The Pleasure Of... Ikea

No, really. Also Dime bars, urban cool, and doomed heroes.

My deep love of Ikea goes back to my childhood, when we would go to Switzerland on holiday to visit our friends and ex-neighbors (hi, MacGilps!) who’d moved to Geneva. The first year we went, it was just me and my mother, and I was about nine. Our friends were living in a big modern flat with a balcony and slideable floors, and ingenious furniture like an expandable circular table and a kids’ bed that could fold down at either end as the child grew. Things were shiny white, accented with primary colors, or pale wood, and it all seemed so chic and modern. Our furniture at home was heavy and mahogany and handed down, designed for a Victorian house, not the glassy, flat-roofed little midcentury box we lived in. Everybody’s furniture, that I knew, was like that, in the late 80s: rounded and squishy and floral and heavy and dark. Nobody had blinds on their windows, or pale wood floors with geometric-patterned rugs, or modular cube-shaped bookcases. 

The first Ikea opened in London in 1988, the internet tells me, right around the time of our trip, saving my mother from whatever elaborate import schemes she was planning. The idea of flat-packed, self-assembly furniture was, I’m pretty sure, brand new, and the cheapness seemed impossible. The first store, near Wembley Stadium in north London, was a long and inconvenient drive from our house, so going there was a huge event. I loved it. Mum and I would spend the whole day going over every inch of the showroom, pulling out the drawers and opening cupboards in all the mock-up kitchens to see what was tucked away—a chopping board! A rubbish bin! A spice rack! An ironing board! I was transfixed by the installations that showed an armchair being endlessly mechanically pummeled by a machine, by the ubiquitous blue and yellow bags, by the cafe with its cheap snacks and dessert made of what in Britain we called Dime bars, hard caramel coated in chocolate, but which in Sweden and thus Ikea were called Daim, and by the ritual of filling out your order form with the little pencil and hunting up the item in a warehouse the size of an aircraft hangar, interspersed with wire bins full of grabbable wonders like bags of tea lights for 50p.

The catalog(ue) was a portal in my imagination, with its promise to make small spaces expand. I grew up in a tiny 7x9ft bedroom until college, torn always (as I still am) between my abundant love of clothes and books and stuff, and the stress and claustrophobia of having to cram too much into inadequate space. I campaigned for years for an Ikea loft bed, and for a long time slept on a mattress I could fold up into an armchair. I endlessly rearranged my furniture, trying to press the walls outward somehow, the way the Jenga-like brilliance of Ikea room sets promised to unfold space like a series of stage sets. Ikea cemented my fantasy of sleek city-center living, promising breakfast nooks and foldaway desks and concealed storage, balconies just big enough for a folding chair and a bistro table. Like a starry-eyed tiny-house-hunter, I waved away the complex maneuvers and perfect organization, discipline and tidiness required to fit a full life into a postage-stamp studio.

When I moved to New York, with two far-too-big suitcases, into partially furnished grad student housing, I assumed I’d go to Ikea for everything, but the roommate I lived with for my first, very weird year, had other ideas. A sheltered girl from rural New Jersey, she stocked the kitchen cabinets with canned food she never touched (I recall a lot of sauerkraut), even though I’d never known a place where food was so abundant, close to hand, and freely available around the clock—apparently I lacked the imagination to plan for the apocalypse. It turned out she’d already ordered furniture for our common space, a matching set of glass-topped tables on curlicued wrought-iron legs and curtains with swagged pelmets, and a pale wall-to-wall rug she made me pay for. Furniture for her came in room “sets,” a term I’d never heard, and beds were made with sheets and quilts and blankets, the way my grandmother made them. When I floated the idea of a trip to Ikea, she protested that it was for college kids, and this was what a grown-up apartment looked like. I countered that my parents had tons of Ikea furniture, and she retorted, joking-not-joking, that she and her family weren’t “cool London people.” I wanted to yell back that we were twenty-three, and we lived in New York, just about the only place that people in London think is even cooler, and she’d made our apartment look like the “before” shot in every home makeover we featured in the design magazines I worked on before I came to grad school. I was a terrible snob, sure, but I honestly didn’t know, at the time, how different different parts of America were—I assumed everyone gravitated to cities, that trains went everywhere, and that she would know New York better than I did. I was constantly shocked by physical and cultural distances. (I still am, even now.)

Ikea was no easier to get to in New York than in London, but I made it somehow, and was enormously relieved to find prices that were still low, and familiar products like Billy bookcases and Poang armchairs and duvets and duvet covers and many other things that had earned me blank looks in Bed, Bath & Beyond (what the fuck a comforter was, I had no idea.) There were catalogs and platters of meatballs and still everyone used the blue bags for their laundry. It was, as ever, a hassle to get to, a hassle to haul things home from, and a hassle to knock them together. The products are still flimsy and disposable, and yes, I’d still rather be able to curate a home full of vintage pieces that somehow fit perfectly in our limited and very particular space.

And yet.

This week we bought and assembled two big new Ikea pieces, a linen closet and a bookcase, the first big pieces we’ve had delivered from Ikea since our wall of Ivar shelving several years ago, which I love: solid untreated pine, shallow adjustable shelves, happily overloaded but without a trace of bowing in the middle like the Billy invariably will. (The trick, always, is buy the solid wood.) Currently they’re standing mostly empty while we enjoy the sense of possibility, the abundance of space before we fill it. Much of our apartment feels like this right now: poised on the edge of chaos. Four weeks to go.

Reading Pleasures:

I’m loving, and savoring, Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles—I’ve never read her before, and have always had reservations about contemporary novels based on classical mythology; I think the Greek/Roman-hero stuff felt too boyish and militaristic to me, or too rooted in magic and fantasy. Anyway, I’m always curious about the lightning-in-a-bottle nature of literary bestsellers, and this is the definition of what they call an “assured debut”—astonishingly confident in its tone and world-building, in the voice of its narrator, Achilles’s lover Patroclus, and other characters (her Odysseus, in particular, is spot on.) It doesn’t try to bridge the gap of centuries with endless description, but instead wields detail like magic (like the boys spitting olive pits at each other and laughing when one lands, still wet with fruit flesh, in Patroclus’s ear, the night before Achilles goes into battle.) It is making me salivate with excitement both for her follow-up, Circe, and for Emily Wilson’s Iliad translation, and I’m parceling it out as slowly as I can now we’re at Troy and I know how it ends…

I’m also reading Nancy Cott’s lively new book, Fighting Words, about American foreign correspondents between the wars, which I’m reviewing so won’t say any more about, and I have a couple more fun review books to read. After that, I’m looking forward to gearing down, stocking the cupboards and freezer as far as we can (so cute when parenting blogs tell you to make endless lasagna—how big do you think my freezer is?!) and keep pulling the apartment together. We’re getting there. With a little help from my Swedish friends. 

I’ve been lax at this but, please, if you know anyone who might like this newsletter, do pass it on. You can always reach me by replying to the email, and I’m eager to hear what’s giving you joy this week!

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