A Certain Lack of Focus

Monday, November 05, 2007


Yesterday Matt, Amy and I drove up to Pittsburgh to get a few things from Ikea. This was only my second time going to Ikea, which means it was really only the first time I was able to process the experience. Ikea is so huge, so packed with so many different things that the first time you visit all you can walk away with is a vague sense of the scale. For anyone who is not familiar with Ikea, it's a Swedish furniture company that specializes in modern styles for cramped spaces. Of course the American stores have been adapted to US customers: Real Americans like their houses big. Real Americans also like to own a lot of stuff however, so Ikea's organizational solutions are still welcome and relevant to a US market.

As far as I know, Ikea started out in the US mainly targeting college students. It makes sense: the furniture has simple lines, very Euro, and more importantly it's relatively cheap, but still good quality. The small-space conscious design also helped in the college crowd, a huge bonus in the dorm rooms. These days however, the group of people who first fell in love with Ikea are in their late twenties and early thirties: moving from small dorm rooms to small apartments or small houses and trying to start families. Ikea's adapted beautifully, with upscale looking furniture alongside the stark utilitarian, and a huge section devoted to kids and babies.

The charm of Ikea is that it's so smart. Scattered throughout the store are stations with foldable maps, large yellow bags to lug small items and, best of all, paper rulers to make sure that dresser will fit in the wall space you have in mind. Rather than making you drag larger pieces of furniture all over the store, they give you a chart and a pencil so you can write down the code and pick it up from the warehouse before you leave.

The design itself is also smart: while the store has a Ikea-unique style, the individual pieces are easy to blend into other feelings if Ikea-style is not your style. After even a first visit you'll start to realize that nearly everything in those "organize your life" and "quick storage solutions" is stolen from Ikea (although lately it's more like they're stolen from each other). Even in design magazines not dedicated to organization you'll start to notice that Ikea furniture is turning up everywhere, though for some reason they don't bother to tell you that this is where you can pick up the chair or shelving unit of interest.

The cost of furniture in Ikea is kept low partially because everything in the store requires assembly. Personally I find it satisfying to assemble my own furniture, though I realize this may be a drawback for some people. Ikea assembly is a striking contrast to crappy target/walmart bookshelves or cube units, both because it goes together so much more easily, and because the quality is so obviously higher. About half the furniture in Ikea is made of gasp actual wood, and the units that are made from plywood are so cleverly veneered that it's nearly impossible to tell. The furniture is satisfyingly heavy and doesn't shake once it's put together, a refreshing change that makes construction all the more fulfilling.

Ikea intelligence is evident in constantly evolving solutions. My favorite piece from yesterday was a TV stand with a gap in the back for wires. I realize this doesn't sound all that innovative, but the table is also beautiful, they managed to make the wire gap a part of the design so that you might like to use the table even if you didn't need a way to hide your wires. Most tables I've seen that give access to outlets are ugly or try to hide it in back. Instead, Ikea does the smart thing and incorporates it into the lines of the table.

Another solution I enjoyed was a slotted headboard designed to allow shelves and other helpful hangers on to clip on. It's attractive enough that it would fit in any bedroom without looking ugly, the kind of ugly you sometimes get from furniture that is far too functional (think of wall to ceiling built in shelving in a bedroom). I think this would be best though for a teen, or even a preteen.

Here's yet another: you know how when you wash a mug in the dishwasher it gets that shallow pool of nasty water trapped inside the bottom lip? Ikea built in dips, making the bottom of your coffee cup look kind of like a castle tower, that allow the water to spill off so you don't have to deal with it.

Then there's the cafe/restaurant, brightly lit with a funky, extremely Ikea lamp hanging over each table. The food is much better than you'd expect from the cafeteria style in which it's presented, and they provide cute plastic kids' utensils right next to the normal silverware. They were so cool looking that Matt and I each used the kiddy knives instead of real knives and I was actually a bit disappointed that they didn't serve my food on one of the brightly colored rectangular plates. To further accommodate families they actually have a "stroller parking" section just outside the cafe in a design that is both functional and really cool looking.

Even the packaging at Ikea exudes brilliance. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's gone to the drugstore for allergy medicine, bought a giant box, opened the box to find that three quarters of it is closed off with card-stock paper. The last quarter contains a three inch tall pill bottle which is stuffed with cotton and at the bottom you find twelve to sixteen tiny pills rattling around, taking up only two percent of the bottle's volume. Over packaging is out of control but Ikea not only doesn't over package; their disassembled pieces are packed up nice and tight with just a thin layer of foam to keep it scratch-free; when reasonable they'll change the shape of the packaging to better accommodate its contents. I saw some tetris shaped boxes containing table lamps that did not just better fit (and therefore protected) the lamps, they also locked snuggly together to protect themselves during shipping.

I guess I'm overwhelmed again by Ikea, but this time with hero worship. If there's one thing I love it's intelligent design (not the kind they have in schools in the South mind you) and Ikea is constantly making me smile. A few weeks ago I stumbled on a website called Ikea Hacker which takes it a step further. Ikea furniture tends to be so modular that it's easily changed into other things entirely, and people from all over can exchange ideas to come up with insanely creative concoctions. One piece I especially liked isn't all that innovative, but it's just so freaking cool that I can't wait to do it in my house of the future. It's just a set of shelves that has that perfect balance of clean modern lines and industrial cool that I love so much. I'm wondering how long it will be before I'm contributing to this site myself.


isles said...

If you like ikeahacker, also see ikeafans.com - it's concentrated on kitchens but lots of other discussion too, and the people are soooo nice.

Meagan said...

Thanks Isles, I'll definitely check that out!