By Riccardo Biffi.
It can truly happen to anyone: it’s a Saturday morning, you have nothing planned and just enough energy to do something pleasant and relaxing to leave the work week behind. So you decide to visit the National Gallery once again: why not? It’s nice to engage looks with the same old masterpieces every now and then. In about two hours the tour among the paintings is complete, and so is your morning. Now what? Well, it’s kind of too soon to go back home: maybe you could check out what’s on display at Ikea, just to spend some time, see if you need something (you always do), and then also eat a snack at the cafeteria – it’s so cosy.
The Ikea store is one of a kind when it comes to retail strategies. Unlike in the common store, the showroom section, with all the furniture well arranged to stage possible living spaces, and the ‘commercial’ one, with the high rise shelves storing the products, and the cash registers, are clearly kept apart, usually on two different floors. Whereas the second part shares most of its aspects with any other store, the first one gives visitors a unique experience that can’t even be described as shopping. The products’ showcase is designed – better, curated – to convey significant messages through classic means of aesthetics: a true exhibition. In this, you could find many analogies with the museum you went earlier: the visitor follows the path from room to room, space to space, as the curator structured with consistency and coherence, to build up meaning; the spectator’s gaze is indeed more one of a visitor than a buyer at first, as the experience is crafted to capture the attention and interest in understanding and being inspired by possible ways of contemporary furnishing. From one diorama to the other, the product in itself isn’t the protagonist, as much as the showcase of opportunities to inhabit and the inspirational value they convey is. So the act of consuming, although very present, isn’t directly addressed as the primal concern.
Therefore we could try to imagine the product showroom in Ikea stores around the world to be akin to the exhibitions of the museum tradition, just even to see where this odd idea could bring us. As we could say in short, any exhibition is crafted to convey a message, create a narrative and offer it to the visitors by persuasion through the various means of, and possibilities offered by visual rhetoric, material choice, space design, textual information etc. So the follow up question would be: what is the Ikea store exhibition designed to tell us? What is its role in the culture and public discourse today? According to professor Ursula Linqvist, the Ikea store is an archive as Jaques Derrida intended the term, from its ancient Greek origin: an house for the documents defining the city, “a space that is both public and private and that signifies both political power and cultural authority”. The documents being the products and the exhibition design being the intrinsic instrument of interpretation given unilaterally to the visitor. Then, in Lindqvist’s view, “the IKEA store helps construct, reproduce, and disseminate a narrative of Swedish exceptionalism worldwide. This narrative showcases Sweden’s image as a peaceful, homogenous, and industrious little nation, exemplifying Enlightenment ideals of social and economic progress while avoiding implication in the Enlightenment’s more violent aspects”.
On top of that, or maybe before that, one could argue that the exhibition can talk more generally to a common globalized western-culture-oriented consumer, proposing a reassuring narrative: your individual rights to have free choices in consumption regard your own private life and are independent, singular acts in the world. You can improve your life by joining our values and “The IKEA Concept of Life”, embedded in our products, and bring about social progress “for the many”, as in Ikea’s founder Ingvar Kamprad famous motto. So the other, darker side of this typically anthropocenic coin, “the implications in the Enlightment’s most violent aspects”, is not addressed, insulating the visitor’s imagination from the harsh realities of the Anthropocene, to which Ikea itself has been broadly participating.
And although Ikea as a company has been implementing new policies to cope with its shortcomings in Corporate Social and Environmental Responsibility, the almost entire focus in its exhibitions still remains fixed on the consumer and her inspirations, not our consumption and its place in the anthropocenic world. This shouldn’t be surprising, from a marketing standpoint as, to quote Colomina & Wigley’s Are We Human?, “Design has never been about giving someone or some group what they ask for but what they wish they had asked for and retrospectively pretend that they did ask for”; and the room for a wider representation of the social and environmental contexts of the products and our (too often) mindless consumption becomes quickly scarce, as it would be counterproductive to sales. Therefore the temptation to invoke what contemporary philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls a “profanation” is significant. Indeed, according to him, to ‘profanate’ (profanare) is to open up to new and heterodox uses something that is originally separated from common control, something “sacred” that can be looked at but not modified, like Ikea’s exhibitions. An act of profanation “deactivates the apparatuses of power and returns to common use the spaces that power had seized”, which in this case could bring us to imagine what a ‘profanated’ Ikea store showroom could look like: besides the polished panels and surfaces of the furniture, new elements, pictures, texts and textures inform the spectator about the often unspoken sides of mass consumption in the Anthropocene, like the harsh realities of job outsourcing to developing countries with weak workers’ rights; or the impact of cheap products on various local design and craftsmanship traditions in furniture manufacturing; or our relation as a species to wood use, etc. Now this could be a repurposing for the better of such a powerful cultural means that the Ikea exhibition is, separating it from its original end of marketing interest.
Indeed, if looked upon as an exhibition, the Ikea store is certainly a very successful, relevant and influential one. With its hundreds of locations in the world (without even counting the impact of the catalogue and online presence) spreading the message, it’s easy to recognize its dominant role in setting the pop cultural standard for furnishing and interior-design. At the same time though, and for these reasons, one could argue that the Ikea store exhibition should embrace more responsibly the message it wants to portray and ultimately should be held accountable for the distortions and misrepresentations of our reality – as far as they are present – that that can take place to favour consumption while disregarding its consequences.
The furnished rooms in the exhibition have no windows, and for now, so seems the case for its narrative, offering a pleasant retreat in the dream of a decent private life, shutting the rest of the world outside our walls and our concerns. Thus one could hope for such a widespread and popular ‘trend-setter’ institution to embrace more self-awareness about its impact in the general understanding of our places and actions as humans in the Anthropocene.
 “The Cultural Archive of the IKEA Store”, U. Linqvist, Sage and Culture, vol. 12, no. 1, Feb 2009, p. 44
 “The Cultural Archive of the IKEA Store”, cit. P. 43
 “A strong element of IKEA International’s identity was built on the founder Ingvar Kamprad’s vision ‘to create a better daily life for the many people’ (Kamprad 1976).” in “CSR as Corporate Political Activity: Observations on IKEA’s CSR Identity–Image Dynamics”, M. Morsing & A. Roepstorff, J Bus Ethics (2015), Springer Science + Business Media, Dordrecht (2014), p. 400
 Profanations, G. Agamben, trans. by J. Fort, Zone Books, New York, 2007. p.77
“The Cultural Archive of the IKEA Store”, U. Linqvist, Sage and Culture, vol. 12, no. 1, Feb 2009, pp.43-62 – DOI: 10.1177/1206331208325599
“CSR as Corporate Political Activity: Observations on IKEA’s CSR Identity–Image Dynamics”, M. Morsing & A. Roepstorff, J Bus Ethics (2015), Springer Science + Business Media, Dordrecht (2014)
Ikea’s Corporate Image, Philosophy and Information from the official website, last seen on 15th Oct 2018:
Are we human?, B. Colomina, M. Wigley, Lars Muller Publishers, Zurich, 2016, p. 103
Profanations, G. Agamben, trans. by J. Fort, Zone Books, New York, 2007