The living-room gauntlet

When Ikea opens in West Sacramento on Wednesday, will you buy an Ektorp or join a fight club?

Photo Illustration by Don Button

Most discussions of urban development tend toward preoccupation with exteriors—the outer surfaces of a place, the changes in its face. These are important concerns. But it is also important to remember the adage that what really counts is what’s on the inside. You know, the housewares. There can be no true urbanity without an urbanity of interiors.

A new Ikea store, California’s eighth, will open Wednesday in West Sacramento. This shouldn’t be news to anybody. By now, if you haven’t heard of the store’s impending arrival, you may be living under a rock (no problem; Ikea offers many options for small spaces). If you haven’t seen the Ikea bedroom-diorama truck cruising around downtown or the big blue hulk of the store itself, gleaming in the crook of Interstates 80 and 5, you may be legally blind and unsafe for driving anyway. At 265,000 square feet, the store is probably visible from space. Good thing it’s not a Wal-Mart, eh? Then there’d be hell to pay.

And why is that, anyway? More than 400 million people worldwide went shopping at an Ikea store last year. Having cleared $2 billion in annual American sales alone, the Sweden-based company certainly qualifies as a corporate behemoth. Doesn’t that mean we should oppose it on principle? Do we not remember those cautionary, caustic words from the nameless narrator in Fight Club, David Fincher’s movie of Chuck Palahniuk’s first novel?

“Like everyone else, I had become a slave to the Ikea nesting instinct. If I saw something like clever coffee tables in the shape of a yin and yang, I had to have it. I would flip through catalogs and wonder, ‘What kind of dining set defines me as a person?’ We used to read pornography. Now it was the Horchow Collection. I had it all. Even the glass dishes with tiny bubbles and imperfections, proof they were crafted by the honest, simple, hardworking indigenous peoples of wherever.”

Well, how very 1999. In the here and now, things have changed. Ikea has crept back into our hearts, gently, persistently prodding—and earning—our faith in whatever spiritual deliverance we expect from affordable prefab Nordic furnishings with eccentric names and advertisements. Plus, it’s handy to be able at last to acquire them without schlepping all the way to Emeryville.

“Ikea” is not the Swedish word for “gentrifying, gargantuan cobalt-blue box store.” In fact, it’s not the Swedish word for anything. The true meaning of the name, you may be pleased to learn, is far too dorky to be at all menacing: It combines the initials of company founder Ingvar Kamprad with the first letters of the farm on which he grew up, Elmtaryd, and the parish, Agunnaryd, in which it’s located.

Being from Sweden helps a lot, actually. Sweden has done well by us before, culturally, with such exports as Ingmar Bergman movies and Volvos (and, to a lesser extent, Saabs). As they’ve come of age, these commodities have managed to withstand increasing yuppie identification without forfeiting their integrity. Now, when you think Sweden, you think spare, coolly exotic sincerity, and efficiency, and a certain kind of nerdy safety, all of which seems neatly to describe Ikea’s aesthetic mandate.

It shows in the commercials. One memorable series begins by smash-cutting in to some scandalous domestic event—an unintended pregnancy, say—that’s just ruptured the status quo of one handsomely appointed middle-class living room. With tensions nearing a boil, there appears a cheery emissary, dressed in the colors of Sweden—ah, we can trust him; he’s neutral—and meaning politely to intervene. Or is he waiting for something? Yes, in fact, he’s the Ikea sales guy, and we’re in the showroom. Acknowledging him, the family members break off their melodrama. They were just role-playing, getting a feel for the furniture.

If such clever, grimly funny theatricality reminds you of a Wes Anderson movie, that’s because it is one. That the meticulous maestro of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a man who doesn’t take his product placement lightly, would shill for this particular corporate giant must say something about the corporate giant. For Anderson’s sake, you assume it’s something good.

And he’s not alone among high-profile Ikea enablers. The company’s “unböring” campaign of a few years ago also made use of Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze, whose creative-hipster cred knows no bounds. Sure, Jonze’s spot was cheekily consumerist—it came off as more Adweek than Adbusters—but you were as unlikely to dislike it as you were to forget it.

A woman leaves her old desk lamp out with the trash on a rainy street. She goes about her life in the apartment above, aglow from the lamp’s replacement, as the neglected thing meanwhile looks increasingly pitiable out on the windswept sidewalk. A strange man appears, standing in the rain and addressing the camera. “Many of you feel bad for this lamp,” he says in a funny Nordic accent. “That is because you’re crazy. It has no feelings! And the new one is much better.”

If you’ve been a young urbanite in recent years, you may recall the days when chance encounters on the sidewalk supplied the bulk of your home furnishings—the days when, had you happened upon that forlorn, discarded lamp, you’d have scooped it up at once and called it a good score. You may also recall the day when you finally said, “OK, enough of this bullshit—it’s time to just grow up and go furniture shopping.”

Ikea, of course, had been waiting for you. Ikea is what you do between college and the rest of your life. And as Anderson and Jonze have reminded us—in their commercial work and elsewhere—that transition can be a fun and fertile period; if it seems to last forever, well, so much the better. So what if your stuff is only made of particle board? You’re not passing it on to your grandchildren. You’re living with it, now, in the moment.

On a tour of the West Sac store a few weeks ago, affable Ikea public-relations guy Joseph Roth seemed fully aware of the potential for self-discovery to be had from furniture shopping. When, without a trace of snarky irony, Roth proclaimed his company “the first mass retailer to introduce duvets and duvet covers to North America,” it was hard not to remember Tyler Durden demanding of his “Ikea Boy” alter-ego in Fight Club, “Why do guys like you and I know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word?”

Really, though, duvets are the least of your worries. Now you must negotiate your Klippan, your Malm, your Ektorp and Leksvik. Inevitably, you must wonder whether anyone who buys those items really calls them by those names and whether, when they do, they know what the hell they’re saying. Are they even real names, or does somebody just make up goofy, exotic-sounding words, the way Häagen-Dazs did, successfully, with ice cream? The way Ikea did with itself? Pressed to explain the protocols of Ikea nomenclature, Roth said, “It was a much clearer pattern early on. Let’s see. They were named after cities, bodies of water, and … um, you know, now it’s gotten to the point where I don’t even know anymore.”

No matter. Roth knew he didn’t need to defend the brand, nor to proselytize on its behalf. That work has been done, and loyalty is self-propagating. Just ask the guys who lined up in the West Sac parking lot weeks in advance of this store’s opening (see Scene&Heard).

“The Ikea catalog is the world’s most distributed annual free publication,” one recent press release says, “with 160-million copies printed in 52 editions and 25 different languages.” In other words, it is history’s most ubiquitous junk mail and, as it happens, the unlikely manifesto of middle-class status anxiety.

Two Sundays ago, the San Francisco Chronicle reported a thriving cottage industry of Ikea knockoffs in India, whose emergent class of thrift- and organization-minded young professionals, settling into their own digs for the first time, have been tearing out pages from that famously available catalog and handing them over to local carpenters with eager instructions to go and build likewise. “Educated and Westernized, many of them prefer the Swedish furniture superstore’s minimalist style to homespun handiwork, or the clunky British colonial pieces they grew up with,” the article said.

Ikea has no stores in India. It knows about the rampant piracy but shrugs off the prospect of taking legal action. Clever: Lest a company be accused of cultural imperialism, a little progressive temperance goes a long way.

That’s among the best of Ikea’s good, tasteful ideas: Be everywhere, sure, but be minimal. With that in mind, the company doesn’t seem like much of a threat to Sacramento’s artisanal furniture makers. Does Sacramento even have artisanal furniture makers? In any event, how we take our Ikea should tell us what we’re really made of. (Recycled wood waste, in many cases.)

We should allow that there is some implied victory over chaos in all those clean, de-cluttered lines. In terms of interiority, at least, there is some compacting force, something antithetical to sprawl. Carting all that flat-packed furniture through the checkout line and into the trunk and into the house for discreet do-it-yourself construction has a way of rendering your consumption inconspicuous. Besides, anyone who would blame you for wanting a nice-looking couch that costs hundreds of dollars instead of thousands doesn’t need to spend much time in your living room anyway.