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Journey into the heart of Ikea

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: 0

Ikea 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.

Here at the largest Ikea in the U.S., there are 50 model rooms. I stop into a charcoal gray kitchen accessorized with pots and pans, fake plants, and a chef’s toque—all available in the marketplace downstairs. If I learn nothing else today, I now know that Ikea sells chefs’ hats. There are lots of fake electronic devices: eProp and Laptop-brand laptops with many buttons stolen off the keyboards.

The attention to detail is admirable and thorough. Many cabinets have stickers on them imploring you to “Look Inside.” I open a Fåglavik handle on a Bestå cabinet, thinking nothing could fit in something so narrow, and find a weirdly slim Ordning colander that fits perfectly.

10:15 a.m. umlauts: 22 fights: 1

I find a room that belongs to Sloane, Madison, and Harper. I know this because SMH (as I will collectively refer to them henceforth) labeled everything in their shared apartment. Sloane labels her stuff in Copperplate Light. I imagine she’s a no-nonsense paralegal. Madison’s things are labeled in the M*A*S*H font. Madison is a tomboy who was really into horses in middle school. Harper’s labels are in the faux-handwritten script of a wedding invitation. Harper is into fashion, trendy donuts, and everything her mother taught her being a woman means.

Besides the labels, SMH’s shared living room contains two couches pushed back to back. Why? When would you want to sit in the same room as someone and not make eye contact? Is it for sex parties? For when you want to sit but can’t even bear to look at your asshole roommate in your peripheral vision? For sex parties? Why not three couches in an antisocial triangle? Which one does Madison sit on?

11:30 a.m. umlauts: 30 fights: 2

So far the only arguments I’ve seen have been brief and in a foreign language. The iciest was a youngish Japanese couple ahead of me in line for lunch. He kept trying to hug her and she would shove him away.

I have the Swedish meatballs for lunch. They taste the same as the “sausage” at breakfast, so that’s one mystery solved.

1:05 p.m. umlauts: 43 fights: 2

Just saw one mom warning another one off a shelf she bought yesterday. She’s not here to make a return though; she’s shopping again. Two days in a row, and the second right after having a bad experience with the product. I’m shook.

1:27 p.m. umlauts: 48 fights: 2

I’m taking a break from the manufactured world inside Ikea by taking a walk around the manufactured world outside it. I get about halfway around the store’s 456,000 square feet before I have to turn around. Entire quadrants of Ikea are cordoned off from the public, designed only for giant trucks that fit in better with the scale of the place.

A Burbank police officer tells me this might be the last week they have to reroute traffic for Ikea. Every weekend since it opened, two to four cops have been posted up at the entrance, directing traffic. Today seems slower than it’s been, but they won’t know for sure till they get the numbers from the store.

1:48 p.m. umlauts: 55 fights: 2

I’m back winding through the self-serve furniture aisles, on an umlaut hunt, and I have found my favorite furniture name: Björksnäs. It is a glass-doored cabinet. “Tearin’ Up my Heart” by *NSYNC is playing and multiple people are singing along as they sort through the aisles of bins that remind me of the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. We’ve got top men who can pick and assemble your furniture for you. Top. Men.

Although this store is the largest in the U.S., it’s not even the fifth-largest in the world. Korea has the largest Ikea, a staggering 635,070 square feet. People flock to that enormous store to furnish their tiny, single-occupancy apartments.

2:17 p.m. umlauts: 62 fights: 2

I encounter my only in-store hack: A man has lined his shopping cart with blankets and is using it as a stroller. This is the most contained child I have seen today. What is the point of having a Småland if children will run rampant throughout the store? I know I really can’t say shit, though, since I used to be left for hours in Pier 1 as a kid, rearranging throw pillows and making my own dream table settings. Just normal kid stuff.

2:40 p.m. umlauts: 67 fights: 3

I’ve noticed that the balanced work/home model apartment gets the least attention. Maybe it hits too close to home for constantly-on-the-hustle Los Angeles. People walk right past it to the chiller fake living rooms, the ones with overstuffed couches instead of work tables. This makes it the perfect place to hide and observe. I’m taking notes hiding behind the Kenmore sewing machine. Why doesn’t Ikea make sewing machines anymore? From this vantage point, I catch a snippet of my first audible fight in English. It’s so passive-aggressive, I’m not even sure it’s a fight for a second.

“We can’t come here again.”

“Okay, so we’ll never ever come here again. Okay, good!”

2:47 p.m. umlauts: 69 (nice) fights: 3

I have encountered a wrinkle. People stop fighting if they notice I’m close. Not even watching their every move with a hawk-like intensity, just in the same fake house as them. Passive-aggressive dad clams up the minute I enter an all-white interior with children’s paintings hung from laundry lines strung over the dining room table. I say all-white, but really I mean very light gray—this couch has seen better days. Ikea changes out furnishings once they get dingy, and I suspect this Färlöv will be getting a new slipcover tonight.

I name the woman who lives in this model house Amy. Amy has included lots of twee notes in her living space. Children’s drawings and handprints are both framed and hung. Several empty bottles litter the kitchen countertop for “decoration.” I don’t think Amy has full custody. Around this time I hear a “Code 66” announced over the PA system, which after some googling I discover means a child is lost somewhere in the store.

3:02 p.m. umlauts: 86 fights: 3

Working my way through the showrooms for a seventh time, I come across a startling new discovery. Sloane, Madison, and Harper HAVE A DREAM JAR. I know it’s a dream jar because it’s labeled “Dream Jar,” but I do not know what a dream jar is. I know one of them dreams of going to New York Fashion Week because there is also a label on the jar that reads “NY Fashion Week 2017.” There is nothing inside the jar. Is this a metaphor? Probably.

4:45 p.m. umlauts: 105 fights: 3

These model rooms are taking on a sinister tint. I collapse onto a Friheten sofa in yet another all-white room. Who are these people whose only moment of color is dusty mauve on one side of a pillow? The answer is easy: murderers. This is Dexter’s apartment from the hit TV show Dexter. Ikea should sell gurneys.

One of these “Look Inside” drawers is going to be full of severed thumbs, I just know it.

6:29 p.m. umlauts: 122 fights: 3

“Glamorous” by Fergie is playing again. I have two and half more hours here.

7:07 p.m. umlauts: 156 fights: 4

Earlier today I saw a T-shirt in the marketplace. It had a giant exclamation point on it, which I thought would look slimming, and cost $10. Now I’m running through the marketplace searching for this shirt like it’s my daughter and I’m Jodie Foster in that movie where she loses her daughter on a plane. Did I ever have a shirt-daughter? Does Ikea even make shirts? I’m beginning to lose it. I give up and collapse in a heap on a Kivik sofa in the restaurant and clock my fourth fight. She doesn’t understand why she tries anymore. Same, girl.

7:43 p.m. umlauts: 170 fights: 4

I hate gray. I look out at the showroom and genuinely wonder if I’ve gone colorblind. It’s all either black/cream/gold or gray/dusty rose. Ikea is actually better than most home furnishing stores with regards to having colorful options, but it’s still a whole lot of gray. Half the shit here looks like it was made out of dryer lint. I’m sure it’s some new sustainable material, but all I can think about is how easily dryer lint catches fire. The Lack table is filled with cardboard beneath its wood surface. Does Ikea sell fire extinguishers?

8:05 p.m. umlauts: 176 fights: 4

We are all either a Sloane, a Madison, or a Harper. Forget the zodiac, Myers-Briggs, even Aristotle’s four humors. All other systems of human categorization can be slotted into Ikea’s efficient three-human model. Sloanes are Type A and humorless. Madisons are earthy and brash, Harpers are wilting and pliant.

There are three of everything in SMH’s room. Three Krusning lamps that look like wadded-up tissues, three vases, three animal window decals. Sloane’s the goose, Madison is the squirrel, Harper is the bunny. Three ceramic cacti in SMH’s apartment, nestled in a wall-mounted shelf in the shape of a dollhouse. Madison is the bumpy one, Harper is the little fat one, and Sloane is the one that looks like a buttplug.

But only two couches and only one dream jar. It means something. I’m just not sure what.

8:30 p.m. umlauts: 187 fights: 4

The restaurant is closing. My final umlaut count is 187, which is police code for murder. It is fitting, for Ikea has slain me. I eat a smoked salmon sandwich. It is not gray, so that’s nice.

Postscript

It’s been a week since my day at Ikea, and I still get nauseated when I see commercials for their kitchen event (major discounts through April, if you’re wondering). I went into this investigation to find out how much Ikea was too much. I found out it’s approximately nine and a half hours. Then I stayed there for another two and a half hours.

The ubiquity of Ikea furniture works to my disadvantage. I see a perfectly square Kallax shelf in a dog food commercial and get flashbacks to my time in the shit: the wails of children, the endless gray shelving options, “Fergalicious.” It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what affordable Swedish furniture means.

The hörrör. The hörrör.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler

IKEA Burbank, Carson

600 N San Fernando Blvd, Burbank, CA 91502 (888) 888-4532 Visit Website
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