The IKEA Parody

It is nearly impossible to access a kunsthalle in Scandinavia in late August, particularly before 12 pm.  I learned this quickly while traveling there as of late.  Art spaces are also not always in the most accessible locations. In Helsinki, a former cable factory/Nokia headquarters called Kaapelitehdas is inhabited by various disciplines of artists  “from morning to night”, but navigating public transportation in Finnish while traveling on a tight schedule was a challenge I could not overcome.  Summer hours, changed locations, and late opening times prevented my seeing Magasin 3, Bonnierskonsthall, Charlottenborg, Gl Strand and Nikolaj. I eventually made my way to Liljevalchs in Stockholm and was thrilled to find it open. And then I realized the focus of the one major exhibition I was about to see: IKEA AT LILJEVALCHS.

webb_Utstallningsaffisch_2IKEA AT LILJEVALCHS exhibition poster,  designed by Mattias Frodlund, image from Liljevalchs

IKEA is an important business for Sweden. It is largely the reason many contemporary Americans own affordable furniture of a Scandinavian aesthetic and are aware of the lingonberry’s existence.  My preconceived  associations of the chain with disposable college wares made the realization that I was about to walk into an exhibition about the history of IKEA somewhat of a disappointment.

The show at Liljevalchs was what one might expect an IKEA exhibition to be based on shopping in the store.  The first gallery was a “marketplace” that contained a cafe with cheap pastries. There were children’s toys and play zones. Blue and yellow arrows on the floor directed visitors to the next gallery, which contained images of IKEA catalogs from the beginning of its existence in 1950.  There was a tornado-shaped sculpture of black ÖGLA cafe chairs that evoked the whirlwind of guitars in Trimpin’s If VI Was IX: Roots and Branches at the Experience Music Project, as well as some of the elements of multiples in Lead Pencil Studio’s Retail/Commercial.  Another gallery featured spotlights on various designers over the corporation’s history, similar to the IKEA 2010 catalog I recently received in the mail highlighting specific designers under the heading “Great design comes from open minds and a tight budget.”

IKEA AT LILJEVALCHS (installation shot), image by kj.vogelius

One of the more intriguing spaces in the exhibition focused on IKEA’s brief experimentation with questions of authenticity and reproduction in the 1990s: the “Gustavian” series of furniture from 1995. During this project made at the request of the Swedish National Heritage Board, IKEA designers were invited to select specific objects from the Medevi Brunn historic site and recreate the works using inexpensive materials, to be sold in IKEA stores as a means for raising awareness and money for the original collection.  The new items were  stamped with the term “ORIGINAL COPY” and now, according to the exhibition text, fetch high prices at auctions around the world.

“The Gustativan Room,” IKEA AT LILJEVALCHS, image from Liljevalchs.

Through this exercise in re-creation, IKEA separated the museum object from its originality; the Gustiavian pieces once only available at the Medevi Brunn historical site became common in homes across Sweden and the world. Yet, the use (and monetary) value of the “authentic” object was also impacted through this action, creating the Gustavian line’s unusual status as “original copies” of museum-worthy designs.  The intertwining  of authenticity,  commodity and utility within these pieces of furniture illustrates the parallel nature of the IKEA store and the museum.

Inside IKEA, one can touch, use, purchase and consume.  Inside the museum, one can watch and experience. Yet IKEA and the museum overlap in myriad ways. IKEA AT LILJEVALCHS is provocative through its success in seamlessly merging the two, to the point where one is forced to question whether the entire exhibition is a moment of shopping or one of high art.   When I found myself following the arrows on the floor as though I were navigating an IKEA store in search of a bookcase or kitchen wares, I thought more about the Jewish Museum Berlin’s structure than I did about shopping.  The Jewish Museum’s floors are covered in a line of red arrows because the layout of the installations within Libeskind’s twisting mass would otherwise be extremely difficult to follow.

IKEA arrow; image by Prof Michael Stoll

Although there is reason to believe stores such as IKEA are created to be confusing so as to encourage more time spent in the store (and ultimately more shopping), it may not be surprising that one of the largest and earliest IKEA buildings was modeled after Wright’s Guggenheim building in New York.  IKEA’s diorama-like displays of fully assembled rooms within their stores also bear striking resemblances to the rows of taxidermy settings that line institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History.  Ultimately, stores strive to keep their customers from leaving while museums aim to create a comfortable learning environment. Somehow, these goals both lead to similar structures and spaces.

IKEA showroom/diorama, image from

Diorama at the American Museum of Natural History, image by Dom Dada

Most noticable in the IKEA AT LILEJEVALCHS exhibition was the absence of criticality directed towards the IKEA corporation.  The text and displays completely ignore the negative aspects of the company, such as the disposable decorative arts and design culture IKEA has created in a way the world has not seen before. While it is easy to say that an exhibition about a single corporation would never be allowed to happen in a US museum (which may or may not be true), the history of museums demonstrates a similarly edited exhibition structure in the museum enviroment.  In Museology courses, we referred to the Smithsonian’s 1994 Enola Gay controversy as “the dead horse” because it was a constant topic of discussion in relation to the persistent lack of critical discourse in contemporary American exhibitions.  Like the retail entity that avoids controversial subject matter in advertisements in their stores, museums in America often take the quiet route on exhibitions, avoiding some of the most relevant political and social issues in the process.

As the exhibition of IKEA began to seem more and more like a parody of contemporary American museums, part of me wished that Liljevalchs had included empty shopping carts for visitors to push between the galleries as a means for heightening the similarities. Then again, bringing the store and the museum together too closely can be disheartening; if the events leading to the current state of the economy are any indication, shopping is not a challenge, nor a meaningful experience for the public. In this respect, it behooves the museum to step outside its comfort zone and introduce truly challenging exhibitions that go beyond the banality that plagues the passive presentation of experiences.