How 12 hours in the biggest Ikea in the U.S. destroyed my soul
The country’s largest Ikea opened in Burbank, California, last month. At 456,600 square feet, twice the size of, and one mile away from, the old Burbank Ikea, this new store offers a lot more of everything people have come to expect from the brand: More inspirational showrooms, more lingonberries, more Billy bookcases. But how much is too much Ikea?
To find out, I decided to stay at the Burbank Ikea from when the restaurant opened at 8:30 a.m. until they announced over the speakers that the store was closing at 8:30 p.m. and we should take our purchases to checkout. I chose a Saturday, the day the lord set aside for furniture shopping. For a full day, I let Ikea provide for me like the Allfather of Norse mythology, eating and drinking naught but what Ikea provided. I wanted to see all the couch-inspired fights, document every umlaut, and figure out how the parking attendants don't die from smoke inhalation.My hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, does not have an Ikea; the closest is in another state. I've come to understand that Ikea represents matchstick furniture "for college kids and divorced men," as the Jonathan Coulton song goes, but for a long time, for me, Ikea represented the far-off luxury of Cincinnati, Ohio. I moved to Los Angeles three months ago and discovered that Ikea was the perfect mix of affordable, well-designed, and bedbug-free that I craved.Since then, I have begun to fill my apartment with everything Sweden has to offer—as I write this I can see two Lack tables, a Falkhöjden desk repurposed as a dining room table, some shiny red Lixhult lockers, and a Doftranka rug. I like that I can buy a bright red coffee table, and that the founder renounced his fascist ties way back in the 1990s, before they were a renewed concern in global politics.The pared-down Scandinavian designs of Ikea mean something to all people. For American post-grads, it’s crappy starter furniture you eventually discard. For people in China, it’s a place to nap and get dates. For Kanye West, it represents his entree into the world of home goods design.But whoever you are, Ikea is known for three things: meatballs, umlauts, and breakups. I tracked all three during my all-day stay.Ikea is so synonymous with relationship strife there’s an entire episode of 30 Rock dedicated to the concept. Clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula even uses Ikea furniture in her practice—in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, she explained that different sections of Ikea bring up different problems in a relationship: “In the kitchen area one person will pick up a pan and the other will say 'You never cook anything anyway so why would we need that?’” I’ll see if this theory holds up to my rigorous, scientific study.My suspicion is that Ikea causes fights through its sheer enormity. You yell at your partner just to assert your existence in the face of so much flat-packed furniture. There’s a scene in Sartre’s Nausea where the protagonist realizes that every leaf on a chestnut tree is as real as him. His mind buckles as he comprehends his insignificance compared to all those leaves. Will looking at approximately 200,000 scented votive candles similarly tear my mind asunder?9:33 a.m. umlauts: 0 fights: 0Ikea before opening is like the Sochi Olympic Village today: Giant, empty concrete structures built for a single purpose—bringing efficient Scandinavian design to the masses and trying to convince people to care about curling, respectively. When that purpose is not being fulfilled, the empty building becomes like a dead language, a sign without a signifier or signified. Ikeas are unitaskers—you wouldn’t be able to repurpose the country’s largest Ikea as mixed-income housing any more than you could turn a soccer field in the Amazon into a hospital. “Big box store” doesn’t even begin to cover it. It’s the biggest and boxiest box that you or your children, or your children’s children, will ever see.The only scale comparison I have for it is video games, specifically the endless maze of the Corvega Assembly Plant in Fallout 4, where you emerge from a 200-year cryogenic sleep to find the world an irradiated wasteland. The Corvega Assembly Plant is one of the first locations you encounter, and it’s full of zombies, gang members, and giant mole-rats trying to kill you.The Burbank Ikea’s 600-seat restaurant opens half an hour before the store proper. The Swedish American Breakfast costs $2 and there’s free coffee. “Glamorous” by Fergie plays as I enter. Three minutes after opening and there are almost 100 people already here. This is easily the fewest people I will see in the Ikea restaurant all day.I get my $2 breakfast and sit in front of giant windows overlooking the hills of suburban Burbank—a place I’d only heard about in Animaniacs songs and on podcasts when comedians talk about buying their first reasonably priced home. Antsy shoppers pace in front of the showroom floor, waiting for 10 a.m. The sausage in my Swedish American breakfast is oddly bland. I suspect it’s the same meat as their meatballs, in a cylinder form. I hope it is not horse meat.
10:08 a.m. umlauts: 11 fights: 0
Ikeas are laid out "the long natural way": One is supposed to wind semi-aimlessly through the aisles. In every store, the first section of this labyrinth consists of model rooms from model homes, where unseen model people live model lives. Little boxes made of ticky-tacky, etc. Each room is planned at Ikea HQ by a designer, complete with biographies of the people who inhabit them. Cabinets are filled with Ikea-brand pens and pencils, magazine organizers are labeled, and closets are hung with discontinued clothes from Target....MORE