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Rite to Assemble

Screw the furniture -- it's all about the mystique.
Mark Poutenis

It's getting near closing time at Tempe's IKEA, and Kelli Quinn is inching farther away from the front entrance. Like some lonely patron in a smoky bar during last call, she's hesitant to leave. But instead of horny drunks, Quinn is surrounded by screwed-together chairs and heat-veneered tables and polystyrene desk lamps, each of which -- like old drinking buddies -- she knows by name.

"My husband and I aren't getting along so great these days," she admits, fingering a set of shiny aluminum coasters named Groggy. "And my son is at that age where he's never at home and he doesn't want me around when he is." Quinn, a nursing assistant, can't afford to go to the movies every night, and she's not much for hanging out at museums or the library. "But I can come here," the 41-year-old exclaims, waving her arm at the make-believe room settings of IKEA's vast showspace, "and dream. It's better than going home."

For some people, IKEA is home. Its friends and fans swear that the 62-year-old furniture and housewares emporium is more than just a place to buy cheap poly-cotton sheets and build-it-yourself tables with goofy names. IKEA, these furniture-store groupies will tell you, is an experience -- one that locals have returned to repeatedly since the company unbolted the doors to its Tempe store one year ago this week. Some, like Quinn, come to dream of a house bursting at the seams with faux Scandinavian fiberboard furniture. Others come for the Manager's Special, a plateful of 15 Swedish meatballs with a side of lingonberry sauce, the eating of which is among the IKEA-only experiences that brought hundreds of camped-out crazies to sleep in its parking lot and cause a mile-long traffic jam on IKEA Way -- the street formerly known as Emerald Drive before this 23-acre home furnishings monolith landed there -- one morning last November.

But even IKEA's biggest boosters admit that, when they finally do go home to their pop-together sofas and fiber-filled ottomans, they're often as not falling apart. A Google search for "I Hate IKEA" turns up a list of angry consumers with no place to sit. And then there are those meatballs, served in the Tempe IKEA cafe that's been bombarded with health-code violations these past several months.

"There are times," Quinn admits, "when I sort of stop and think, 'Kelli, what are you doing here every night? Why are you eating the meatballs? It's a furniture store!'" The answer to Quinn's question, according to one former IKEA employee, is a gentle conspiracy designed to make furniture zombies of us all. "The more European it looks and the cheaper it is, the more Americans want it," says Mark Hough (he asked that his real name not be used, because he's looking for work), who until recently worked for IKEA in Iceland for more than a year. Hough says that fanatical devotion to IKEA is an American thing; that in most countries, IKEA is just another place to buy a chair. "In Sweden, they're just meatballs!" Hough harrumphs.

But in America, and especially in a college town like Tempe, IKEA is gourmet cuisine and fancy imported furniture at a discount. (See "Check, Please" for more on the cuisine.) Young people on a budget like IKEA's prices and its simple, some-assembly-required furnishings. And control freaks love its carefully crafted "how to shop here" videos, which yammer from video monitors every few feet, and its floor-printed, "follow the yellow brick road" pathways that lead shoppers past all 10,000 items in the store's 342,000 square feet. There's the Long Natural Way, the path that IKEA Tempe interior decorator Staci Byers prefers that first-time visitors use because, she says, "it maximizes their exposure to our products, which means more money for us." For IKEA greenhorns, there's the quicker Short Possible Path, which allows shortcuts through IKEA's three model homes but whose melancholy title suggests lost opportunity and a lack of shopping commitment.

Does IKEA employ subtle, hypnotic display techniques in its 203 worldwide locations that compel shoppers to buy more plastic table lamps and faux crystal stemware than they actually need? These are secrets that Byers can only hint at.

"It's all in how our things are displayed," says Byers, who's been with the company for 11 years and who's responsible for every one of the 59 faked-up rooms -- known as "inspiration areas" in IKEA parlance -- on the Tempe store's top floor. "We use a lot of repetition, and we stack items all the way into the sky." Quantity and repetition, Byers swears, make people want to buy. "I'm not sure I can tell you why," she hedges. "But it's what I've been told, and I can definitely tell you that it works."  

Part of IKEA's magic, Quinn says, is the attractively oddball names the company gives to its products. "I bought a laundry bag at Target," she says, waving a three-pound IKEA catalogue in the air. "It was called 'laundry bag.' But when I bought the stuff for my living room, I got a Jokkmokk table, a Krabb mirror, and my side chairs are named Herman and Jeff."

It's true. At Levitz, a mattress is a mattress. At IKEA, it's the Sultan Hogbo. There's the Jerker (a desk); the Luftig Hoo (an oven hood); and the Flarke, a "TV bench" that Quinn bought and uses as a coffee table "because it's too pretty to put a television on."

"The names are Swedish," Byers says tersely, "and I can't tell you what they mean. But if you take, like, the Grundtal wall shelf, I'm sure grundtal means a shelf of some sort in Swedish." What, then, is IKEA's infamous Fartfull bench named for? "I'm sure I don't know," Byers says after a long pause.

Underneath the glossy finishes and fruity names, Hough says, "Most IKEA furniture is particle board. It's what IKEA employees call 'one-move furniture.'"

Hough worked in IKEA's receiving department, where he says every other pallet received contained busted-up merchandise. "But we had to sell the broken stuff, too, because the company is a total bunch of penny pinchers. We'd have to stick it in the 'As Is' section. But what is someone going to do with a three-legged chair? You might as well go to a garage sale."

Months after leaving the company's employ, Hough is still groaning about IKEA's notoriously screwy assembly instructions. "They're all written by people who don't speak English," he says, "and they're way too detailed. It's not 'Insert Tab A into Slot B.' It's pages and pages of too much information. You might as well be putting together a car."

Karen Cilwa recently bought a loft bed from IKEA Tempe for her 7-year-old nephew. "I got the thing almost entirely put together, despite the fact that there were no directions in the box and they had to fax them to me from IKEA headquarters. Then I discovered that a whole package of screws was missing." Rather than drive back to Tempe from her home in Peoria, Cilwa finally gave up. "I just got out my hammer and sort of forced the thing together."

Abigail Beshkin, a National Public Radio producer who recently moved from Phoenix to Boston, swears there's no such thing as IKEA furniture that isn't screwed up. "I had an armoire that was like all my other furniture from there: totally jury-rigged," she says. "It was propped up in a corner of my bedroom, and if you breathed anywhere near it, it would topple over. Later I got an IKEA dresser where you could only pull one drawer open at a time, but then you couldn't close it."

Beshkin's IKEA dresser at least provided entertainment in its second life as a skateboard ramp. "Two minutes after we dropped the thing in the Dumpster, the neighbor kids had ripped it apart and were using it to pop wheelies off of. Which is probably the best use for IKEA furniture, now that I think about it."

Even IKEA-lover Quinn can muster up an IKEA complaint. "I thought it was kind of funny when we bought the TV bench and they said they don't deliver. But IKEA has these cute twine dispensers right out in front, so we tied it to the top of our car and then we noticed that there's a little stand out there where you can rent a U-Haul. Now, why didn't they tell us that?"


Karen Kolbe, on the other hand, loves IKEA. She has several of the five-dollar lamps in her million-dollar custom home in Paradise Valley, and disagrees that IKEA is just for college students or people with no money. For Kolbe, IKEA is a vast Swedish ocean of possibility that, if fished carefully, can net some superior designs.

"I defy you to find a better salad bowl," she exclaims, holding up a shiny Kvarnby as big as her head during a recent trip to IKEA. "And look at these," she says, pointing to a thousand pieces of stemware stacked to the heavens. "I promise you, college kids are not buying champagne flutes."

In fact, people of all ages and income levels flock to IKEA Tempe for "a sense of Swedishness" -- or so says store manager Lars Meyer, who's been with the company for 22 years. "People come for the things they cannot find in this country. Our Emmabo rocking chair is like no other, and it's only $20. People of all ages know this. And you know, of course, we have our meatballs. The meatball has become an icon for IKEA. We have the best meatballs money can buy."  

Hough thinks otherwise. "The meatballs are disgusting," he says. "When I worked there, I ate them pretty much all the time. Now I can't stand to even think about them. I mean, who dips their meatballs in jelly, anyway?"

Kelli Quinn, for one. But Quinn doesn't care so much about lingonberry sauce; she comes to IKEA to dream. "If my husband and I get divorced," she says, raising her voice over a PA announcement that the store is now closed, "I'm going to do my whole house in IKEA. But I'll still come here sometimes, just to visit. Just to be at IKEA, and to soak it all in."

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