An Ikea State of Mind

From teenage runaway...
Our first apartment in LA, when she was a runaway…
Valley housewife
…and as a Valley housewife

The first thing we did when we moved to LA was go to Ikea. We bought plates and bowls, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember, but it was notable for being the first time we had spent over $300 on domestic arrangements. An astronomical sum for us, and a stealth commitment to marriage.

Our kitchen may be larger now, but I see commonalities with the past:  Ongoing clutter. An obsession with condiments and spices. Animals underfoot.

It was easy to go to Ikea then. We had little money to spend, so there was little to argue over.  Our spending was aspirational, and therefore abundant:  when we have X, in the mid-future, we will be able to purchase Y. Or we can get Z.  I love Z!  Z would do nicely in the house, when we are able to buy one. Meanwhile we’ll avail ourselves of some $5 candlesticks.

Ikea was a benevolent doting grandmother steering young couples toward the altar.  Then it became a shrewish spinster aunt lurking in the attic, scheming to deny happiness to others.

Buying a house simplified matters. It made us too poor to shop to Ikea, or anywhere else. For the first decade, anyway. Now that we can return to Ikea and almost –almost- entertain the possibilities of the catalogue, we march alongside each other in silence, and leave cheerlessly with a bathmat, some glass jars and a stool.  She annoyed with my annoyance we still, at this late date, dine off mismatched countertops. I annoyed she can’t see how much better the food would taste if the backsplash tiles complemented the room.  Behold the peevish first world troubles of Mr. UpintheValley!

So….yesterday we toured the Brewery Art Walk, its labyrinth of studios and zoo-like glimpses into the domestic arrangements of the artists, who welcomed the curious hordes into their lofts with the cheery announcement that “everything was for sale”.

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Like a vulture, I found myself drawn to the kitchens, more than the work itself.  Simplicity reigned, but Ikea lurked in miniature: dish racks, silverware holders, cutting boards.

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This one looked like a set for a stage play. A period piece of long suppressed family secrets. The artist dined at her own table as though hundreds of strangers weren’t mere feet away, auditing her life and its works, which was in itself as much a work of performance art as anything on the walls.

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Small sinks, formica countertops, vintage stoves, linoleum tiles. Cool, yet impermanent.

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“You gotta see this,” said Andrew, leading me into a portrait studio of Swedish landscapes.  I was surrounded by iterations of a Don Draper-like man lounging in Ikea showrooms, meticulously recreated from photographs.

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The man was by turns contemplative, and possibly fearful of leaving the world in which he found himself.  To leave Ikea, said the artist, Rikki Niehaus, one enters a fallen world. A dystopia of ruin.

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I was looking at a version of myself on the wall, one with his loves not rightly ordered.  He stared back at me over my wife’s shoulder, implacable, imprisoned by caution.

Here I am, she said. There, you are not.

Swedish for Argument

In the labyrinth of decisions
In the labyrinth of decisions

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When first you arrive at the new Ikea, the escalator deposits you into the food court. Like a marooned astronaut on a foreign planet, you take your tray and step directly into a line for swedish meatballs.

Being herded in this way is oddly comforting. Though neither of you want to admit it, you know what’s coming.  Might as well do it on a contented stomach.

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Ikea knows what’s coming, too. Decades of careful study of consumer behavior has shown a well gravy-ed belly is a prophylactic against impulsive argumentation. To that end, they stack chocolate bars for you by the register.  Only 99 cents! Do you feel line having chocolate right now?  Not particularly.  Reason not the need.  At these prices, it would be unsportsmanlike to say no.   There is Mirkwood to cross and the Misty Mountains beyond. You’re fortfifying yourselves. So, lets get another, while we’re at it.  And a third one for the road.

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Into the living dioramas of the showrooms we went…to an Other Life, prettier, more well-ordered than one’s own.

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You stagger through them in wonder. Wonder begets desire. Desire begets recrimination.   You stand upon shores of beckoning kingdoms, a rebuke to the squalor of your own circumstances.

Here, you are not.  This, you have not. You are wanting.

Purchasing the tableau entire is never possible. So the question becomes what half Ikea, quarter Ikea, one tenth of an Ikea tableau could you go home with and not disagree with yourself?

Buying it all is easy. Picking the right three items to agree on is where the trouble starts.

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Kitchens were a particular hazard.

You know of one marriage that nearly came to an end with a screaming match at the Emeryville Ikea, with the wife announcing she was going back to China and taking the kids, while the Kitchen Dept. assistant averted her gaze, doodled nervously on her notepad, as though that sort of thing didn’t happen once a week.  The following day you were deputized to return to the scene of the crime and pick up their order for them as they were too ashamed to show their faces.

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As is her nature, Mrs. U  touched everything, opening drawers and sniffing candles as though trying on pairs of shoes.

“Our kitchen is too small,” you announce, breaking the spell.

“These kitchens don’t have walls, making them seem larger than they are. There’s nothing wrong with the size of our kitchen. It’s more than adequate.”

Adequate was the worse possible descriptor she could have chosen in that moment.

She did it on purpose, you decide. The afternoon takes a turn, and you both know it.

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She begins marching ahead of you.   With purpose.

TO BE CONTINUED….