Learning from IKEA: Flatness Unpacked

Pil & Galia Kollectiv


As one drives north on Meridian Way toward Ikea Edmonton, the Lea Valley marshes give way to a stretch of road that twists around self storage facilities, retail warehouses, small industrial units and plumbing supplies wholesalers. Suddenly, the horizon broadens and gives birth to a boxy blue silhouette that presents itself against the grey sky as an insurmountable barrier: sparsely branded, wide and flat, the Ikea shop stands like a Kaaba in the dessert of consumerism.


In the 1970s, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour and Robert Venturi noticed the inverse relationship between the signs that adorned the gas stations, supermarkets and casinos of Las Vegas and their actual architectural structures. While the signs were huge, decorated boards with elaborate colourful neon logos, the gas station or supermarket occupied a humble one-story shed, the vertical flatness of the sign overwhelming the horizontal flatness of the building. Rather than viewing this architectural form as a thoughtless aesthetic language that crushes any notion of functionality, they concluded that it was in fact a judicioius expression of the function of the buildings, the result of car travel at high speed through the Las Vegas strip where retinal experience is reduced to quick passing impressions.


But Ikea Edmonton differs from the Las Vegas casino. Here the building itself serves as a visual reference point in the landscape: hardly any signs, logos or other typographical elements are visible against the immense blue totality of the simple structure, advertizing itself without words. Scott Brown, Izenour and Venturi contrast the casinos and gas stations with the stern high-modernist building where any form of semiotic intervention (signs, logos, pictorial decoration, maps etc.) is treated as travesty. So how to read the Ikea building in Edmonton? On the one hand, it is clearly designed, like the strip casino, around the experience of motorists, overlooking the approaching road like an army check-post. The experience of the pedestrian, walking from the nearby Angel Road station, is significantly different: crossing overpasses and rail tracks and taking narrow lanes by the side of the complex road system that flows into the north circular, the pedestrian feels like a thief who sneaks unnoticed through an unlocked back door. On the other hand, the building, like the modernist concrete cube, makes barely any attempt to decorate or advertise itself with signs or images. It speaks the language of modernist efficiency, an unexpected brand of ‘form is function’. The yellow letters that declare the brand name near the front of the building resemble Mondrian-like blocks of colour in their own right more than a billboard. They are there only to contrast with the blue, to remind you without the semiotic noise of, say, an orange mobile shop, that these are the Ikea colours, or the Swedish flag, or both.


This duality is the first clue to understanding the significance of Ikea and its success in our time. Ikea does more than dialectically bridge the gap between the trashy out-of-town shopping mall and the respectable and tasteful modernist building. This is not just a safe middle ground between Poundland and John Lewis. The Swedish chain operates in a deeper way: it reduces modernism and its institutions (architecture, labour, class, nation, bureaucracy) into a flat image, a simulation, and sells it back as a commodity.


When Donald Judd offered his correction to the concept of formalism in his 1965 essay “Specific Objects”, he argued that Clement Greenberg could not see the logical extent of his own argument. Modern painting, as Greenberg claimed, reveals the fact that the image painted on the canvas is not a ‘window to another world’. Rather, a painting is nothing more than pigment on a flat surface. But, in doing so, Judd concluded, it also invited a further formalist reduction: painting must be seen as an object with real physicality, standing in a real location. The painting is not just abstract flatness but a rectangular shape of specific dimensions, with a certain depth pushed against a supporting wall. Moreover, the paint itself has depth. Judd’s ‘specific objects’ continued the democratic drive of modern art. As Michael Fried later argued, to read the works of the minimalists necessitates an interaction between the object and the visitor. Since these are real objects in real rooms and not autonomous parcels of meaning trapped in flatness, the movement of the visitor through an exhibition of Robert Morris sculptures engages with these objects not as only as carriers of meaning but as a concrete physicality. Only the presence and experience of the visitor, not the artist’s intentions or skill, render the work meaningful. Ikea operates in a similar way in relation to the consumer experience, carefully mediating the relationship between the flatness of the flat packed cardboard with which one leaves the shop, the three dimensional object that it encodes and promises to resurrect and the virtual, time-based experience of the shop and the lifestyle it encapsulates.


Looking at documentation of the very first exhibitions at the Venice Biennial, it is hard not to notice that most of the sculptural works are placed on small plinths pushed against the corners of the rooms. The walls are clad in paintings, while benches, plants and other decorative furniture occupy the center of the gallery. The sculptures are more like embarrassed reliefs that have fallen off the walls in little drops of marble. A hundred years later, these roles are inverted: sculpture, since minimalism, occupies floor space and must be viewed, relationally, by circling around the object as if to measure its positioning in the room from all sides. It is painting that is now uncertain about its staging in contemporary exhibitions. Just like a Tony Smith cube from the 1960s, Ikea Edmonton gently forces the driver to circle it, to experience its identical blue walls from all directions, before entering the parking area underneath the building. Unlike the Vegas palaces, Ikea’s geometric simplicity doesn’t scream “Entrance” or “Exit” and there are no neon arrows to point at the correct entry point. When one finally recognized the way in and enters the immense warehouse, this minimalist relationality is maintained throughout the entire shopping experience.


Supermarkets, for example, are designed around a rationalized and open field of vision where commodities are offered as immediately and plainly as possible. The presentation of goods in a large Sainsbury or Tesco makes for a very flat shopping experience: objects are positioned, like the sculptures in Venice in 1907, without any spatiality, more like images organized on a long horizontal plain and supported by the shelving system behind them. But Ikea, again, is different. The entire shopping experience is designed around a playful activation of the commodities: going in and out of spaces built from furniture and items on offer at the shop, viewing the objects themselves from various angles and occasionally in various locations. This is the same inclusionary drive that is inherent to the art of the minimalists: Ikea liberates the consumers from the remote flatness of images.


Supermarkets are closer to the Situationist idea of the spectacle where vision is promoted in favour of other senses and the activities of the body (shopping as a form of looking at the goods on the shelves rather than holding them, being inside them, trying them on etc.). Ikea, on the other hand, is built around a spectacular experience of work. Not exactly a form of ‘leisure’, work’s double, the Ikea experience operates as a strangely laborious and factory-like encounter with consumer culture. In Ikea, one enters, activates, collects, evaluates, measures and walks around with a little pencil like a structural engineer of consumer life. Even the cheap food is served at the canteen factory-style - the workers queuing up with trays in hand, for a carefully counted portion of meatballs. In Ikea, the consumer’s capacity to produce is not suspended as in the supermarket. One does not purchase an image of a promise of a better life, but an actual presence in a ‘real’ room.


This experience of consumerism as work is enhanced by Ikea’s pseudo-DiY ethos. Superficially, IKEA would seem to conform to a Taylorist aesthetic of replication and assembly line production. Yet, like Lego and Tetrapak (and originating from the same geographical region), the IKEA model is far more sophisticated. The Fordist production of building blocks takes place in factories, away from the retail outlets. But the assembly of these modular ‘solutions’ is crucially left to the consumer. This is of course a cost-saving exercise, proudly advertised by the Swedish brand. But The construction of a flat pack wardrobe, following a badly illustrated schematic diagram and using little wooden pegs and a little Allen key supplied by the company, is also a surprisingly enjoyable activity. For those of us whose lives are mostly lived in front of computer screens, this simulation of work is as close as we’ll ever get to manual labour. The pleasure experienced by the simulated Ikea carpenter on a Sunday afternoon comes from the same urge that produces the call to return to ‘British manufacturing’ in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007. A wave of nostalgia to something that was never in itself good or desirable, as though yearning for the simple, rough and dirty exploitation of Fordism when it was only our bodies and not our whole personalities that were used to extract surplus value from labour. This is the true genius of Ikea: more than chairs and lamps, they sell nostalgia for a Fordist world, its struggles, promises and values. Now that even the compromised and inauthentic democracy of the post war era is a thing of the past, it can only be related to through the mediating influence of consumerism.


A further dialectical irony completes the experience. Just as the minimalist sculptures rely more rather then less on the institutional support of the gallery that separates them from all the other ‘real’ blocks of concrete piled up at construction sites, so Ikea’s real experience offers a hallucinatory simulation. Walking from room to room in the second floor showroom, observing arrangement after arrangement of sofas and coffee tables and kitchen units, feels unreal. Multiple little worlds emerge from the laminated floor in quick succession, each as lifeless as a sitcom set. And yet at the same time, the exact same design is being recreated in a million different places around the globe, copied detail by detail down to the last wooden spoon from showrooms and catalogues. The simulated room becomes the authentic template for ‘real’ rooms beyond the Ikea shop. This is why the Ikea showroom must be remote and cannot exist on the high street. It needs to be protected from the real world by the safe distance of industrial zones and ring roads. Like the secluded negative archive of Getty images in an underground bunker, the off site Ikea store protects the secret of the original, the source of infinite duplication.


The dismantling and flat packing of the modernist ideal is completed in the canteen. While the design of the factory and the repetitive activity of manual labour become a consumable experience in Ikea, the same is done to the other great pillar of the modern project of capitalism – the nation state. In the restaurant, one can get a selection of Swedish inspired foods and drinks, all cheaply produced in industrial quantities. Miniature flags of the blue and yellow flag mounted on cocktail sticks sit on top of little marzipan cakes, vestiges of a national culinary tradition filtered through the industrial products of a post-national corporation. The nation state proves as consumable to a global audience as the factory experience. Through the double glazed windows of this post-Fordist utopia, smoke stacks can still be observed, like monuments to our collective western past. But the solid, structured life that they represent hovers like a mirage, mocked by the flexible, modular solutions for living presented within.


The Future is Now (extract), 2009 by Pil & Galia Kollectiv was shown as part of the Global Self screening for the ‘Flatness: Cinema after the Internet’ thematic programme at Oberhausen Short Film Festival 2013. Watch