Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Waxing Philosophical About a Big Box Store

I couldn't really give this post devoted to IKEA a number on the list. That's not to say I won't come back to it later but first of all, technically, IKEA is Swedish. Secondly, in the absence of polling average Danes on the street, my Google search "Do Danes like IKEA?" popped up a number of articles from a couple years ago about how Danes felt insulted that IKEA named all their lesser household furnishings after their towns while other Nordic coutries got to grace their more upscale furniture. They literally felt like Danish doormats. You can read all about it here.

As an American who never had the privilege of living near an IKEA, I never really got IKEA. Now living in Denmark, I'm not even sure I would have totally gotten IKEA even if I had. Growing up and well into my adulthood, I only knew of IKEA as a place that had cheap stuff. I think a lot of Americans have that idea about the store and they're not wrong per se but they're really missing out on so much more.

A fateful trip to Scandinavia's second largest IKEA
Americans have a real addiction to cheap stuff. It's a defining quality that we look for in our shopping experience, always hunting for bargains, sometimes to the point of insanity as evidenced by Black Friday stampedes and such. IKEA is an interesting social commentary on how Scandinavians do view cost as a decision-making factor but refuse to sacrifice quality, aesthetics, efficiency and functionality in the process.

I didn't fully appreciate the devotion to form and function that IKEA takes until I visited for the first time. Walking through our now local store, I came across "concept apartments" - fully decked out, functionally operational, liveable spaces. But here's the IKEA catch. These demo dwellings are roughly 270 sq ft for a single person, 375 sq ft for a couple and a  palatial 590 sq ft that's set up for a family with a young child. And yes, this is including a bathroom and kitchen! To most Americans, this would be viewed as either a funny joke or some granola-crunchy grad student's master's thesis.

Could you live like this?

And why not laugh away? America lives large. We're not used to thinking about form and functionality in our daily lives. We have so much excess square footage to fill that we don't care if it saves space as long as it saves money. When we do have the luxury of thinking thoughtfully about design and sustainability, it's often in these odd American paradoxes like the Boulder, Colorado, question of how to get a 9,400 square foot mansion to have as small an ecological footprint as possible.

But here in Copenhagen, these are not just hypothetical questions or philisophical debates. It's reality. Whole families live in apartments and houses the size of the average American garage. Owning less stuff isn't a campaign or New Year's resolution, it's a practical solution when having to face sleeping on your balcony because you have too much stuff in your two-room apartment.

Prepared for overwhelmed Americans with a room to lay down
So I think I finally get IKEA. Unlike Wal-mart where everything is just plain cheap, IKEA is cheap with a purpose, with a world-view, with style. Maybe in America we won't learn to restrain ourselves until we are truly constrained in the economic and physical ways that Europe is. That won't stop me from hoping or trying to adopt this new way of living. Besides, when's the last time you heard yourself say, "I just went to Wal-Mart and, man, it was mind-blowing!"