2018.02.05 IKEA - or whatever it is

Around the world, IKEA has been a life saver for many a Scandinavian expat. Not only because furnishing a new home otherwise can be quite expensive but also because much of the design "feels like home".

Non-Scandinavians would probably not think of IKEA furniture in the context of hygge. Sterile, vanilla, bland - such were the words used in the newspaper when IKEA opened the store in East Palo Alto a decade ago.

My guess is that whatever you grew up with feels "homey" - and if you didn't grow up with Scandinavian design but with heavier/ darker/ different styles, Scandinavian furniture with beech and birch wood, spindly metal legs, and white surfaces would come across as "sterile".

We call it "clean"; same meaning, different associations.

So when I got this comment when sharing an article on hygge, it brought a smile to my face and connected some dots:

"I have also heard foreigners who live in Denmark marvel at the simplicity of material life in this otherwise high-income nation. Eschewing the 'need' for showy, pricey home furnishings, fashion, cosmetics etc. - now, that is an attitude truly worth emulating; one which I'm sure adds greatly to the overall sense of well-being."

It would, indeed, be considered in poor taste to show off. Because the Scandinavian countries are still fairly egalitarian. We have a - gradually ever more watered down - variation of the Tall Poppy Syndrome at the core of our cultures. Generally, we would rather have good company while sitting on an IKEA chair than suffer pomposity lounging on a Roche Bobois sofa.

I have two chairs. When an American friend was emptying her garage, she gave them to us. None of her American friends liked them - they were "too Scandinavian". They are faux Bruno Mathsson and offer great comfort. You can lift them with one hand when vacuuming. The story I tell myself is that she felt hurt by her friends' comments but vindicated in her choice of furniture by our open enthusiasm for her chairs.

Shopping in a local lamp store here in California I found a German lamp. The owner apologized that is was so incredibly ugly but praised it for giving fabulous light. It cost $500 for one lamp for the night stand and looked like something I could buy at IKEA. I didn't have the heart to tell her that this "ugly" thing was the only lamp in her store I liked. (Then I went to IKEA and bought two matching lamps for $40 instead.)

The strength of IKEA is that they make well designed things. Good design and decent quality should not elude people who can't afford - or have different priorities than - paying $5,000 for a sofa or $1,000 to get lights in the bedroom.

Whether you like their things or not is a question of taste - an all together different concept than design, and across the world we can't agree on what good taste looks like.

We Scandinavians are just so lucky that IKEA style is what we grew up with. Because we can shop for furniture that match our taste all over the world.

That said, I am sorry to puncture this myth of total non-consumerism.

I can hardly walk into a Danish home without seeing at least one piece of designer furniture. It may be a lamp, a chair, a book case. We are talking about pieces that if you go to Design Within Reach individually cost what you can furnish a whole room for, if you shop at IKEA. Danes have been buying designer furniture for generations so it may well be an heirloom - and as such be well worn.

But to eyes that have not been trained on distinguishing that style of furniture, all pieces look like something you can buy at IKEA: clean lines and probably made of beech. So it makes sense if one would jump to the conclusion that Danes all shop at IKEA and have "no need for showy, pricey home furnishings."

Because furniture is part of Danish cultural history, many Danes can recognize some of the classics. They wouldn't mention that their piece is a genuine Wegner. That would be considered crass.

Obviously, this doesn't apply if you are not Danish. If you tell us that you have bought one of our classic treasures, we will applaud your good taste and be happy to have another convert who "understands good design". Hey, you can even praise an IKEA lookalike and we will be happy.

Meanwhile, if it is "well worn but worn well" or needs reupholstering, it could just be because it is "the real thing"; too good to throw away but very expensive to restore properly.

If a home is too perfect and you are afraid of sitting on the sofa, it ceases being "huggely". And to most of us, that is what matters the most.