For many people, a trip to Ikea inspires a special kind of anxiety. There’s something about being herded through 320,000 square feet of inexpensive furniture that has a unique ability to inspire screaming matches, marital discord, and the occasional existential crisis. But Ikea pales in comparison to Nebraska Furniture Mart, a sprawling home decor extravaganza situated in The Colony, a short drive away from Dallas, Texas.
The Berkshire Hathaway-owned retailer occupies 560,000 square feet in the suburb, where it sells more furniture than any of the small chain’s three other stores. It’s headquartered in Omaha, but Nebraska Furniture Mart fits in perfectly in Dallas, and for good reason. The city’s real estate market is booming, thanks to the arrival of major corporate headquarters like Boeing, Jacobs Engineering, and Toyota, and an influx of coastal expats tired of paying rents in San Francisco and New York. More than 800,000 people have moved to Dallas and its surrounding suburbs since 2010, and they’ve all got homes that need to be furnished and decorated.
Nebraska Furniture Mart sells itself as a one-stop shop of sorts for those Texas newcomers, a place where Midwestern housewives and trendy millennials alike can find the perfect couch or dining table. The store peddles a mass-market version of the American Dream, and it isn’t shy about its straight-up-the-middle appeal.
After making the 30-mile drive to The Colony and finding a space in the gigantic parking lot, I notice the large white letters on the store’s facade: “America’s Home Furnishing Store.” Intentionally, this is a place where people of all stripes, budget limitations, and design aesthetics can converge to buy a table lamp, refrigerator, headboard, or lawnmower. The incredible number of items on offer—beginning with a wall of brightly colored KitchenAid mixers that makes for a solid selfie backdrop—is dizzying. I realize quickly that I’m going to need either benzodiazepines or caffeine to survive a shopping trip of this magnitude.
I choose the latter, because walking through half a million square feet of furniture is an endurance sport. At Scooter’s Coffee, a locally based chain stationed at the entrance, I order a Candy Bar Blender, the shop’s version of a Frappuccino. When I make my selection, the barista asks what kind of candy bar I’d like for my drink and begins listing off options—Almond Joy, peanut butter cup, Snickers, Heath bar, Butterfinger. I pick Almond Joy because it’s the first option; I should have realized that the list was an omen of bizarre and uniquely overwhelming things to come.
While stirring the chocolate drizzle into my frappe, I notice that Joanna Gaines’s wildly popular Magnolia Home line occupies major real estate near the entrance. Christmas decor, mostly festooned with pine cones and winter greenery, is a fixture of the display, which also features Gaines’s year-round decor, including woven pillows in muted neutrals ($89.99), down-home milk bottle totes in antiqued tin ($18.99), and a real-deal lemonade stand ($199.99) that’s made from faux-reclaimed wood and comes with its very own “promotional crates” and a menu chalkboard. Atop one of the beds designed by Gaines, there’s even a small display wall made of pallet wood in the style of the Fixer Upper host’s beloved shiplap.
Nebraska Furniture Mart is designed from the floor up to appeal to Middle America. Alongside the value-produced furniture and Joanna Gaines’s Magnolia Home, items branded with the names of country singer and domestic goddess Trisha Yearwood and food personality Rachael Ray offer both familiarity and a tacit endorsement of the goods on offer. These are personalities who have earned the trust of the American middle class. If those plates emblazoned with a chicken are good enough for these down-to-earth, “just-like-us” celebrities, they’re probably just the thing to elevate a two-bedroom ranch house in the suburbs of Dallas.
Nebraska Furniture Mart tries, in a dramatic way, to be the best of all worlds. In addition to televisions, laptops, vacuums, hair dryers, and other gadgets, there are enough appliances inside Nebraska Furniture Mart to outfit every kitchen in America. There’s a range or dishwasher here at every price point—the store’s website confirms that 45 different types of dishwasher are currently in stock in The Colony’s warehouse—starting at just $250. For swankier builds, there’s the KitchenAid with “dynamic wash arms” that sports a sleek black exterior, minimalist stainless steel bar handle, and a $1,200 price tag. Outdoor kitchens get their own space, complete with a $849 built-in stainless steel trash can and wine chiller.
After spending a little too much time wandering through the Magnolia Home display and getting thisclose to buying a bottle-brush Christmas tree ($11.99), I knew I needed to develop a game plan for actually seeing the rest of the store. Starting on one side of the Mart’s first floor, I planned to weave up and down the aisles one by one, vowing to avoid getting distracted by items outside of the planned left, right, then center path. That didn’t last long.
There’s a section built specifically to showcase Viking appliances, a favorite of the moneyed set, where a cheery saleswoman in a sharp royal blue top gently tried to sell me an Italian-made Viking Tuscany range that retailed for $16,759. It was truly dreamy, painted in cobalt enamel, topped with six cast-iron gas burners and a griddle that could be configured to my specific cooking needs, along with two different ovens, one conventional and one convection, on the bottom. According to the saleswoman, each oven was custom-built in Italy, was available in a variety of colors, and took at least two months to build. I told her I’d have to think about it.
And still, there is more. The real point of coming to Nebraska Furniture Mart is to touch, feel, and sit on the thousands of couches, chairs, love seats, benches, ottomans, headboards, mattresses, coffee tables, and dinettes that litter the store’s second floor. More upscale offerings are staged as living rooms and dens, each with its specific look. Eames knock-offs are paired with hairpin-leg coffee tables and midcentury-inspired sofas, while whitewashed headboards are paired with vases of seashells and linen bedding in an attempt at Hamptons chic. Fuzzy recliners, couches covered in everything from Naugahyde (ahem, vegan leather) to tweed, and dining tables decorated with scratched glassware offer a respite from pacing up and down the aisles, unable to decide whether a crushed velour sofa that’s the color of orange soda is quirky or tacky.
The furniture that is not arranged into those charming displays is squished into tight rows, one unremarkable recliner lined up against the next. I don’t understand how anyone comes to a decision with that many available options. How does one choose an easy chair—the easy chair—without sitting on every single chair in the store? Even those weird, puffy “entertainment recliners” made exclusively for dads that come with a cup holder, remote pocket, and built-in radio that only plays The Rush Limbaugh Show. For anyone with a diagnosed anxiety disorder or tendency toward perfectionism, Nebraska Furniture Mart is the perfect place to have a panic attack. At least there’s somewhere to lie down while curled into the fetal position.
Despite their similarities in size and offerings, Nebraska Furniture Mart is the anti-Ikea. The two stores are fewer than four miles apart in Dallas-Fort Worth, but worlds different in appeal and aesthetic. Here, Swedish minimalism is swapped for classic, contemporary, modern, cottage, farmhouse chic, traditional, anything that can be seen on HGTV. Whatever your flavor, Nebraska Furniture Mart does it—but it doesn’t do it very well.
Looking closely at each piece, it quickly becomes apparent that quality is not the priority. Finish peels up from the bottoms of table legs; an entertainment center fitted with a sliding barn door that glides to reveal hidden bookshelves makes a screeching noise that would wake the dead. Teensy splinters of wood poke out precariously from the sides of anything with unfinished drawers or doors. Even the more expensive pieces, like a china cabinet with mirrored doors priced at $999, show scratches, dings, and other signs of wear—not necessarily surprising for floor models, but it’s clear that in a home full of averagely clumsy adults and children, these are pieces that won’t last long.
And maybe that’s the appeal: We all change our minds and start following new design gurus and decide that maybe we don’t actually want to live in a generic apartment that’s decorated like a whimsical barn. It’s like shopping at H&M or Forever 21 and knowing that glittery mini dress isn’t going to survive more than three trips through the spin cycle. Outside of the mattresses and top-quality appliances from well-known brands like Viking or KitchenAid, the furniture is mostly made of particle board, staples, and faux finishes. It is almost entirely disposable, and that’s the point—when farmhouse chic is over, it’s easy enough to come back and assemble an entire room with an entirely different look for about $2,000. (All of which, of course, can be financed on a Nebraska Furniture Mart revolving credit card, with the store charging 18 percent interest for its trouble.)
And in most cases, those quirks and scratches and dings are only visible up close. For Instagram photos and real estate showings, it doesn’t matter if the sheepskin is actually polyester or the wood veneer is actually a sticker slapped on top of medium-density fiberboard. The young, new-to-Dallas professionals upgrading from Ikea are used to wiggly legs and drawers that never seem to open quite right. Even if it isn’t great, it is certainly good enough.