Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad died on January 27 at the age of 91, leaving behind not just the 75-year-old Swedish company but a legacy that could, perhaps, be best understood through its resonances in pop culture.
The world’s most popular brand of ready-to-assemble furniture, Ikea has been referred to, paid homage to, and even been made a character in multiple films and television series. For storytellers, its qualities – whether positive, negative or somewhere in between – are a recognisable device to signal to the viewer everything from blooming love and floundering love, to consumerism and capitalism, to brand idiosyncrasies.
One example is the unusual nomenclature of Ikea’s furniture. Since he was dyslexic, Kamprad did not number Ikea’s products, choosing instead to name them after Scandinavian places, animals and so on. To the global consumer, these names can often be confounding, a fact highlighted by the American sitcom The Suite Life of Zack and Cody with humour.
In the episode titled The Swede Life, two characters make a stop at an Ikea-inspired Swedish furniture store called “Umaka” to find a replacement for a screw in a small table with the made-up name “Hagaboda”. The characters are made to search through a long list of similar-looking screws with intricate names, till one of them shouts, “Jerkface”, seemingly in frustration. But as it turns out, he is only mispronouncing the name.
In the 2016 superhero movie Deadpool, the titular character is seen talking to his visually-challenged roommate Blind Al, as he is trying to assemble a cupboard from Ikea. Their conversation features the names of several Ikea products. Though the names sound made up, they are, indeed, real. At the end of the scene, the cupboard falls apart in a nod to another Ikea myth that its furniture is simply too hard to put together.
Ikea, like most other pop culture phenomena of note, makes appearances in the long-running animated series The Simpsons as well. The Simpson family is often seen at the furniture store called Shøp, which is a parody of the actual California-based furniture chain STØR that sold Ikea-style ready-to-assemble furniture till the Swedish giant filed a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement and acquired the company in 1992.
In Eight Misbehavin’, an episode in the eleventh season, the Simpsons’ writers employ a visit by the yellow-coloured family to a Shøp store to poke fun at the odd names of Ikea products, among other things: at one point, Marge Simpson observes that the forks are made up of Lego blocks.
Assembling an Ikea product is often portrayed to be difficult because of a number of reasons, not least of which is the lack of text-based instructions in the manual. This has led to the popular myth that romantic relationships are tested when a couple tries to put together Ikea furniture. A memorable depiction of this is seen in the season six episode Hey Baby, What’s Wrong from the acclaimed American comedy series 30 Rock.
Set on Valentine’s Day, the episode involves the protagonist Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) and her boyfriend Criss Chros (James Marsden) heading to an Ikea store to buy a dinner table in preparation for a special night. Before long, the shopping turns into a metaphor for their relationship problems, with Lemon and Chros swiping at each other at the store. The quarrel is foreshadowed early in the episode, when an elderly couple fights passionately over drapes while walking out of that same store.
On the brighter side, an Ikea store is the spot for a breezy romantic sequence in the 2009 film 500 Days of Summer. The couple Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) fool around in the store playing husband and wife till they are forced to pause as a Chinese couple observes them sternly. Later in the film, though, the couple breaks up.
The fact that an Ikea store contains several showrooms equipped with every household furniture and accessory imaginable makes it apt for set-ups as seen in 500 Days of Summer. Dave Seger and Paul Bertenek went so far as to shoot an actual soap opera in an Ikea store in Burbank, California, in 2009 without the store authorities getting to know about it. Titled Ikea Heights, the show is a comedic melodrama in which the characters live in a society of the same name inside an Ikea store. The characters are aware that they exist in an Ikea store but never comment on the ridiculousness of the concept. Sometimes, non-actors in the store accidentally end up being a part of the show– for example in the second episode, in which a detective investigates a murder by walking up to unassuming Ikea attendants and asking for clues.
Recognising their pop culture cache, Ikea has tried to cash in. In 2008, when comedian and filmmaker Mark Malkoff announced that he wanted to spend seven days in an Ikea store because his apartment had to be fumigated, an Ikea store in New Jersey obliged. Malkoff had a separate establishment inside the store, complete with a bed and a bathroom. Malkoff documented his stay on video and visiting customers often became a part of his project.
In 2009, YouTube personality Dave Days shot a parody of the hit Owl City song Fireflies in an Ikea store where he is shown to have entered the premises with great excitement but slowly finds himself lost in the never-ending, maze-like store. After having spent long hours, Days wonders, “If I never left, how did I get here / I think I saw this in The Twilight Zone once.” The concept is a reference to another long-standing myth that customers tend to spend long hours in an Ikea store.
Unlike these comedic or, at least light-hearted references, to Ikea, one of the earliest nods to the brand was grim. In the David Fincher-directed 1999 dark satire Fight Club, the unnamed protagonist (Edward Norton), suffering from existential ennui, tries to fill the vacuum in his life by continuously ordering new products from the Ikea catalogue. He observes that like many of his generation, he has fallen prey to the “Ikea nesting instinct”.
One tracking shot shows new Ikea furniture popping up in his room one after another while on-screen text, with the same font as that used in an Ikea catalogue, describes the products. The protagonist’s wry voiceover continues in the background. A few scenes later, the protagonist blows up his apartment and his beloved Ikea products turn to fire and ash.