Sunday, December 03, 2006

What’s a nice gay guy like you doing at IKEA? Or,
A Few Gay Targeted Ads Don’t Make a Gay Friendly Environment


As some of you may have noticed, I’ve been rather absent from blogland in the past few weeks. I haven’t even answered some of the very interesting comments made on my last post (sorry, guys). My silence, however, should not be understood as indicating a waning interest in discussing issues. It’s just that my partner and I have been in the midst of restoring a (small) apartment we bought in Paris last summer. It has been a rather consuming experience. But the worst component of these tribulations--- even worse than having to fire, through a lawyer, the first contractor we had hired--- has been putting in the kitchen from IKEA, a company with which I had no previous experience. The IKEA experience was not only insanely time consuming and stressful; it also involved coming into contact with a social philosophy I found repugnant and even dangerous.

IKEA has occasionally run ads seeming to target a gay clientele. Why shouldn’t they? We have tremendous buying power and it would simply be bad business not to encourage our patronage. We should not, however, be deceived by organizations and businesses that seek our support and patronage and at the same time espouse a social philosophy that is implicitly contradictory to the openness, flexibility, and respect for individualism that we as gays need to thrive. IKEA is certainly not overtly homophobic, but it is also hardly a comfortable place for a gay man.

The founder and guiding light of IKEA was the son of Nazi sympathizing Swedish farmers; he himself had a considerable flirtation with Swedish Nazism even after the War. Much later, in the 1990s, when his brown tinted past was discovered, he recanted and called his former association with Nazism a mistake. Even, however, if the founder’s separation from Nazism is completely sincere, and although the more brutal and overtly militaristic aspects of Nazism are certainly absent from IKEA’s identity, it still is nevertheless clear that much of the social philosophy underpinning Nazism is still present in IKEA.

As soon as one enters an IKEA store, the enterprise’s definition of society becomes quite clear. This is a space made for young families with children--- play areas for the kids abound, and none of the staff seems to be over 35. So, despite the gay targeted ads, IKEA hardly provides a homey atmosphere for a middle aged gay couple. Youth, family values, well, you all know the scene.

Most important, however, is that the furniture and accessories offered are uniformly austere, correct, and unmitigatedly bland, negating the possibility of the expression of the least amount of individualism on the part of the consumer. No whimsy, no daring, not ugly, but not beautiful either--- the most neutral stuff you can imagine. The furniture is fresh, clean, safe, and incredibly inexpensive, leading the buyer even to forget that he has an individual personality to express. He is seduced by the low prices and the comfort of the assurance that there is no way he can get out of step.

IKEA’s sense of design not only protects the aesthetically insecure from choosing a piece in bad taste; it avoids the issue of taste all together. Taste involves the assertion of self through discrimination, and in IKEA this process is for all intents and purposes eliminated. Stylistic differentiation is present only in the most generalized sense, and within those divisions, pieces differ primarily in size, function, and perhaps the color of the (frequently artificial) wood. At IKEA everything can be matched with everything else; the IKEA sofa you choose may be too large or small, but you can be sure that it will match any side table from IKEA that you pick. No exercise of taste, or expression of individualism, is necessary, or, for that matter, possible.

Not only does IKEA free us from the “burden” of individual taste; it also carefully avoids any reference to social class. Unlike most furniture enterprises, where various levels of quality and modesty or luxury are presented, at IKEA everything is of the same adequate, but non- luxurious quality. In fact, IKEA has even run ads ridiculing people who aspire to a more elegant, aristocratically inspired style. No marble work surfaces for the kitchens, no solid, rare woods. Not only our individual taste, but also our class determined taste is eliminated. We are all safely, comfortably, the same.

Not only does IKEA seduce us into accepting the negation of our individuality and our social identities, it also negates the importance of one of our most precious possessions--- our time. IKEA’s low prices depend on their low level of costumer service, with interminable waiting at the check out and merchandise delivery desks, unconcerned and inefficient staff at the help desks, and, of course, the costumer’s having to transport and assemble much of the merchandise himself. The implication is that if you’re not willing to spend your time and effort into buying, transporting and setting up your furniture, there’s no room for you in the IKEA family. He who resists is viewed somehow as lazy and decadent. It also means that the buyer values his time and effort so little that he is willing to swap huge--- yes, really huge quantities of it to save some money.

And just in case you’re still under the illusion that you’re in an ordinary store where, aside from the “hidden persuaders” of advertising, you’re free you go in, buy what you want, and leave, consider IKEA’s practice of naming all of their merchandise with bizarre Scandinavian appearing names (they are, as I found out, not even all really Swedish or Norwegian). In order do any substantial shopping at IKEA, you have to learn their language. This is a technique taken straight from Nazi practice and the practice of other authoritarian regimes. The Nazis renamed all sorts of common objects, giving them Arian names in order to transform reality into their terms. Having someone adopt your language is a well established mechanism of thought control.

Many department stores make you wander around the store for a bit before you find what you came for or before you find the exit, but IKEA carries this technique to extremes. No matter what you came for, you have to walk through the entire store, and frequently all the floors, to get to the object, pick it up from the warehouse section, pay for it, and get out. It makes a visit to IKEA of under an hour pretty impossible; generally it takes at least two. You wind up picking up a few things you don’t really need both because they’re cheap and because you have to justify all that time you spent. More important, you must totally surrender to the order and rhythm of shopping that IKEA imposes upon you.

And to what end this thought and movement control? If IKEA’s very low prices haven’t been sufficient to make you renounce your last vestiges of individualism and self determination, a few hours of being bombarded with a strange, exotic language and being forced to walk what seems like kilometers through stacks of merchandise that you originally had no intention of buying breaks down any nascent rebellion against the IKEA ethos that may be stirring within you.

None of this is in the least by chance. IKEA’s founder makes no bones about the firm’s having a very specific philosophy and his desire to impose it not only on his staff but also on the public. He set it all down with evangelical zeal in a tractate he called “The Testament of a Furniture Dealer,” in which he makes it clear that IKEA in not simply a business, but rather the embodiment of a social and moral philosophy in which simplicity, hard work, and conformity are absolute values. In a series the Guardian ran on IKEA starting June 17, 2004 http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1240462,00.html, the author aptly refers to IKEA as a “cult.” The Guardian articles also quote some rather chilling passages from the “Testament.”

Not that there is anything wrong with simplicity and hard work, but when these values are put in the context of conformity, one becomes a bit uneasy. The combination becomes downright creepy when you see how the institution not only seduces people into renouncing their individualism and personal taste through low prices; getting people to compromise values because of low price is perhaps pretty much what many businesses do, but what makes IKEA dangerous is that it makes people rejoice in that renunciation of self because it’s safe and relieves them of the responsibility of choice. In short, no storm troopers, Sieg Heils, or brown shirts, but more than a whiff of fascist stench.

So, IKEA can run as many gay targeted ads as it wishes, but it still won’t get my vote for a “Gay Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” An attempt to attract gay clientele and the projection of a tolerant and open social philosophy that encourages individualism and diversity are very different phenomena.

At this point the reader may well ask why, if I have this opinion of IKEA, did I buy a kitchen from them in the first place. Well, I simply didn’t have any idea of what I was getting into, and the IKEA price was less than half of what an equivalent kitchen would have cost anywhere else. I had no idea when I began the process of what the human and emotional costs would be.

Also, the bland, functionalism of IKEA furniture seems very well adapted to the context of a kitchen, essentially a practical work space, and in all fairness, the IKEA kitchen we bought finally turned out fairly well. But it also cost an inordinate amount of our time (eight visits to the IKEA store, the briefest of which was about two hours) and stress. These non monetary costs were caused mostly by the incompetence and indifference of the overworked, underpaid and exploited IKEA staff; I’ll spare you the details, but let it suffice to say that what the IKEA kitchen planners could do wrong (planning a kitchen without a fridge, for example), they did. But IKEA’s well-documentedly disastrous customer service and exploitation of staff are only symptoms of larger, more serious problems with the institution.
.

9 Comments:

Blogger Sam said...

Wow Bruce, your post is very timely considering our Ikea kitchen will be delivered TOMORROW MORNING!

I agree with your novel (well, at least over here it is novel...most people either love Ikea or don't know what it is) observations about them, and I had no idea of the company's roots and history blended with fascism. I suppose we could all say the same about Mercedez-Benz, Volkswagen, etc., all European products we appreciate over here.

And your observations about the total pain it is to get in and out I agree with wholeheartedly (I fight that battle in exhibit and interpretive design with clients all day long. You have no idea how many museum directors see their offerings as labyrinths within which to trap our young). It took us about 4 hours to order all our kitchen stuff a few weeks ago... after i'd already spent several hours "designing and redesigning" (in quotes because, as you say, there aren't many choices for expression and real design) which we thought wasn't too bad. So far, so good for us, we'll let you know more after we spend untold hours putting the thousands of pieces together ourselves in evenings and time off during the holidays.

We'd never consider a 100% Ikea kitchen, because, as you say, it is all a bit bland. But I would say that applies to all mass marketted merchandise. And I'll take restraint, modern bias, and blandness as my style choices over the pseudo-historical, cottage anachronistic, avoidance-of-all-things-modern style that dominates culture here. Ikea has been right on for us, as compared to Cabinet Craft and Craft Made and all the cabinet manufacturers demanding we all adorn our American kitchens with fake history, for double or triple the money: silly pilasters, fake paint finishes to look 100 years old, ridulous machine-stamped detail to emulate the hand crafted, etc. Everyone here seems to want over-the-top manor style and pompousness in their home interiors, and the market gladly gives and makes sure not much else competes.

We are, alas, sprinkling in a bit of faux, and old: some fake oak foam beams (i've ordered these sight unseen and am a bit frightened of their arrival!), old retroey pendant lighting, and real marble atop the cheap Ikea lacquer cabinets. In the end, we hope it will be our own perverse expression of our style... Mostly though, a functional laboratory to have fun experimenting with food.

Show us some pictures of your new kitchen, we'd love to see! We have a friend who loans us her parent's apartment in La Motte Piquet. Although fabulous, its kitchen could use a little help from Ikea.

Thanks for your post!

5:49 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

And, by the way, i have noticed your absence. I enjoy your blog very much, you are a unique voice in blogdom.

5:51 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Sam,

It's not the fact of a Nazi past that bothers me with IKEA. Hitler was specifically involved with the development of the Volkswagen beetle, and Krups, who made my food processor, also made the ovens for Dachau and Auschwitz. But these German companies we consciously de-Nazified after the War, and while their social philosophies may be rampantly capitalist, there is no hint of Nazi social thinking in their corporate philosophies. Germans are really very aware, even paranoid, of even the slightest hint of Nazi social attitudes. They know, better than we Americans, what certain social attitudes can lead to.

What bothers me with IKEA is not the fact of its founder's Nazi past, but the fact that he remained a Nazi AFTER the war and that fascistoid social thinking still permeates the organization.

I couldn't agree with you more that IKEA's blandness is preferable to the pseudo- historical; I'd go even further: It's preferable to shoddy, badly conceived contemporary design. As I indicated, IKEA's functionalism works pretty well in the kitchen, especially in a very small space such as ours, where there was no room to add much with any character.

But if I had to do it again, I would try to put together the kitchen with new appliances and dynamite 1930's kitchen cabinets you can find in Paris junk shops with a little effort. It would have cost less than IKEA and taken about the same amount of time--- except finding the stuff would have been fun. It wouldn't have used the space quite as efficiently as the IKEA kitchen--- IKEA really does have great space saving designs--- but we would have wound up with a much better personal relationship to our surroundings (This, incidentally, is a big issue with me. No, I don't talk to my refrigerator, but I have been known to cast loving glances toward our Louis XV sofa.)

Before I forget: Of course, let us know when you are in Paris. Do you plan a trip this year?

5:28 AM  
Blogger Will said...

Bruce--
It was a really nice surprise to get your comment this morning and I hope you'll feel like stopping by DesignerBlog with some frequency. If you read a bit into the recent past, you'll find a discussion of Fritz's and my first trip to IKEA and our consideration of kitchen cabinetry and a closet system.

An in-depth reading of Not So Different will await some time when I can devote a half hur or more to it, but on first contact, I like it very much and will definitely be back.

Does Paris represent a move from Venice, or a pied-a-terre?

All my best from Boston.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Will,

Thanks for coming by. Paris is a pied à terre, but since we'll both be doing some work in Paris, we'll be there fairly often. Venice is wonderful, but sometimes we need a major city in our lives.

9:01 AM  
Blogger The Accidental Activist said...

Ha, thanks for the deconstruction of the tower of blandness that is Ikea, where identical people buy identical furniture whilst herded through identical stores worldwide. The irony is, that in the UK at least, Ikea is massively popular with gay couples. But then again, we never did have any taste...

I must confess to having been a regular Ikea goer in the past, not least because if you look carefuly there's some good quality, low cost stuff. That said, had I previously known about the fascist roots of Ikea, I might have thought twice before buying my Flippengrooter Stikkfart table...

12:50 PM  
Blogger Ur-spo said...

I've been looking forward to your next entry.
And what an entry; made me sit and and think a bit.
I will be rereading this one for a while.

7:15 PM  
Blogger RIC said...

Thank you so very much for the insightful reading, Bruce! IKEA Lisbon is only a few minutes away from my place, but I've bought there only a wardrobe, which I desperately needed after home changing one year ago.
Not because I was especially informed about it did I buy only that wardrobe. The reason why is that I hate (I seldom use this verb in whatever language) huge spaces! Not even the so-called hypermarkets! I get nervous, frantic, stressed up, you name it. And I wouldn't ever go there if it weren't for some company I get from a friend. That's different.
As to their Nazi past, that's rather bothering... Especially if there's that creepy text called «Testament»... I have to thank you for this valuable piece of information.
As to the uniformity, well, all store chains are alike. Maybe in IKEA that's more poignant. But it's boring indeed going through km and km of dull corridors. Count me out, please! I don't buy, either the products or the philosophy underneath. And there's a huge difference between being treated as a costumer and as a «comer-by» (sorry for the bad English), as another one who's just looking around. I cannot bear that.
Congratulations on the Parisian apartment! That's a great idea indeed! I miss that town so much! I can say I've been there often, but it's never enough...
Great that you're finally back! I had missed you a lot already...
Best wishes!

12:18 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

Hi Bruce, no, no European travel plans for us this year. Our Parisian friend (someone I went to university with) may be coming to visit us however. A ski trip to Canada with her would be fun (but Val d'Isere would be better!).

Louis Quinze and Ikea all in one apartment; gee I wish you were the type to post pictures! What part of the city are you in?

7:11 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home