One of the few pre-assembled things that IKEA offers is its quaint creation myth. In a small Swedish village in 1943, an industrious, dyslexic teenager named Ingvar Kamprad—moving up in the world from selling matches, flower seeds, and Christmas decorations to his neighbors—founded a furniture store. Fast-forward through decades of growth, and Kamprad’s concept has taken on mammoth proportions: hundreds of stores worldwide attracted 776 million customer visits last year, according to IKEA’s annual report, and the company printed more than 212 million copies of its 2013 catalogue. (For some perspective, A Tale of Two Cities, believed to be the bestselling novel of all time, has sold somewhere over 200 million copies—since 1859.)
Parallel to this story is the emergence of visual artists who incorporate IKEA’s esthetic into their work, literally and conceptually restructuring IKEA designs. The list of artists is long. There’s Clay Ketter, Andrea Zittel, and the late Jason Rhoades, whose reworkings of IKEA products appeared in the 1990s. Since then, as the company expanded across the globe—its store openings inciting shopper stampedes, its confounding assembly instructions reducing couples and college freshmen to tears—artists have tried everything from building coffins out of IKEA bookshelves (Joe Scanlan) to motorizing IKEA furniture into kinetic sculpture (Jeff Carter). Banksy’s IKEA Punk, featuring a young mohawked man and a cardboard box that reads “IEAK Large Graffiti Slogan,” was originally spray-painted in 2009 on a concrete wall near the Croydon, South London, IKEA store and has since been “salvaged” by New York’s Keszler Gallery.
But why does the IKEA brand appeal to such a wide range of artists? The reasons (from pure availability to sociopolitical allegory) are as varied as the works in question. Guy Ben-Ner—who, for his 2007 video Stealing Beauty, shot an “American family sitcom” in IKEA showrooms across the United States, Germany, and Israel without the company’s permission—says that IKEA’s in-store displays remind him of “reality as an imitation of a sitcom set.”
He became interested in IKEA for the ways in which the company’s success highlights the globalization of taste. “For instance, you can have the same food—say, McDonald’s—or the same desk in the U.S.A., in Germany, or in Japan,” Ben-Ner says. “The phenomenon is very much apparent nowadays with reality shows being the same in many countries. Differences are being erased, suggesting a cinematic world with no major continuity problems.”
Photographer and digital artist Koya Abe similarly used IKEA stores as the backdrop for the manipulated photographs in his series “Digital Art Chapter 3: Display,” which places famous subjects, excised from classical portraits, in IKEA showrooms (e.g., Hyacinthe Rigaud’s 1701 likeness of Louis XIV reaching for a stainless-steel refrigerator in a sleek modern kitchen). For Abe, the project is about “transmitting an ideal version of one’s own image,” whether by sitting for a flattering portrait with one’s finest trappings or by frequenting a store that “presents highly designed objects and spaces that ingeniously reflect the consumer’s desire to enhance his or her perception of self-image.”
It’s not only the spaces but also IKEA products that artists have co-opted for their work. Ronald T. Labaco, a senior curator at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, attributes the profusion of IKEA-based art to the company’s global scale, as well as to the increasing popularity of the do-it-yourself approach. “It’s this idea of disposability and lack of long-term investment in IKEA products that has contributed to artists and designers using IKEA items,” he says, citing the “assemble-it-yourself associations, the minimalist esthetic of some pieces—which provides a canvas for artistic invention—and the low cost,” as top draws.
For the artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset, IKEA furniture has often been the most practical choice for installations and performances. Ingar Dragset says that they selected IKEA chairs, bar stools, and tables for pieces such as Queer Bar/Powerless Structures, Fig. 121 (2005), Re-g(u)arding the Guards (2005), and 24/7/365 (2009) because “for us, it is the simplicity that is appealing.”
“Sometimes we need a chair that simply looks like a chair. It is hard to find that kind of generic furniture that does not have particular design elements and isn’t outrageously expensive,” the artist explains. “There is, of course, a sort of underlying Protestant shame and bad consciousness and Social Democratic mediocrity in the aim and rationale of a lot of Scandinavian design.” Dragset says that the duo aims to subvert this “fear of ornament and emotion, of diversity and individuality, and so on by embedding Nordic design into situations and environments that talk about identity issues, desire and the body, and social issues.”
Australian artists Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro also see the IKEA esthetic as a kind of “shorthand” for larger sociopolitical topics like “globalism, mass production, movement, uniformity, and language,” they note in a joint e-mail. The couple took flat-packing—a process that has become integral to IKEA’s global logistics—to new heights with The Cordial Home Project (2003), for which they demolished a house and “stacked it into what resembled a giant lasagna block, from the foundations to the rooftop, in an order that could be notionally reassembled.”
If such a house were ever to be rebuilt, perhaps its inhabitants would wear the creations of Adriana Valdez Young, who refashions IKEA’s softer products into “absurd lifestyle objects,” including dresses made from the store’s big blue Frakta shopping bags, sheepskin-rug purses, and salad-tosser skirts.
The Frakta bag has proven particularly useful for Young, whether for lugging props to photo shoots or for doing her laundry. “But how many IKEA bags would it take to pack all of the contents of an average American home?” she asks. “The IKEA Frakta blue-tarp bag is an icon of our global consumer lifestyle and the excess consumption this entails.”
To combat this impulse for immoderation, the artist began shedding her possessions, to the point that when she moved from Brooklyn a couple years ago, all of her belongings fit into two Fraktas. “And you know what? One of the first things I did when I got to London was to go to IKEA and buy all the basics I needed to restart my home,” Young says. “They fit in exactly two IKEA bags. So now the footprint of my possessions is equal to four IKEA bags. I can feel like this is an accomplishment.”
Emma Allen is a member of the editorial staff of the New Yorker.