How do you solve a problem like Ikea?

All I wanted was a cheap bed. What I got was a Kafkaesque nightmare

Published October 20, 2009 12:26AM (EDT)

Not long ago I moved to Toronto, and during a recent dinner with a friend and his wife, the subject of my sleeping arrangements came up. By "sleeping arrangements," I mean the air mattress on the floor of my new shoebox apartment.

"Go to Ikea," said my friend.

"Oh, Ikea," said his wife, clapping her hands. "You must. Must."

Evidently their guest-room bed, in which I'd once slept, was purchased there.

"So cheap," my friend's wife said.

"We paid almost nothing for it," my friend confirmed.

Further investigation revealed this bed, the Javnaker, was the cheapest mattress set Ikea sells. According to the company it was "suitable as a guest bed." I was unsure what to make of a product description that seemed to imply: We wouldn't make our dog sleep on this, but it's fine for wastoid freeloaders or your great aunt Peg.

Nonetheless, purchasing anything for almost nothing was appealing. Truthfully, as an unemployed former school bus driver, almost nothing was still a little rich for my blood.

But my air mattress leaked. Every night I would blow strenuously into a clear plastic nubbin to inflate the damn thing. Did my labored breaths travel through the walls? If so the neighbors may have started to picture me inflating a heroically durable love doll for her nightly romp.

As my cheeks ballooned up with stale plastic air, I'd think: You’re 34, Craig. This scene ... it's a problem.


I'd been to Ikea only once before, as a child with my family.

The blue-and-yellow monolith had risen out of a former farmer's field on the south side of Ottawa. A full-page ad appeared in the local rag.

"Eye-ka?" said my father.

"Eye-key-a," my mother corrected him. "That new home decor place. Swedish."

We attended the grand opening. Parka-clad Canadians were ushered into a mecca of austere Nordic designs. A vaulted warehouse with exposed girders running below a pleated-tin roof. Such an abundance of product under one roof was, to me, terribly daunting. I distinctly recall zither music.

My father bought a bookshelf. At home he unfolded the instructions. Find two studs, read No. 1, for which to anchor the mounts.

"Two studs, uh?" he said to me. "Well, we got the both of us."

His mood soon soured. My father had no idea how to locate a stud. He rapped the wall with his knuckles. He drilled an exploratory hole and hit nothing but drywall.

"Get the Poly Filla," he told me.

When I returned he appeared to be drilling willy-nilly, or at least according to his own bizarre logic. He looked not unlike a heat-addled prospector digging vainly for gold in the Nevada dunes.

"What's with these nutty Swedes?" he muttered.


The Ikea I go to is situated amid spaghetti loops of merging freeways and flyover ramps on the city's outskirts. Gaggles of consumers roam the loading area, smiling gaily, excited to get home and build their Flügelbokken end table or Karlstad armchair.

In olden days you chopped down a tree and built a table. Later you bought one pre-made. Ikea came up with a non-threatening fusion that appeals to our latent pioneer spirit: They'll sell you a table in pieces, with a bag of screws and an Allen wrench. Rummaging through an Ikea devotee's kitchen drawers will disclose a staggering collection of Allen wrenches, plus a handful of mismatched screws that you'll hear were "extras," except Ikea never gives you too many screws, or not enough; those Swedish masterminds give you exactly what you need.

The concept is known variously as RTA (Ready-to-Assemble), knock-down or flat-pack furniture. RTA furniture is cheap and assembly provides a sense of accomplishment. I’m certainly not the first observer to note that the finished products are frequently imperfect. Screw tips poking through particleboard are a common sight. A friend of mine went so far as to call himself "a fair carpenter" having assembled a Bjursta glass-door cabinet -- as absurd as someone who whips up a pan of Hamburger Helper decreeing himself a fair chef.

I should state that I don’t shop much. Mine is not some anti-consumer stance so much as the Spartan imperative of a man in a perpetual state of subsistence living. My home decor sense could be labeled "nouveau shanty." When I moved from Calgary to Toronto, I tried to rent my house as "partially furnished." The rental agent said, "There’s not enough here to justify that."

So while I acknowledge the genius of Ikea -- the ability to inexpensively outfit an entire house, from sofa to spork, with pieces that are tasteful, functional and sublimely modern -- Ikea can be an intense experience for any reluctant, first-time shopper. Well, at any rate, Ikea is an intense experience for me.

My odyssey gets off to a rocky start. I grab a shopping cart outside. My error becomes evident as I push the cart past the checkouts, all of which are blocked with customers or barred by metal gates.

I find myself back in the parking lot, bemused and vaguely stricken. Abandoning the cart, I reenter warily. An escalator ascends to the Showroom.

Any consumer-centric conglomerate relies on a complex web of advertisements, brand positioning, target demographics and in-store flow developed by a consortium of think tanks, psychologists, trend spotters and ad firms. Step into a McDonald's, and you are subject to calculated conceptual methodologies that ping on a near-subliminal level, inspiring comfort and familiarity with a simple goal: to convince you to spend more.

While any marginally aware consumer recognizes a degree of manipulation, never have I seen it expressed so blatantly as I did at Ikea. Don't even try not to buy. In fact, we suggest you just go limp.

A blue-tiled path wends through the departments. If you're at a supermarket in search of milk, you beeline for the dairy section. At Ikea you must pass through every section. I want a bed. Ikea seems intent on my considering a Bikkelnook modular armoire or an Ektorp Jennylund armchair. Signs let you know where you are on the path.

Does Ikea think customers are so dim? Maybe they had to send search parties for shoppers who wandered off the path. Weeks later they would be found in the bedroom section, scruffy-bearded and half-feral, huddled under an Edlund canopy bed burning Alvine Vacker duvets for warmth.

A portrait hangs beside a model bedroom. The man in the photo is identified as Lars Engman, Ikea’s design director. He wears a beige turtleneck and a supercilious smile. You'd think he's staring over ice-clad fjords in smug contemplation of the wildly profitable shell game he's playing with gullible shoppers.

Would you believe people buy this wacky stuff? I picture him saying. It's so weird! (Except Lars says it in a Scandinavian accent: Vould joo believe people buy zis vacky schtuff? It's zo veird!)

Not only are you constricted to the path, there are arrows to make sure you go the right way: forward. No arrows point backward. There is something mildly threatening about this. Why can’t I go backward?

Alvays forvard, not backvard. Nevah back!

An authoritarian tone creeps into Lars’ voice. Frankly, he sounds dictatorial.

If joo valk backvards vee vill haff no choice but to unleash evil vood sprites who liff in Schvedish forest, unt zey vill eat your belly guts! Ah! Ah!

The product names are all dimly annoying. Bagvik faucets. Domsjo cutting boards. Dragör rugs. Vag pillows. Lord, the umlauts!

A pair of oblivious consumers block their fellow path walkers.

"Grönö?" says one, a young gal.

"Grönö?" says the gal's male shopping partner.

They're pronouncing the name of a $9.99 table lamp.

"Grönö," says the gal in a pipsqueak voice.

"Grönö," says the guy in a growly-bear voice.

"Grönö," says the gal in a birdlike trill, and laughs and laughs.

"Gro! No!" says the guy, barking it like a dog.

The gal wears two-tone striped socks like those favored by the Wicked Witch of the West. The guy's wearing a porkpie hat. What is this, an indoor street performance? Do they really think they're charming? Their necks piston up and down; their chins bob. They look like chickens pecking in the dirt.

I abandon the path and cut through a modular workspace display. I trip on a Kolon floor protector and get spat out in the bedroom department.

I locate the cheapest bed frame, the Rebbenes. Next I do the "mattress shopping" dance: bouncing on the display beds, lying on the most expensive one before settling on the foregone conclusion -- the Jaren spring mattress. It's like lying on an old Chesterfield stripped of its cushions. What do you expect for $79.99? Coupled with the $99.99 Rebbenes, the combo is 20 bucks cheaper than my friends' Javnaker.

A sign says: See a co-worker to fill your order. Co-worker? Oh, I get it: Since I'll end up Allen-wrenching my bed together, technically I'm a worker, too.

My co-worker is a young gent with tight-coiled brown hair.

"Hello, co-worker," I say.

"Hello to you, co-worker," he says jovially.

"I'd like the Rebbenes frame and Jaren mattress."

His curt nod says this is the consensus choice of recent parolees and hobos putting on airs.

"Do you get them for me?" I ask.

His face hardens. "You get them yourself, sir." His tone suggests that he could help, but that would deprive me of the Ikea experience -- capital F-U-N. "Did you choose a box spring or slats?"

I say, "Slats?"

"You need a box spring or slats. Otherwise the mattress has nothing to rest on."

"How much are they?"

"The cheapest run 40 bucks. You probably want those. What are your aisle and bin numbers?"

"I’m not sure."

He sighs. I see evidence of a deep world-weariness shading to full-blown soul-sickness at having to deal, shift after shift, with clods of my ilk. Seeing as there are computer kiosks to help customers with the ordering procedure -- which I willfully ignore -- his frustration is not without merit. Then again, perhaps he believes this job is beneath him and his intention is to quit once that screenplay about Jack Kerouac battling vampires on board the doomed RMS Lusitania sells.

"How it works, sir" -- he manages to make "sir" sound like "you dumb sonofabitch" -- "is you take your numbers to the warehouse."

"Will somebody help me?"

My co-worker laughs, false and patronizing as if I'm so willfully dimwitted I'd miss out on the F-U-N without his sympathetic attention.

"Follow the path," he says.

Fine. (Smarmy turd.)

The path dithers, loops back, hits the warehouse. A Boliden chair sells for $90. Upon consultation I discover the frame costs $90; the cover's extra. Imagine a dealership advertising a car for a thrillingly low price, but when you show up the salesman goes: "That's the frame. Wheels, engine -- well, that’ll cost you."

I spot Lars, now looming above the Gullholmen: a rocking chair shaped like a soup ladle. Masochism compels me to experience it. There's no real back and no armrests; I sit, arms a-dangle and legs splayed. It's worse than simply uncomfortable: the chair positions your body such as to immediately wipe away a good 80 IQ points. I look like I ought to be plucking a banjo on the porch of a tarpaper shack.

Look! cries Lars. Vee tell people to buy a giant soupen schpoon zat vill varp their schpines unt make zem look schtupid -- unt zey do! Ah! Ah!

That’s it. I’m not buying a damn thing.

I make for the exit, only there's a problem: It's nowhere in sight. Only the endless path. I can’t even see an emergency exit. The casino concept: Get customers lost in a cavernous labyrinth, assault them with stimuli, no windows, no clocks, pump pure oxygen through the vents and let everyone make bad decisions.

Joo vill buy. Ohhh, joo VILL.

I wander through the decoration section. Seems I’m the only one suffering existential malaise. Everybody else is happy as mudlarks.

Buy somesink, vhy not? Lars cajoles. Joo vill feel vonderful.

I just may. As a token of an arduous journey if nothing else, same way you’d put a pebble in your pocket on the summit of K2. I dismiss the Schtuffelduddle wine carafe. The Glimma tea candles likely require a Lightenhummel butane lighter. The Torka decorative ball set catches my eye before the realization dawns I’ll be paying $4.99 for some balled-up banana leaves in a hairnet. Florera decorative sand runs $1.99.

I spy a little mesh sack of rocks. Ston. And a damned fair price, I’d say.

It hits me like a hammer to the face. They're rocks. As a child I had a friend who'd display rocks he'd collected on an overturned milk crate in his driveway. Charitable neighbors bought them for a dime or quarter. When a kid sells rocks it is sweet and cute and shows a degree of innocent gumption. When a multinational corporation does the same, it is vile banditry.

At this point a good-natured co-worker approaches.

“Can I help with anything?”

"Well, co-worker," I say, having reached my snapping point, "I'm in the market for an Allen wrench. I have it on good authority this is the place to find one."

"An Allen wrench?"

"That’s right. One Allen wrench."

"To assemble our products?"

I raised an eyebrow archly. "Possibly."

"I could probably give you an allen wrench ..."

"Nonsense! I'll hear nothing of it. I'll pay, as any man does."

I march past my flummoxed co-worker in highly disgruntled fashion.

The checkouts come into view. Sweet, intoxicating freedom! So relieved am I to get the hell out of this Kafkaesque nightmare that I nearly bowl over a father-and-son tandem at the checkout. A big cardboard box gets knocked off their cart.

"Dad," the kid says, alarmed. "That's my Hensvik!"

I exit into the clean pure sunlight, barrel into my friend’s borrowed SUV and floor it at 70 mph down a clear stretch of asphalt with the windows wide open, moving so fast that the tears in the corners of my eyes are vaporized before they touch my ears.

I stop at a discount mattress emporium and overpay for a remaindered mattress. It gets delivered in the back of a pickup truck by a bearded guy with a tattoo across his knuckles: "Ronin," it says, Japanese for "wandering warrior."

"Anything you need," he says cryptically, "I’ll be around."

The bed frame comes unassembled, with a bag of screws and not one but two Allen wrenches. The instruction sheet is in Farsi; the illustrations, blurry. An hour later I have a wonky frame, a handful of spare screws and a mild case of Allen wrench wrist. The mattress stinks faintly of electrical smoke. Had it been salvaged from a warehouse fire? As I sit on my lopsided bed, I contemplate whether my victory over Ikea had really been that.

Joo get vhat joo pay for ... chump. 

By Craig Davidson

Craig Davidson was unable to turn his stint as an Ikea co-worker into a full-time gig and as such remains resolutely unemployed. He admits to fabricating the names of some Ikea products, but he bets you can't tell which ones.

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