Pass the Holy Meatballs
The religious experience of IKEA.
By Mary Beth Crain
Last weekend my sister-in-law and I left our little town of Hart, Mich., to make what most people would refer to as a getaway, and what IKEA fans refer to as a pilgrimage.
For those of you unfamiliar with IKEA, it is, on the surface, a home furnishings store, found only in Big Cities like Detroit, Chicago, and, of course, Los Angeles, where I used to live. There, I had the luxury of choosing among three or four IKEA’s, each located approximately half an hour from my house. But beneath the surface, IKEA is much more. It’s an adventure, a journey abroad, a land unto itself, a place where you and your dreams meet at last. To those of us with visions of everything from stunningly remodeled kitchens to Swedish meatballs, IKEA is holy ground. When you see those beautiful blue and gold flags waving gaily to you, announcing that you are about to enter the IKEA parking lot, you almost want to jump out of your car and get down on your knees, in prayerful gratitude. When it comes to consumer fundamentalism, IKEA is Mecca, Jerusalem, the Crystal Cathedral, St. Patrick’s, and the Buddha’s Enlightenment Tree, all rolled into one.
There’s this big misconception out there that evangelicals have taken over America’s religious market. Hogwash. The overwhelming majority of Americans belong to the High Church of the Consumer. Why, I’ll bet if you held their feet to the fire, they’d admit that Jesus comes in second to the Discount Deity. If we approached going to church as fervently as we do going shopping, what a God-fearing society we would really be. And if we approached the study of our various faiths with as discerning an eye as we do the study of bargain hunting, religion in America might actually acquire a—gasp—intelligent foundation. In a recent article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Anthony B. Robinson reflected upon the government’s stimulus package and its underlying message: being good citizens means being good consumers.
“Is it too much to suggest that consumerism has become a kind of alternative faith, a religion of sorts? Religions are characterized by some vision of a good life, by their rituals and by a particular language. Consumerism seems to be developing all three apace.”
Deb and I drove some 200 miles to the IKEA in Detroit. When we saw the flags, I screamed, “We’re here! We’re here! That’s the signpost up ahead—The IKEA ZONE!”
Indeed, IKEA is a little Twilight Zone-ish. It’s a monstrous building, part warehouse, part Disneyland, with two gigantic floors—the ones in L.A. have three—that resemble endless shopping bazaars. You follow the arrows on the floor—if you don’t you’ll be lost in IKEA forever—like you’re following the Yellow Brick Road and they lead you to oases of enchantment. Fully furnished living rooms, and dining rooms, and kitchens, and children’s rooms and offices, all bursting with enough Swedish Modern to make you think you’ve suddenly landed in a Bergman film. That’s the funny thing about Swedish Modern—it hasn’t changed in 50 years and it still looks futuristic. Then there’s the housewares department, and the bed and bath department, and the storage unit department and the garden center and the God-knows-what-else departments, filled with stuff you never knew you couldn’t live without until you laid eyes on it. Like that snazzy stainless steel toilet paper stand that not only holds your current roll of TP but three more on a vertical bar. Or that rainbow colored pendant lamp that looks like a giant cauliflower. Or that insane red Valentine’s Day heart-shaped cushion with pudgy fabric hands wrapped around it. Or those wild conical glass vases that look like something out of Forbidden Planet.
The names of the merchandisers are great, too. Forhoja, Udden, Hopen, Flytta, Kvart, Utby, Leksvik, Noresund, Tostarp…Just like the credits in a Bergman film! You even get to learn a little Swedish—“Fika,” for instance, means “coffee break,” and that brings us to one of the reasons so many have converted to the IKEA faith—the restaurant. Nobody ever goes to IKEA without having lunch there. That’s where you get 15 Swedish meatballs and boiled new potatoes smothered in gravy with a side of lingonberry sauce for—are ya ready—$4.99! Think of it as the communion part of the consumer worship service.
IKEA was founded back in the 1940s by Swedish business genius Ingvar Kamprad, who, their website tells us, was something of an entrepreneurial child prodigy. “In 1931, at the age of five, Ingvar starts selling matches to his nearby neighbors in the small village of Agunnaryd, and by the time he is seven he starts selling further afield, using his bicycle. He finds that he can buy matches in bulk cheaply in Stockholm and re-sell them individually at a very low price but still mode a good profit.” It wasn’t a far cry from Little Match Boy to global furniture mogul; Kamprad grew IKEA on the bulk product/low price theory, and that’s what draws people in droves. The prices! IKEA Madness, it’s called. I got tons of kitchen items for under $2 each. I got beautiful storage baskets for $5.99 each. I got a fab painted glass work table for $119 and a thousand dinner napkins for, oh, $5. I snatched up a milk frother that I’d seen in a high-end kitchen store at $14.99 for $1.99. I saved so much money that I even splurged on a plush red satin pet bed for my ancient old cat, Rhonda, and a sheepskin toy for my two-year-old kitty, Junior Augustus.
But let me warn you: you’d better be in shape for an IKEA run. We went two days in a row—it’s impossible to see everything in one day—and probably walked a total of ten miles. Well, it felt like ten miles, anyway. That’s when the model bedrooms and living rooms come in really handy. IKEA Recovery Rooms, I call them. I took off my boots and plopped down on a comfy Karlstad sofa for at least half an hour, and there were plenty of other IKEA-ites stretched out on beds and sprawled out in chairs. The great thing is, staff is streamlined to a minimum (“One of the ways we save you money,” signs inform you) and heck, you could pretty much live there and nobody would give a hoot. In fact, I think I thw something on CNN a couple of months back about this guy who decided to move in to IKEA while his house was being remodeled. When the store personnel found out about it, they told him to go right ahead, figuring it was priceless publicity. The bold marketing spirit of old Ingvar Kamprad lives on!
On the way out of IKEA, I got two packages of Swedish meatball gravy, a bag of cinnamon buns, two boxes of hazelnut chocolate filled cookies, and, of course, a jar of lingonberry jam. It was tough to say goodbye, but as they say in Schveden, “Valkommen atar” (“Come back soon!”). You bet I will. Such is the power of faith!
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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain's last essay was Becky Garrison's Immodest Proposal.
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