18 December 2012


An Ikea store opened not far from where I work. It's the first one around here. Every now and then, something happens that makes you realize, yes, Denver still is kind of a hick town. The grand opening of Ikea was one of them. You'd've thought it was the second coming of Christ, or at least, the Pope. Naturally, I stayed as far away from that as possible.

I needed a desk for a gift, and I'd looked around all kind of stores, which means for me, used furniture places, curated used furniture places, and Target. Finally, I broke down and looked for our very own Scandinavian Design store. 

That was owned by a surprisingly attractive Danish woman in her 60s or 70s. Her son, a jerk with a pony tail who had pretensions to being all Euro-cool, ran the place. It was crammed with every manner of teak table, sleek desks, sensuous black leather chairs, space age curved couches, sideboards, chandeliers -- you name it. You could barely move through the space, let alone decide what creamy leather would get the privilege of your refined backside. 

It had closed.

So down I went to Ikea. The store here is probably visible from outer space. It's vast, I tell you, and decked out with the navy and yellow colors of the Swedish flag. Hard to miss, even from the interstate.

The baby boom generation has given posterity three great achievements: civil rights, better cuisine and nice packaging. So, let's be fair and ignore, for a moment, the monumental idiocy, greed and pus-soaked mediocrity with which they've bathed the world.

Ikea is a kind of perfection of this for a certain kind of boomer. It's Euro. It's all design-y and shit. And it's dirt cheap. I didn't want to think of what kind of rape of the earth or wherever third world hell hole this stuff must come from. I just wanted a desk.

So I put aside those qualms and navigated my Honda through the immaculate concrete parking garage with its pleasingly high ceilings. I followed the highly legible signage to the entrance. A sudden nostalgia swept over me. I tried to figure out why. Oh yeah: all the colors are Lego colors: those primary yellows, navies and reds from those tender days, long ago, resurrected suddenly for my own delectation.

Once inside, I decided to sample the famous Swedish meatballs. That's about the second thing everyone talks about when they talk about Ikea. I grabbed a tray with something in a green sans serif font written on it. A very nice and cute girl ladled meatballs, gravy, mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam on a minimalist plate.

I took my seat at a pristine, white table. I reflected that, in my house, with just my family, a white like that could not remain so pure for very long. 

Then it hit me: a profound sense of dislocation. I felt like I'd dropped into some mid-sized airport with a good architect, maybe in Portland or Malmø or Xinhua. I was going to say that it was odd to be so geographically divorced, but it was, in fact, quite familiar and comforting. I felt at home. Nice posters about Swedish architecture. Hard glossy surfaces, relieved by ornamental plastic light fixtures in tasteful organic forms.

Looking around me, it felt oddly Swedish though. In Colorado, most of the white people come from Scandinavia, Britain or Germany. So you get a lot of stocky, thick thighed, fair-haired folks, or volks, and if they were thinner and better dressed, you'd almost believe you were in Gothenburg. Weird. Weird, that it's not weird at all, but rather the familiar and by now much noted feature of current life. What would be really strange would be standing out in a field of dun colored short grass, seeing a buffalo. This is just your garden-variety alienation, which is no longer alienation at all, but rather comfortingly familiar and homey.

Once fortified, I sallied out. Ikea has a specific layout of this serpentine maze that forces you through all the display spaces. Everyone knows about it. But, even forearmed, you just . . . go with the flow. Now, I'm all trained about impulse purchases and up-selling and merchandise display, so I'm on my guard. Even so, I have to admire the sheer engineering brilliance brought to every facet of the place. 

I make my selection, write it down, make my way -- after a few slightly claustrophobic moments -- down to a vast warehouse, where I, myself, pull out my table legs and top and then check myself out. I haven't talked to a single salesperson the whole time. 

I load my very reasonably priced stuff in my car, wondering, a little, if all the jokes about assembling Ikea furniture are going to come true.

But so far: Friction free.

And I think of the crammed Scandinavian furniture store that's out of business. I wonder if the impossibly snobbish pony tailed guy got another job, and if his mother is still striking in her 80s. I miss him, slightly, even though he was a royal pain in the ass. 

I remember that what they sold was actually wood and not particle board or laminate. Their store reflected their own bet that what they chose would click. 

And I think - oh so dramatically, yes --  that global totalitarianism would look a lot like the Ikea store. It would be well engineered and thought out. It would be carefully deracinated. It would be well designed, but accessible at the same time. It would not make you feel stupid, but, rather, flattered for being in on things. You'd feel good, like a kid with Legos, doing stuff that worked for the greater good and if things felt a little artificial and slightly out of place, well, you'd get used to that right away.

It would be like Starbucks and Apple -- irresistible, well executed, letting you know that we're all in on the joke together, but it's such a fun and pleasant trick that you wouldn't mind at all being a part of it.

And I missed the asshole with the pony tail even more.

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