Rite to Assemble

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."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela