For many people, the idea of going to Ikea can be exhilarating and daunting. Strolling amongst the prearranged furniture, one experiences a small thrill as they imagine their own living rooms or bedrooms arranged as tidy and efficiently as the dioramas on the showroom floor. The well-organized displays provides a brief respite from the realities of your own cramped apartment with mismatched furniture, and little room to spare.
On the other hand, once you ride the one-way escalator to the presentation floor, you become lost, disoriented, confused. Without natural light, and a maze-like layout, a shopper can easily lose sense of time, direction, and purpose in life. This disorientation has been well catalogued by the wonder kids of BuzzFeed[i] and various other humor sites on the internet.
A certain logic is contained in the chaos. The layout of Ikea is well-intended to disorient the consumer upon entrance. Like any furniture store, Ikea displays their furniture in appropriate settings. Dining room furniture is sold in a dining room section of a furniture store, living room furniture sold in the living room section and so forth. Unlike other furniture stores, the Ikea showroom floor is designed to create a subtle narrative.
The Ikea narrative is what I will call the “Ikea family narrative.” The objective of this narrative is to reinforce the traditional social construct of the family. By establishing this theme, Ikea is selling you the idea of family: to be a happy family, you must have Ikea furniture. The narrative of the journey is established in several methods which are discussed below. This essay hopes to examine the Ikea family narrative through its various features and characteristics, and, in doing so, will demonstrate how Ikea creates the particular, sharable, and personal.
Objective of Narrative/Theme
To grasp the objective of the Ikea narrative, let us first examine what the narrative is by exploring the theme of the narrative: Family. You first encounter the Ikea narrative when you find a parking spot in the parking lot of Ikea, several miles from the store. Throughout your journey through the automobile wasteland, you will notice large signs that read “IKEA FAMILY.” The “family,” is apparently Ikea’s term for frequent shoppers or guests. This familial term sets the narrative tone for the Ikea journey. You come from your vessel of isolation, cut off from other drivers, and arrive as part of a family.
This theme of the family is reinforced in various places throughout the store. Not far into the journey, an entire mock-apartment is displayed. This mock-apartment is complete with a kitchen, living room, bedroom and child’s room. Posters on the walls outside of the setup show pictures of the young family engaged in whimsical family activity, with the quote “It’s a playground, an office and an oasis for peace of mind. It’s our 593 sq. ft. home,” in reference, apparently, to the apartment layout. The juxtaposition of the happy family and the quote seems to imply that not only is a family happy and joyful, and they are happy and joyful because of the furniture.
A reinforcement of the family is presented on small signs throughout the showroom floor that advertise an “IKEA FAMILY member offer.” This gives the sense that these offers are exclusive to “family members” of Ikea. Those folks outside the family members are excluded, thus underlining the importance of having a family.
With the theme of family established, we can understand the objective of the narrative. This objective is manifold: to establish the consumers identity as a “family member”; to understand the “family” in context of the home and furniture setting; to encourage the “family member” to engage in the familial act of purchasing furniture. While the list could go on, these are the three main objectives of the narrative that the Ikea store establishes. The store presents the idea of the family as a happy unit. The store beckons the consumer to be a part of its family. To be a part of its family you must purchase the furniture. The implication is clear: purchasing furniture will make you a part of a happy family and you too will be happy.
As I will explain below, the setting in which Ikea attempts to place the narrative is intertwined with the particular audience the narrative attempts to appeal to.
If Ikea’s theme is family, then what kind of family? Indeed, many furniture stores will advertise the family imagery, since the biggest consumers of furniture are families. If the pictures throughout the store are any indication, then we can assume they are looking for white families. Aside from the bias in presentation, these are families that need to maximize their space. These are not families that have a surplus of room to purchase an overstuffed couch or an enormous table. Nor are they families that can afford exorbitantly priced furniture. Families that are low on space and have less money available for furniture are likely those who live in urban areas. With the astronomical rise in rent in popular cities across America (and Europe and Asia), the price of small living spaces has become more attractive. A cursory glance at the cost of rent in NYC and San Francisco is jaw-dropping. Middle-class families must opt for smaller spaces in lower-rent parts of town. The implication is that Ikea is targeting families in urban areas undergoing gentrification.
Another indication of the intended audience comes from an analysis of the location of the Ikea store. While showcasing the efficiency of the furniture for use in small living spaces, the store itself is located a significant distance from the major urban center of Salt Lake City, in the burgeoning city of Draper. While the store was built while the area was still undergoing development, it is clear that many of the large houses in the area do not necessarily lack for room, and thus lack need for the space-saving solutions that Ikea furniture has to offer. Not only, then, does Ikea appeal to an audience that lives in the small living spaces of urban areas, but those who possess the mobility to sojourn to the store location. Possession of an automobile, and all of the expenses that ownership of an automobile entails, further implies an intended audience of middle-class urban dwellers.
When you are in the Ikea showroom, navigating through the various room displays, you simultaneously become a character and audience member of the narrative. As Ikea subtly attempts to draw you into their family, you become the family character. You are able to make an association with the large pictorial display of the happy family, and desire the goal of a happy family. By purchasing Ikea furniture, you become a part of the Ikea family, and thus you become a character, attempting to perpetuate the family theme displayed on the showroom floor.
The narrator of Ikea is similar to the narrator in many art museums. The layout of many art museums, such as the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, the Seattle Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art New Yok have similar layouts: Contemporary art is usually displayed first, then the temporal journey of art through various stages represented in the permanent collection, and finally pre-modern art. The gaze of the viewer is ultimately controlled by the curators, eager to display the contemporary sensibilities of the museum, the understanding of classic art, and the respect for art that predates the modern era.
The journey of the consumer on the Ikea showroom floor is also controlled. Furniture for each living area is presented in the appropriate places: couches and coffee tables are in the living room area; office desks and chairs are presented in the office area; countertops, sinks, refrigerators, etc. are presented in the kitchen area and so forth. Throughout the journey through the labyrinth, the viewer is beckoned to proceed in a particular direction, indicated by the arrows on the floor of the walkways. Indeed, this is the direction that most people proceed through the showroom, and rarely do you find anyone walking in the opposite direction (to do so would be akin to a salmon swimming upstream). This forward momentum is established by the single escalator that confronts the consumer immediately upon entering Ikea. There is only one escalator, and it only goes up. You cannot take the escalator back down.
The showroom floor is the narrator just as the museum layout is also the narrator. In the next section, we will see the narrative the consumer guided through. The showroom floor, not only by the arrows indicating the correct direction of travel, but also in the sequence the furniture is presented, is the narrator. The showroom floor tells the narrative of the journey to family by drawing the consumer further into the labyrinth.
The showroom floor of Ikea is established in the same manner that you might you might experience walking through a house. The first major section present is the living room. This is usually the first room one might experience upon walking into a home. From there the viewer moves into the office area, which might be located off to the side of the living room. From there, you enter the kitchen and from the kitchen you proceed into the dining room. These four display areas represent rooms in a living space that a visitor might see first and foremost upon entering a home; they are the least personal of the living spaces.
This layout presented by the Ikea narrators allows the viewer to realize the events that might take place within a house or apartment. As one arrives home, they enter through the living room. From there, they enter their office to study, read, work on projects, spend time on the computer, etc. Eventually, this person will end up in the kitchen, in search of food. Once the food is prepared, the viewer proceeds to the dining room. While this doesn’t necessarily enforce the family narrative Ikea portrays, the inference of family is displayed throughout – from the children’s furniture in the living room, to the large portraits on the wall.
From the dining room, the viewer enters the bedroom area, the natural place to go after eating dinner. The next area the viewer enters is children’s furniture. The subtle juxtaposition of the children’s furniture adjacent to the bedroom section is a clear progression of the Ikea family narrative. The bedroom is where children are often conceived. In fact, it is estimated that 1 in 10 Europeans are conceived in an Ikea bed[ii]. Therefore, the transition from the bedroom area into the children’s area clearly plays out the narrative of lovemaking, childbearing, and family.
Finally, at the end of the showroom floor, there is a dining area. Here, cheap Scandinavian-themed food is offered for a low price. The portions are not large, but it is cheap enough that a family roaming though the labyrinth can enjoy a dinner together.
The family narrative of the showroom floor might seem to end happily at the cafeteria. One must venture further though to exit the store. To do this, the consumer must descend some stairs to the first floor where the narrative that continues in another fashion.
The stairs at the end of the showroom descend into general housewares. This, of course, is a symbolic death. The viewer descends into the lower part of the store as a corpse is lowered into a gravesite. While this section is general housewares, carpet, and décor, it is large and perplexing. One of the viewers in the video presented above described this section as “purgatory.” Indeed, this part of the store represents an afterlife; an end of a narrative. Compared to the showroom layout, this part of the store might seem chaotic. There are no more dioramas here where the viewer can envision themselves within the narrative. There is no longer a narrative, and thus, there is death.
Of course, the narrative does continue, as this purgatory of décor and housewares opens into a larger warehouse of furniture that is boxed and preassembled. The boxes containing the furniture resemble coffins in which the lifeless furniture awaits, stacked upon each other in large racks like a mausoleum, sepulcher, or tomb. Here, the consumer selects their coffins in which the furniture lays, and whisks it away for purchase. The consumer then takes the coffin home, where they open it to find the furniture disassembled, or decomposed. With the touch of their hands, though, the consumer can build the furniture, or resurrect it, so that it may live in their homes, and provide the happiness portrayed on the showroom floor.
The death-resurrection extension is a narrative can be found throughout various ancient and contemporary religions worldwide. In the Western world, it is most reminiscent of the Christian religion. While there is no indication that Christianity particularly espoused family any more than any other religion (Christ himself was unmarried and a single child to a virgin, according to doctrine), contemporary Christian followers hold the concept of family in high regard. Therefore, the addition of the subtle Christian narrative reinforce the Ikea family narrative presented throughout the showroom.
Throughout this essay we have identified several elements of narrative presented by the Ikea showroom floor. Each of these elements contribute to the Ikea family theme and objective. To review, the objective of the Ikea family narrative seeks to establish the consumer’s identity as a “family member”; to understand the “family” in context of the home and furniture setting; to encourage the “family member” to engage in the familial act of purchasing furniture.
The objective of the Ikea family narrative is accomplished in three ways. As we have seen, throughout the showroom, the direct appeals to the consumer to join the Ikea family and identify as a family member. More effective than blatant entreaties is the showroom’s capacity to guide the potential family member through the various rooms of a home, and allow them to imagine themselves as an inhabitant of these living spaces. The way in which these living spaces are arranged allows imagine themselves engaged in the various activities required to create and maintain a family. Finally, the objective of the Ikea family narrative is realized in the death-resurrection extension in the narrative. This allows the consumer to recall a subtle archetypal religious aspect to the family narrative, which is portrayed in contemporary Christian beliefs.
While this narrative may be most effective for its target demographic (young families in small living spaces of expensive urban locations), it extends to other demographics as well. For the bachelor or bachelorette who is seeking cheap space-efficient furniture for their college dorm, or studio apartment, and who is unwilling to rummage through thrift stores for used furniture, Ikea also has an appeal. The Ikea family narrative works on these individual despite their lack of family or even intention to start a family. These individuals can still be a part of a family by purchasing Ikea furniture. By purchasing Ikea furniture, then the consumer will experience the family presented by the Ikea family narrative.