Ikea Love Song

Build your own utopia – by Alex Taggart


Ikea. A winning combination of minimalist Swedish design and affordable bourgeois domesticity, all folded up into a flatpack box of soft power and served with a side of meatballs. Anywhere in the world where people want something sustainable to sit on, the frictionless Ikea experience can be perfectly replicated – although never imitated – with no risk of compromising the company’s squeaky-clean Scando-socialist ideals. Or so I thought, until my first trip to the Beijing flagship store, one of the largest in the world.

Growing up in the UK, I always had mixed feelings about Ikea. Sure, it’s decent value for money, but it’s undeniably soulless. A weekend trip to my local branch, wedged in among outlet malls and hardware stores on the outskirts of the city, would leave me feeling drained and unimaginative. A visit to Ikea in China, by contrast, is both a fun day out and a masterclass in shopping.

First stop, the canteen, where a cup of coffee comes with free refills from an unmanned coffee machine. Ikea obviously bets on the fact that customers will be satisfied with one tiny mug of weak Swedish coffee. They gravely underestimated the old lady standing in front of me in line for the machine. Unimpressed with the tiny mug provided, she has brought her own huge Thermos, and is going to hold down that “dispense” button as long as she likes. Note to self: next time, bring flask.

Next, I head into the labyrinthine showroom, which begins with the sofa section. Maybe it’s down to overindulgence in the canteen, or the central heating, or the overwhelming ecstasy of space-saving storage solutions, but ten paces into the Ikea experience and everyone seems to be completely knackered already. Three quarters of the couches are occupied by sleeping people, mostly children and the elderly. Another smart move – after all, can anyone truly judge how comfy a couch is until they’ve taken a nap on it?

Perhaps the biggest advantage of the Chinese Ikea experience is that it’s invigorating rather than soul-destroying. Back home, the model rooms feel sterile, like the set of a sitcom about the most boring family you’ve ever met. The spotless tranquility makes it impossible to imagine an actual family living in one – domestic life is as much about feelings, passion, arguments and noise as it is about harmony and pious utility. At the Beijing Ikea, with its tens of thousands of visitors each weekend (most of them families), this is not an issue – the store buzzes with tension and clamour.

As I wander through the various sections, I feel like I’m in the world’s largest, busiest shared living space. In one show dining room, an entire family – two small children, their parents and grandparents – chat noisily around a circular dinner table. Two old women bicker in a kitchen, as if they’re going to start cooking right there and can’t agree on the recipe. A puffy-eyed young couple sit on the edge of a double bed, in the middle of a full blown domestic.

The market hall – an endless maze designed to make it impossible to locate the one or two small items you need – is a different experience altogether, especially during the Spring Festival sale. My original plan was to avoid distractions, keep my head down, work the angles and make a beeline for the rugs. But the Beijing store managers have picked out the gobbiest staff members, given them megaphones, and recreated the feeling of a Chinese marketplace in this turgid home decoration tundra. Forget furniture; this is showbusiness.

Despite the rabid consumerism, it’s weirdly heartwarming to watch families trundle out of the store with more unpronounceable foreign-designed merchandise than they can carry, like a baptism into the middle class. As I exit, with a truckload of new furniture and a multi-pack of frozen salmon, I wonder whether Ikea might be the most sly foreign consumer brand in China. Nowhere near as flashy as Apple, or as pervasive as Coca Cola, but the only one that truly brings its values home.

Alex Taggart is a news editor turned music biz consultant who has lived in China since 2010

A version of this piece previously appeared in News China

Photo by Alec Ash