The American Obsession With Ikea

In the over 30 years since the company opened in the United States, IKEA has fully infiltrated American culture. Here are a few reasons why.
Why Do Americans Love Ikea?

In the United States, there are two main schools of thought on Ikea. There are those who love navigating the massive stores, pretending to live in each of the adorable fake rooms and eventually emerging with affordable furniture. And then there are those who see it as a horrid labyrinth filled with tacky chairs.

Whether you love it or hate it, this Swedish company has somehow managed to convince a huge portion of the United States to buy its products. We looked into a few of the reasons that drive the company’s success by taking a closer look at some of its most distinctive features.

Scandinavian Design And How Minimalism Won Over The United States

Americans Love Ikea — Room Design

In the past few years, people have published approximately 80 billion books about hygge, the Scandinavian cozy lifestyle craze, so it’s pretty clear that Americans have a predilection for that part of the world these days. But when the first Ikea opened in the United States in 1985, it wasn’t a given that the store would catch on.

Going back a bit, Ikea was founded in 1943, and at that point it just sold pens, jewelry and other small items. It wasn’t until five years later that the first furniture was added to the collection, sourced from local Swedish manufacturers. The definitive Ikea look was introduced in 1956, when the store decided to design its own furniture with a focus on items that could easily be packed flat. This was a great innovation for shipping, and also the reason your house is filled with loose Allen wrenches.

The rise of Ikea also happened to correspond with the golden age of Scandinavian design. The general guiding principles of this aesthetic are simplicity, utility and natural materials. Ikea incorporated these ideas into its products, emulating the style in a more affordable way. The authenticity depends on whether you think particle board is “natural” or not, though. Scandinavian design is still popular among the minimalist crowd today, and Ikea continues to use that to its advantage. Many articles are careful to note that Ikea and Scandinavian design are certainly not synonymous, even if Americans often mention them in the same breath.

Why The Products Have Such Weird Names

If you’re like me, you probably thought Ikea product names were arbitrary choices used to make the furniture seem more Swedish than it actually is. “Why is that chair named Bernard?” I would ask. Then I would move on with my life.

There is some reasoning behind the Ikea product names. Internet good samaritan Lars Petrus attempted to create a full dictionary of the product names. For the most part, Ikea adheres to naming things after humans, towns and villages in Scandinavia, as well as various Swedish words.

There’s a myth that Ikea categorizes its 12,000 products into discrete sections (for example, desks are named after Scandinavian boys and garden furniture is named after Scandinavian islands). It’s quite a pervasive myth, too, because Quartz, Business Insider, Gizmodo, Fortune, and the Huffington Post, among others, have all written about it. While at one point this organizational pattern may have existed, if you look at the catalog today, the names are pretty arbitrary. Here, for example, is the list of names for some of the Ikea bookshelves, which, according to these articles, should all be Scandinavian boy’s names and professions.

Bookcase Name Meaning
Billy Scandinavian Boy’s Name
Hemnes Town in North Norway
Liatorp Village in South Sweden
Laiva Finnish Word for “Ship”
Brimnes Town in South Sweden
Brusali Place in Norway
Avdala Town in Sweden
Galant Swedish Word for “Gallant”
Bestå Swedish Word for “Remain” or “Consist Of”
Kallax Swedish Locality

The reason the products have strange names at all was by request of the founder of the store, Ingvar Kamprad. Normally, products are just given random numbers and letters as a “name,” but this posed a problem because Kamprad is dyslexic. By choosing real names instead, it was easier to remember them, and harder to make mistakes when filling out the information on forms. Beyond the practical use, the names have become an important part of going to Ikea. It makes the whole place feel a tad more European, which appeals to Americans. Also, it’s fun to yell things like “LURÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖY” when you’re buying bed slats.

The Maze Of Fun And/Or Fear

Americans Love Ikea — Ikea Map

This map shows one shopper’s journey through Ikea, with many twists and turns involved.Walking into an Ikea store is a surreal experience. The first thing you notice is it’s massive. Furniture as far as the eye can see. Then you get a cart and a golf pencil to write down the products you want before you venture into the store. Arrows on the ground tell you where to walk, and signs everywhere advertise the cafeteria. You could spend a full day there just trying out all the products, which are all set up in “rooms” so you can imagine what your very own home could look like. It’s basically Disney for 20-somethings.

There is a flipside to this seemingly nice, intensely tailored experience, which is the capitalist manipulation. University College of London architecture professor Alan Penn has argued that the maze-like layout is designed to trick you into buying more things. Penn created a heat map to show how the human traffic flows slowly in the store, and says that 60 percent of the products bought at Ikea were not on shoppers’ lists when they go in. Ikea denies that it’s intentionally designed as a shopping trap, but the results don’t lie.

Then there’s the media portrayal of Ikea. Sure, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel make shopping there seem like a fun improv game in (500) Days of Summer, but everything they do is cute to the point where you start to loathe them. The more realistic portrayal of the store is likely in 30 Rock, when protagonist Liz Lemon is forced to face her nightmare of going to Ikea with her boyfriend on Valentine’s Day, and the relationship almost goes up in flames.

While the portrayal in 30 Rock may seem like an exaggeration, certain psychologists have backed up the idea that Ikea can be an emotionally taxing experience. It’s really up to you to decide whether you love Ikea because you’re genuinely having fun, or if it’s a case of literal Stockholm syndrome. (Because Stockholm is in Sweden. Get it?)

The Meatballs, Because We Buy Food From Furniture Stores Now

Americans Love Ikea — IKEA Meatballs

Every Ikea trip, thanks to the maze’s design, includes a stop at the food court. Because Ikea trips are often unending, the notion that they would have food isn’t really that unexpected. The main offering is, of course, the food that’s most closely associated with Sweden: meatballs. Ikea has been serving up meatballs since 1959, when they were added to the retail experience as an afterthought.

Since then, the meatballs have taken on a larger role in the company’s plans. In 2016, Ikea made $1.8 billion on food items alone. Considering the food is priced on the cheap side, with the average cost of 10 meatballs being about $5, that’s a big pile o’ meatballs. Ikea has become so confident in its food that it’s been investing in it even more.

Is the food any good, though? While the idea of getting meatballs in a warehouse where you typically buy beds and drawers is thoroughly unappetizing, the answer is yes. You don’t just have to take my word for it, as across the internet, reviewer after reviewer has sung the praises of the Ikea cafeteria. Sure, this might just be a distorted illusion caused by the extraordinary hunger one faces after being lost in a furniture labyrinth for hours, but that doesn’t change the fact that you should definitely get food next time you visit Ikea.

The Ubiquity Of Ikea Furniture

Americans Love Ikea — Ikea Warehouse

Ikea furniture is everywhere. It’s inescapable. The impact of their products on our culture is incredible, but often overlooked because of how understated all the furniture is. Even something as inconsequential as the Ikea bags, the big blue totes that cost only 99 cents, have established themselves in American high fashion.

Take the Billy bookcase. Or don’t take it, because you probably already have one. One estimate is that there are almost 60 million Billy bookcases in the world. Every year, 3 million more are manufactured. It is not only the best-selling Ikea product, but the best-selling bookcase in the history of the world. Part of the reason for its popularity is the price, which at its smallest size, is a very affordable $30 in the United States. The price changes depending on where you are, though. Bloomberg magazine has created the Bloomberg Billy bookcase index, which it uses to analyze the purchasing power in various countries. The cheaper the bookcase, the stronger the purchasing power — making Slovakia, which has the cheapest, very lucky. The United States, in contrast, is the eighth most expensive.

It’s telling that Ikea is especially popular among young people, with the peak age being 24. The furniture is designed to look clean and nice, and it’s also cheap and not meant to last for eternity. Because college students spend so much time moving around, it makes sense to not want to spend money on mahogany desks when you’re just going to have to find a new apartment in a year.

Millennials in general are far more likely to rent than buy a place, opting for an existential state of impermanence. Ikea, then, is the extension of this impermanence. No one argues that their furniture is the best, but it is most certainly good enough. And because each trip to Ikea is set up to be a mini adventure, the whole experience feels more worthwhile than just buying things online. Ikea furniture is incredibly useful to the 20-something with mountains of student loan debt. We just have to hope that someday, all the landfills aren’t filled to the brim with Luröys and Amalias.

Learn Swedish to impress the cashier.
Start Learning Here