Sunday, October 10, 2004

Icky furniture

Yesterday on the way home from the memorial service, I took KJ to the mammoth IKEA furniture store in Emeryville. She's always wanted to check it out, but this was one of the precious few times the two of us were in the vicinity of the place together when we didn't have someplace else to be.

My first thought upon entering the IKEA complex is that this outfit may well be the world's premier triumph of marketing. I have never in my life been to a furniture store so busy that it requires its own multistory garage. I have also never been to a furniture store that attracted the veritable cornucopia of human life that IKEA appears to draw. People of all ages, ethnicities, and — judging by the clothing worn by some of the patrons — economic strata pour like lemmings into this labyrinthine catacomb of a retail outlet, including people one would not customarily regard as prime candidates for trendy furniture purchases. There were families with children, couples straight, gay, and orientationally indeterminate, yuppies, buppies, rubes, boobs, DINKs, retirees, skater kids, biker dudes, elderly Asian folks, middle-aged black folks, people who looked as though they had wandered in from the local rescue mission, and at least one interracial couple who looked as though they had wandered in from a funeral. (That would have been us.)

All of this mass of humanity packed itself into a colossal store that, so far as I could determine, sold nothing more fascinating than a motley collection of drab and rather utilitarian home furnishings. I expected to see a lot of stuff that looked like runaway exhibits from SFMOMA. I didn't. With rare exception, all of the merchandise was conventional enough, if somewhat Spartan in appearance. No California King beds with down comforters and frilly dust ruffles. Instead, plain and boxy futons. No chairs that resembled Salvador Dali fever dreams. Instead, stark and singularly uncomfortable-looking seating.

While I did not feel compelled to play Goldilocks and test the various products for ergonomic soundness, I did note that few of the offerings were designed for people of ample proportions. The chairs were all built very low to the floor, and would require a crane to extract me from them. The beds looked about as cozy as a fakir's pallet of nails. In the office furniture section, I saw several desk chairs made entirely of wood. I spend twelve to sixteen hours a day in my chair — were it solid wood, my buttocks would hemorrhage before the end of the first week.

I thought it novel that all of the products had droll little names, many of them apparently Swedish (although, for all of my extensive knowledge of Swedish, they may well have been Klingon), displayed on prosaic paper signs. There was a bookcase named Billy. A TV table named Ivar. A sofa named Karlanda. A bed named Robin. A chair named Oland (named, no doubt, after the Caucasian actor of Scandinavian extraction who played Charlie Chan in the old politically incorrect film series). There was a computer workstation named Mikael, spelled oddly but endearingly recognizable nonetheless.

In an ingenious move, the IKEA architects have designed the store layout so that it is generally possible to move in only one direction through the store, with few opportunities to opt out of the nearly endless trudge from department to department. Once you're in the maze, you pretty well have condemned yourself to seeing every doggoned item in the place, which, I'm sure, results in plenty of impulse purchases by people who latch onto something for no better reason than they were compelled by the traffic flow to shuffle right past it.

I saw nothing I was even remotely moved to buy. KJ got bored plodding through the cattle drive almost as quickly as I did, which should give you some hint of the tedious nature of this exercise. When the world's greatest window-shopper develops ennui halfway through your store, you have way too little good stuff, the Brobdingnagian volume of merchandise notwithstanding. I did notice, however, that the checkout lines were jam-packed by enthusiastic shoppers who did not share our sensibility. I don't think IKEA will be filing Chapter 11 anytime in the foreseeable future, if the Emeryville outlet is an accurate bellwether of the overall health of the operation.

I still don't understand why anyone would want icky furniture. But since I don't speak Swedish, I'm probably just saying it wrong.

Then again, I don't understand why a furniture store sells Swedish meatballs, either.

1 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Anonymous Anonymous offered these pearls of wisdom...

I was searching for assembly instructions on the MIKAEL corner desk and ran across your blog.

Ikea furniture is pretty good. They have some stuff that makes me wonder what the hell the designer was thinking.

You do have the maze of a store described pretty good...but you seem a bit jaded.

8:25 PM  

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