where they stood: “simplicity,” they wrote, “is the supreme excellence.”

Wharton and Codman were generally discouraging of too much inventiveness on the part of the amateur decorator, leading as it can to an over-abundance of “trashy china ornaments.” Reinforcing their point, they warned that “the simplicity and dignity of a good room are diminished by crowding it with useless trifles.” Behind these kinds of admonishments are assumptions that have survived to the present day, namely that the individual, in assuming sole responsibility for decorating his or her own home, is bound to be overtaken by clutter, and that the best preventative strategy lies in seeking some kind of professional assistance.

This helps to explain why IKEA appears not to have suffered unduly, or even at all, from what many see as the rather stern way it has with its customers. A Saturday morning spent following the arrows, suppressing the occasional surge of panic at the thought of never reaching the end of the winding path, is all part of the deal. IKEA in any case remains sensitive to the degree to which its customers will follow overt directions, tweaking its approach from country to country according to customer feedback and the sales figures. This is based on the recognition that there is a fine difference between, on the one hand, encouraging people to remain in the store and to see everything there is to see – and to buy quite a bit of it – and, on the other hand, precipitating outbreaks of so-called “IKEA-rage.”

In a public lecture delivered in January at University College London, available on YouTube, Alan Penn, professor of architectural and urban computing at UCL, asks the question, “Who enjoys shopping at IKEA?” He captures the fundamental paradox that underlies the entire IKEA experience. It is “highly disorienting,” he says, “and yet there is only one route to follow.” It is surely no coincidence that the layout of the IKEA store replicates the confusion most of us feel when confronted with the mysteries of home decoration and interior design. We are looking for direction and lo and behold, almost without realising it, we find we are being led along the correct path.

Once inside the store, we are never in a position to see more than a small portion of the stock at any one time, so as first-time visitors we do not initially appreciate that its contents constitute a complete world. That perception of the interconnectedness of all the items – their stylistic consistency – grows slowly as we make our winding way, following the people in front of us. Gradually we feel more comfortable and at home. And at some point – Penn suggests it is typically after about half an hour into what might well be a two or three hour stay – our confidence in the IKEA world reaches a level where we “feel licensed to impulse purchase.”

IKEA is aware to the point of self-parody of this aspect of its appeal. The British campaign to launch the 2011 catalogue, as developed by the ad agency Mother, “used cats as the undisputed creatures of comfort to see what made them happy in IKEA’s Wembley store.” One hundred cats were released overnight into various parts of the building and then tracked by cameras. The resulting video (also accessible via YouTube) begins with shots of individual cats taking the plunge from various high points onto the floor. The cats then team up and start following one another – and the arrows – along the designated path. Gradually they begin to separate again, as they grow more comfortable with the idea of exploring the objects that attract their individual attention. The mood becomes more soothing, the cats more sedentary and relaxed, and up comes the strapline – “happy inside.”

From disorientation comes contentment. It is again an extraordinary paradox that IKEA – the subject of so many jokes and horror stories of people being lost in the maze, desperate to get out – should owe its massive global success to the recognition that we all, as customers, crave the direction and security it provides. We succumb to being led through the maze that is interior design, knowing that we need help in negotiating the pitfalls of bad taste. IKEA may look confusing and even intimidating at first, but it ends up by providing us with a safe way through.

Johan Stenebo, in his erratic but intermittently illuminating book The Truth About IKEA, based on twenty years he spent with the company, recalls how sales in Germany “at the beginning of the nineties contributed one third of IKEA’s turnover,” even as the interiors of the German stores resembled “the catacombs of Rome.” By Stenebo’s account, “the stores were literally packed with people… hungry, thirsty, exhausted and dying to go to the loo, who slowly dragged themselves along the 1.4 km long aisles… In pure desperation these poor wretches would push open the emergency exits in order to flee out into the fresh air.” Yet the tills kept ringing, suggesting that in practice many more people persevered to the registers than opted for the escape hatch. Contrary to Stenebo’s perception, the customers must have been, if the sales figures are anything to go by, “happy inside” after all.

For Stenebo, “one of IKEA’s absolute competitive advantages is the fantastic capacity to in a subtle way, almost unnoticeably, manoeuvre your purchases.” In other words, while IKEA encourages us to subscribe to the modernist design aesthetic that less is more, it manages at the same time to convince us – and this is the truly brilliant bit – that more is less. By means of a sophisticated sequence of in-store placements and displays, we are led to buy not just a sofa but a lamp and some drinking glasses and some other bits and pieces as well, all the while under the illusion that the process being engaged in is not one of randomly accumulating stuff but of de-cluttering and streamlining an overcrowded life. It is no mean achievement that IKEA has continued to embody in the public mind the modernist ideals of simplicity and minimalism yet all the while its total product range has been growing – to the point where, by 2010, it comprised some 12,000 items.

IKEA and its designers have won their share of awards over the years, and more recently there have been major retrospective exhibitions in museums in Sweden, Germany and Austria. But for all its success as a company and a brand, individual IKEA products never quite seem to gain unreserved admittance to the design hall of fame. This could be because, like the BILLY bookcase (28 million units sold and counting), these products are identified more for their low-cost functionality and sheer ubiquity than for their intrinsic design qualities. Or it could be down to the way in which IKEA can sometimes produce, in the name of “democratic design,” pieces that closely resemble more famous, more iconic creations.

Evidence for this reluctance to fully endorse IKEA’s design credentials lies, for instance, in the fact that the recently released Tools for Living, compiled by Charlotte and Peter Fiell and subtitled A Sourcebook of Iconic Designs for the Home, doesn’t mention IKEA at all, in any of its more than 750 pages. In contrast to the customer loyalty and enthusiasm for its products engendered by IKEA, evident in websites like IKEAFANS, the editors of Tools for Living advocate a more aesthetically considered approach to de-cluttering, a cooler and more discriminating relationship between prospective user and individual object. “Wouldn’t it be better,” they ask rhetorically, “not to clutter our lives with a sea of questionable bric-a-brac, but rather to share our homes with a smaller number of functional and aesthetically refined possessions?” It’s an approach that’s just a bit too rarefied for IKEA.

Tools for Living is labelled as a “sourcebook,” meaning that if you are in the market for a kettle or a sofa that is both functional and beautiful, then this is the place to look. And indeed it is, although the authors do labour sometimes to maintain the link between functionality and design status. An orange-squeezer, for example, is described as “an elegant and effective citrus-pressing solution,” and we are assured that the O-series scissors, designed by Olof Bäckström in the 1960s, are not only good for cutting but “are a joy to use on each and every occasion.” This kind of simplicity is quite distinct from the kind that IKEA offers: in Tools for Living each item stands alone as a streamlined design statement, angling for the audience’s attention. The objects themselves are the true stars, and our role is to admire them.

It is very different in IKEA-land, where the individual objects, rather than claiming all the attention for themselves, combine to form a stage on which we can then perform our lives, unencumbered by evidence of our pasts – those chairs that grandma gave us, for instance – and unbetrayed by our own clunky ideas of what goes with what. As Alan Penn puts it, “the IKEA lifestyle frees the shopper from the weight of personal and cultural value,” frees us to be the people we want to be, rather than be defined by our possessions. It seems to promise us that we, not the furniture, will be the stars. And best of all, in IKEA-land there is lots of storage.

Unlike many an iconic modern design, IKEA recognises our need to put things away, to hide the evidence of clutter and chaos in our lives. It knows that we know that we will never really get rid of the mess. The most we can hope for is to keep our clutter out of sight and to create the illusion of order. To that end, IKEA provides drawers under beds and compartments in headboards, shelves built into coffee tables, “interior organisers,” “clothes storage systems” and “TV-related storage solutions with a smart inside.” In a striking moment towards the end of the cat ad, an especially snow-white specimen is shown looking into a very large, snow-white drawer and then reflectively closing it with its paws. You can tell the cat is imagining all the junk and clutter that would fit inside. •