One moment you’re counting how many cherry tomatoes will fit onto the two-dollar salad bar plate, the next you catch a glimpse of the seemingly stray seam that holds the entire global IKEA matrix together. How an innocent cinq-á-sept becomes the existential 86.
I have a breakfast companion, who is forever running late, so always we arrive at IKEA five minutes after the $1 breakfast ends, which is a blessing because it opens your mind up to—other things. There’s a decent plate of gravlax, for instance. More curiously, though, you discover a fridge filled with beer and chardonnay. How this fridge escaped your vision, through umpteen dozen life moves, is perplexing to the point of suspicious. Like Poe’s purloined letter, so obvious as to defy detection.
And revelatory as the fact that you can drink at IKEA before the store even opens at 9:30 in the morning, is the actual placement of this fridge. About eye-level with the nearby KLAPPAR KÄNGURU display, which is about the eye level of a four-year-old.
At a store that is both Swedish for common sense and synonymous with the most clever and functional mass design in the history of the world, nothing can be called unintentional.
When you discover the fridge, you become more giddy than any human being in a big box store should. And in the ensuing days, you ponder what to do next. You ponder to a point that you begin to doubt your own memory—why hasn’t anyone else seen the fridge?— you phone to confirm its existence. Although you dial a local number, an operator in Québec answers. So as not to sound suspicious, you ask: “What time’s the eating area open ‘til?”
“One hour before the store closes.”
“And um….you’re licensed?”
“You serve beer and wine?”
There is a long pause. You imagine a woman, half-Swedish, half-Québecois—a butterfly goaltender with the temperament of Lisbeth Salander—trying to stifle a grin. “I’ll have to check,” she says.
You hear some typing on the other side. As you both wait, she half-asks, half-declares, “you want to drink at IKEA?”
You have already dispatched an invitation for Friday drinks to a small group of 22-34 year-old friends, who share two traits: (1) a complicated relationship with IKEA as a concept, and (2) a very tangible affinity for binge drinking. You don’t mention this last fact when the woman in Québec confirms that IKEA does, in fact, serve liquor. But you do tell her, “Yes, we are going to drink at IKEA.”
“Cool,” she replies. Of course, what you really want is to know is the intention of this fridge.
IKEA, which represents the great untapped suburban flânerie, is possessed with deep implications of intoxication. There’s the disproportionate arsenal of bar accessories. (The long-finger PLASTIS ice cube tray is the most important thing to happen to a Tom Collins since lemons.) And in addition to having openly dabbled with fascism after the war, the chain’s founder and owner Ingvar Kamprad claims to be an alcoholic, who now uses systematic “drying-outs” to clean his kidney and liver between tastes. Kamprad is 86.
The desire to keep his customers on site longer led to IKEA’s first restaurant in 1959. In its current incarnation, the term restaurant is imprecise. The space resembles something between an “area” and a “zone.” Customers who visit this zone spend an extra $40 on average throughout the rest of the store.
At approximately 3pm on a Friday afernoon, two of you enter this area. Then like mitosis, two become four. Cashiers use a device like you’d find in a 1950s motel bathroom to open your bottles. (Some are underage and can’t legally pull the cap themselves, which only reinforces the sense of DIY IKEA accomplishment.) You sit and drank, excited to be alive and in IKEA—four of your are now eight—smart professionals, not ironic—not totally—attempting to understand what is happening here.
You’re cynical of Microsoft, but not the Gates Foundation, which has done more for Africa than your own government. For years, you engaged Google more faithfully than past girlfriends. IKEA’s credo “to create better everyday life for the majority of people”— that’s your credo.
Piece-by-piece, IKEA has given you a sense of “real life”—yet on the terms of your generation. A gentle bartering of the soul as opposed to the whole market trade your parents had to make. The company’s retail experience has integrated so seamlessly into your lifestyle as to be the lifestyle. The thought of a getting a little loose in their restaurant on a Friday night—you only want to integrate seamlessly back into IKEA’s life.
As your table fills with bottles, you’ll talk about Christmas markets in Germany, where one glühwein booth is never more than two-dozen steps from the next. How that will never happen at, say, a Target, where the naked sobering retail experience is not hidden beneath any kind of Matrix. The prevailing intoxication loosens inhibitions and raises the tolerance of the customer, so often one half of one couple on the verge of discovering that fatal flaw in their looming cohabitation. As the bottles keep piling up—you’ve ignored the warning to bus your own table—one of your eight stumbles back from the bathrooms and mumbles: “there’s a kid in there…in pajamas…and three little girls.”
You’ve been periodically scanning the dining zone since sitting down. It’s almost 17:40. And as a Steve Miller song plays and the flags of Sweden and Canada stretch taut in the windy parking lot, you see him coming. He has slumped shoulders, a lumbering and purposeful stride. He is the guy in every mall and casino and amusement park—every big box development in the modern world—who is paid not put up with your shit. You’re tempted to say fascist, but he is also your favourite guy in the store—because he is the guy that transcends the blue and gold façade. The guy who reminds you that there is an etiquette here, an expectation that having taken the subsidized meatballs and cheap beer, having soaked up the ambience and fine conversation, it is now time for you to put out. He is the guy, who without a word of warning, says: “you’re cut off.”
The problem in this instant is that you’re not obviously drunk. Nobody’s flung an empty POKAL wine tumbler sidearm across the cafeteria, nor drifted over to the “Bedroom Event” where a whole new genre of pick up line is waiting to be revealed. You ask the guy why you’re cut off? The people at your table have been accused, in the past, of many different things before being cut off, but never, as they are right now, for “not fitting the IKEA brand.”
In hindsight it is the cruelest reason ever.
I know you think I’m poking fun at the absurdity. I promise I’m not. There’s no elation in being cut off at IKEA; in letting down the brand. Quite the opposite. Because deep down you believe that you do fit the brand. You fit it more concisely, more intuitively, more perfectly than any other group of customers in any of the 332 stores in 38 countries that night. It’s said that 80% of Swedes “trust IKEA”—which prints more copies of its catalogue annually than the bible—while only 46% trust the church. One in ten of us is said to have been conceived on an IKEA bed. In the morning, when you return, defiantly, for breakfast, you order a Kristian Regále Swedish Style Peach Sparkler. A group of seniors hit the self-serve coffee machine, over and over. You have such foresight for where the brand has come from and is going that you have become the brand.
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