It was time to replace the boys’ bedroom lamp, which was broken beyond repair. “Family trip to IKEA!” I announced. A few years ago, my three kids would have lit up at the sound of the word IKEA. They would have jumped up and down, eagerly anticipating a visit to the huge blue-and-yellow building, its magical Småland playroom, and its inviting children’s furniture area.
But now, my kids stared at me, horrified. “No Mom, not IKEA!” they groaned. “IKEA is junk!”
I sighed. It’s the sad truth. Our beloved Swedish big-box store is a producer of junk. Our family has shopped at IKEA since my youngest was a toddler. Every room in our house boasts at least one piece of furniture with a cool-sounding Swedish label. A Stornäs dining table graced with Färgrik dinnerware. A Tromsö loft bed. And yes, one extra tall Billy Bookcase. We bought each piece in a flurry of excitement, and assembled them in the usual painstaking fashion, wielding our tiny S-shaped hex keys. Each piece added a touch of Scandanavian style and beauty to our home.
And each piece turned out to be junk.
With the exception of the dining table, every piece of furniture we have purchased from IKEA failed in some way within two years. The Tromsö loft bed creaks with the slightest movement. One of our Ingolf dining chairs lost a wood slat. And our once-lovely computer desk is now a mess of stuck drawers and missing handles.
And yet, despite the high fail rate, something keeps drawing me (along with millions of other people) back to shop at IKEA. Could it be the lure of Swedish meatballs with lingonberry sauce? Is it the exotic appeal of foreign labels and furnishings with odd designs? Is it the impossibly low prices of plastic chairs and build-your-own table pieces?
Maybe. But I have another idea. Right beside me on the (non-IKEA) bed where I’m typing lies IKEA’s current catalog, which is chock-filled with glossy photos of furniture and design ideas. On the cover, a grinning, messy-haired dad is pouring a glass of juice while his barefoot young son smiles up at him while perched on a Mästerby step stool. It is an ideal Saturday morning pancake breakfast scene. Flip through the catalog, and you will find more examples: a young girl happily engaged in play while her mother folds laundry beside her in a perfectly-organized walk-in closet. A young college student relaxes in her chic little apartment while enjoying a bowl of Asian noodle soup. A group of friends gather around a dinner table, smiling as another guest arrives at the door.
IKEA is not merely selling us products. They are selling us an experience. We want the ideal scenes filled with happy friends and family. We want the perfectly designed homes with spaces for each member of our family. We want the organized closets, the cozy nooks, and the clean and simple look that will surely simplify our complicated lives. Who cares if the tiny showrooms are filled with uncomfortable sofas and flimsy fake wood tables? Those rooms hold a promise of independence, of more time with family, and of finally getting our lives together. Besides, they’re adorable.
But still, they’re junk. Adorable junk designed in Sweden, made in China, and selling the American Dream. I am convinced that somewhere in Sweden, a billionaire IKEA founder sits in his ultra-comfortable chair from Scandanavian Designs, twirling a cheap hex key and laughing at the IKEA shoppers of the world. Well-played, Mr. Billionaire, well-played.
Yes, I did end up dragging the kids along to IKEA that day. We did not buy a cheap lamp for the boys’ room. But we did have an enjoyable time strolling around the store, pretending to live in the tiny showrooms, and playing hide-and-seek (which, if you’ve never tried in an IKEA, is an absolute must). We did not leave the store that day with a cart full of junk furniture, as we had in the past. But we left feeling content, as though we’d finally managed to “get” the true IKEA experience — simple time spent together, enjoying life as a family.