IKEA and the Globalisation of Home, or The Same Couch in Berlin and Singapore

Quite by coincidence, my friends here in Berlin have the same IKEA couch that I used to have in my apartment in Singapore in 2009.  And so I have this strange feeling, sitting on the couch and tapping away on my Macbook like I used to, that I am somehow back at home in Singapore.  Outside, it is winter – raining and freezing cold – but in here it is warm, toasty, and strangely familiar.

It’s eerie.

I realise that this is a sign of just how globalised the business of Home(-making) is, and just how significant Swedish furniture company, IKEA, has played in the globalisation of the business. IKEA’s no-frills furniture has become such a staple of young, middle-class households in the developed and newly developing worlds that the same couch or table, opaquely and endearingly named, recur in the most unexpected places.

Another of IKEA’s pieces I’ve seen regularly on my travels: the floor lamp, ORGEL VRETEN. (http://www.ikea.com/de/de/catalog/products/20028550/)

From its humble beginnings as a family-owned company in Sweden, IKEA has become a monolithic global conglomerate, shaping notions of what Home ought to look like for millions of people world-wide. Its catalogues feature picture perfect living spaces – kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms, bathrooms; clean lines, bold colours, tasteful yet functional designs – that one can simply purchase off-the-shelf.  The message promoted is that just about anyone can have a unique, personalised, aesthetically pleasing, absolutely perfect home.  Ironically, the more widespread IKEA’s footprint is globally, the less Home is personalised, the more it is generic.

Last year, IKEA reaped in profits of 3bn euros on 32bn euros of sales, with the biggest gains being in key developing markets, Russia, China and Poland.  One can only imagine the Middle Kingdom and the two slavic nations’ design-starved middle classes sweeping through IKEA’s stores as though they were Paradise itself.  Elsewhere, there are online petitions from as far-flung places as Johannesburg (South Africa), Jakarta (Indonesia) and Aberdeen (Scotland) to get IKEA to open one of its stores in these developing-world or lesser-known cities.

Here’s the appeal from the Jakarta (Facebook) petition.

“Who doesn’t love IKEA? I bet those of you who have lived abroad, loaded your little crib with IKEA furnitures. And you would bring them with you once you decided to go back to Jakarta, because you loved them so much and you would rather take them with you than sell them to your friends. That’s why we need an IKEA store in our beloved capital city!” (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=19347733376)

Here’s a journalist with The Guardian rooting for Joburg in 2010:

“Redistribution of wealth would be good. So too a reliable power grid, a spirit of racial reconciliation and, some would argue, a president who shows leadership. But what South Africa truly needs, my exhaustive research has determined, is Ikea.”(http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/12/david-smith-africa-letter-ikea)

Note that all this is said without a trace of irony.  IKEA has so seeped into the popular consciousness (and imagination) that it is considered something of a necessity, an entitlement for most of the world’s newly affluent.

Joburg, Jakarta and other cities might have to wait, however. The word is that this year, IKEA will take on India, after the Indian government finally caved in to the company’s insistence that the foreign direct investment limit in single-brand retail be increased from 51 per cent to 100 per cent.  (http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/ikea-may-revive-india-plans/456862/)

Having conquered the middle-class household, IKEA has also proposed to build an entire neighborhood in East London,  with 1,200 houses, as well as shops, cafés and a 350-room hotel covering 26 acres by the Olympic Park in Stratford. According to the Huffington Post, the whole site will be surrounded by two waterways, so the idea is to create a “mini Venice.”

“The aim is to create a friendly neighbourhood idyll, with courtyards and a public square to encourage interaction, and the unsightly aspects of life will be kept to a minimum. Cars will be parked underground and rubbish will be discreetly disposed of through underground tunnels. A school, health surgery and nursery will be built to minimise inconvenient travel.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2011/10/21/strand-east-ikeas-london-_n_1023421.html)

While I quite understand the desire for clean and simple, tasteful and affordable furniture, it is quite another thing when the same furniture pops up everywhere you go, and even colonises whole neighborhoods. In my mind, IKEA furniture is becoming a lot like CCTV cameras and other surveillance devices – ubiquitous and low-key, under-the-radar; one wouldn’t notice them unless one was paying attention.  Which is exactly how IKEA wants it, I’m sure.

Slowly but surely, IKEA is exerting its influence and footprint not only onto every middle-class household world-wide, but also onto the very notion of living.

Berlin, possibly… Singapore maybe? Definitely IKEA.

About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
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