I’ve had a lot of people ask if, as an architect, I’m excited about Ikea coming to Kansas City Sept. 10. To them I say “du satsa dina köttbullar” (you bet your meatballs I am).
I’m drawn to Ikea’s affordable modern furniture and fixtures, but perhaps even more to the authentically strange cultural experiences at the stores.
In the midst of the uniformly branded stores that make up the commercial universe around us in the States, a journey to Ikea offers an alternative, Euro-tinged reality. It’s as if a collection of tiny Swedish colonies — or “Ikeas” — were scattered throughout our great land long ago as part of some negotiated treaty.
My fascination with Ikea has led to some significant time investments. My wife and I have taken two vacations centered on Ikea visits, first to Minneapolis about eight years ago, and then to Austin, Texas, last year.
Both times we embarked on our journeys as sane, practical, design-minded Midwesterners well-prepared for a stroll through a friendly retail store, we thought. We had a list of items we needed, an appropriately scaled budget and an understanding of the spatial limits of our car.
Both times we returned as wild-eyed, lingonberry-stained hoarders, our car groaning under the shifting weight of dozens of dense, flat-packed boxes. In retrospect, this outcome was to be expected. We were Ikea rookies, overcome by the spectacle. We have since recalibrated our philosophy.
We have learned to consider a visit to Ikea not as a mere shopping exercise, but as an actual vacation, albeit a very short one. By considering it in this way, we have found that a vacation-survival instinct kicks in — the same one that drives a traveler to balance enthusiastic exploration with a common-sense awareness of local customs.
So you didn’t make it to Sweden for an extended vacation this summer? Fret not. The following travel hints should help you as you mini-vacation to the Land of Ikea.
Journeying to Ikea. Before you leave for your visit, make sure your vehicle is clean and free of cubic-inch-robbing effluvia, because the likelihood that you will be jamming boxes into every conceivable nook is very high.
Parking at Ikea typically isn’t a problem. You feel close to the front doors no matter where you park, because the distinctive blue and gold building is large enough to be seen from outer space.
Preparing for your visit. In the same way that Sweden is divided into regions (Norrland, Svealand and Götaland, for those keeping score), Ikea is divided into zones: the parking area, the entrance zone, the kid-disposal area (otherwise known as Småland), the showroom, the marketplace, the self-serve warehouse, the checkout area and the loading area.
Each has its specific cultural inclination. We suggest you navigate them in turn.
Entering Ikea. Once you walk through the glass doors, you find yourself in the entrance zone. It marks the border between the United States and Ikea. (You will not need a passport, but you will need money.)
Before entering the showroom, you would be wise to acquire a cart, a catalog, a measuring tape, a pencil and a notepad. Luckily, all of these things are conveniently located in the entrance zone.
While you’re there, pick up a map of the place. Ikea is similar to one of those corn mazes that pop up before Halloween. People without maps get lost in Ikea. You can see them as you walk through the showroom, sitting resignedly in the living room displays, staring into space.
Disposing of the kids. Ikea is very kid-friendly. If your kids are relatively well-behaved and can handle an hour or two walking through a cavalcade of furniture, they’d definitely enjoy exploring the store, especially the part of the showroom dedicated to children’s furniture and toys.
If your kids aren’t up for the journey, drop them off at Småland, which is a supervised play area filled with fun diversions.
Navigating the showroom. Cart-equipped and pencil in hand, you are now free to enter the showroom and peruse the 10,000 uniquely designed objects that populate it.
But before you take that first step, remember: You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. You’re in Ikea. Take a minute to consider how you want your journey to go. Look at the map and visualize the areas in which you’d like to spend the most time.
If your main purpose is to upgrade your kitchen, for instance, plan to spend most of your time there, and try to not get distracted by the irresistible, $5, penguin-shaped rug that catches your eye near the bedroom area.
Let yourself wander some — you are on “vacation,” after all, and there are 50 decorated rooms along the route — but balance that free-form right-brained exploration with some left-brained focus.
Translating the tag. See something you like? Each item has a large tag. It tells you not just how much the item costs, but also a lot of other crucial information, like available colors, materials and sizes. It will also tell you where to find it in the aircraft-hanger-size self-serve warehouse at the end of your journey.
Jot down the aisle and bin number with your trusty pencil, and note that some items are made of numerous components, all of which have separate aisle and bin numbers. Just write it all down — it will make sense later, trust me.
Or, as an alternate to all the jotting, you could just snap a quick picture of the tag with your phone.
Speaking the language. Ikea is famous for the distinctive Swedish names it gives its products. As you venture deeper into the showroom, feel free to loudly pronounce these names.
Have some fun. Are you drawn to the Fyrkantigs (square candles) for instance? Let your fellow travelers know this. Perhaps you are impressed by the Dagstorp sofas? Shout it out. Fyrkantig! Dagstorp!
Hearing the pulsing throng of retail tourists speaking quasi-Swedish adds to the exotic feeling of the place.
Sampling the local cuisine. At some point, the smell of surströmming (herring), gräddså (cream sauce) and other local delicacies will become apparent. This means you are close to the restaurant. Go there, ditch your cart for a few minutes and fill up on things that you would not normally order in a restaurant.
Remember, you’re on vacation in an exotic place, so pass on the chicken strips and hit the köttbullar (meatballs). Hit them hard, and feel a tingling sensation in your cerebellum as Swedishness begins to insinuate itself into your DNA.
Lock eyes with less-committed shoppers as they pass and say “denna bit kött gör mig glad” (this piece of meat makes me happy). They will think you’re a “local.”
Surviving the marketplace. Exiting the restaurant, filled with köttbullar and confidence, you will find yourself on the outskirts of the marketplace. Unlike the showroom proper, which is filled with large items that you will pick up at the end of your journey, the marketplace is a quaint subdistrict filled with smaller items that you can just grab and chuck into your cart.
Like a crowded Arabian bazaar, there is a mythical aspect to the marketplace. It exposes your true nature as either a clear-minded design enthusiast or a scuttling, deal-seeking hoarder. Stuff is hilariously cheap here. Some of the stuff is great, some of it is weird, and in the heat of the moment, you might not know the difference, so be careful.
The marketplace is where you find yourself carefully selecting a box of 25 corks that you have absolutely no use for, other than they are in a neat wood box and cost only $1.99. How can you pass up 25 corks for $1.99? You might find yourself exclaiming: “Rutan enbart är värt att mycket!” (why, the box alone is worth that much)!
Serving yourself. One of the pleasures of visiting Ikea is experiencing the well-organized packaging and distribution operation. It’s something to behold, truly.
Nearly all of the products in the showroom are found in the self-service warehouse, broken down into separate components and flat-packed into impossibly thin cardboard boxes. With your pencil-jotted list in hand, it’s up to you to find these boxes and schlep them into your cart.
Although it is easy to appreciate the efficiency of the Ikea operation, this part of the journey does not feel so much like a vacation. It feels a little bit like work, like you lost your boarding pass for the flight back to the States and you have to work for an hour to pay for a new one.
Exiting Ikea. As you leave the self-service warehouse, boxes stacked above your head on your cart, off in the distance you will see an area swathed in daylight. Go there next: This is the check-out zone, which marks the border between Ikea and the United States.
This is where your vacation ends, where you see the contents of your cart in the light of day and exclaim “Åh nej, vad har jag gjort”? (My God, what have I done?).
But it’s all good. Pay for your stuff and pick up your kid from Småland, pack up the car and drive on home. Sure, you have purchased some corks and some meatballs and a penguin rug and perhaps a large box of curvy rainbow-colored straws, but you have also purchased some well-designed products for your home.
Think of everything, all of it, as big souvenirs from the tiniest vacation you have ever taken.
Souvenirs that you now get to assemble.
Dan Maginn is a principal with El Dorado, an architecture studio in Kansas City.
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