BY Daniel Birnbaum in Frieze | 11 NOV 96
Featured in
Issue 31

IKEA at the End of Metaphysics

Art and the IKEA spirit

BY Daniel Birnbaum in Frieze | 11 NOV 96

Only a god can save us.
Martin Heidegger, 1976

While other Swedish boys were reading comics, young Ingvar Kamprad pored over mail-order catalogues. He began to sell matches and fish, and in 1943, at the age of 17, registered his own mail-order firm under the name IKEA - an acronym of his name and the farm (Elmtaryd) and parish (Agunnaryd) were he grew up. He soon decided to concentrate on furniture - developing, during the 50s, a product that could be quickly assembled and densely packaged. The real stroke of genius was to make the customers pick up the goods themselves, cutting out delivery costs. Kamprad even sold roof-racks, and soon caravans of cars packed with IKEA boxes could be seen leaving the store in the little town of Älmhult.

The company grew. In 1965 IKEA opened in Stockholm, building a gigantic circular building inspired by the Guggenheim Museum in New York. An instant success, it attracted some 35,000 visitors on opening day. The rest is history. The IKEA catalogue, with more than 60 million copies printed annually, is the most widely circulated publication in the world; since 1995, Ingvar Kamprad is officially the richest Swedish citizen.1

'We don't just sell a chair or a table, we sell a philosophy and a mission', a French IKEA worker once proudly declared, and it is Kamprad's intention that 'the IKEA spirit' should extend as far as his furniture.2 In 1976, he published what is now a canonical document, still read by IKEA employees all over the world: The Testament of a Furniture Dealer.3 Divided into nine short chapters, it presents the general doctrine, which, if implemented on a global scale, will 'create a better everyday life for the majority of people'. The keywords are low prices, quality and simplicity.

It is simplicity that appears to be the most significant term, reaching far beyond aesthetic considerations. In fact, Kamprad's idea of simplicity forms the basis of an elaborate moral philosophy. In the 'IKEA family', life is lived in a modest and humble way, promoting an inner strength. Chapter Five of The Testament, for example, concludes: 'Simplicity and humbleness characterise our relations with each other, with our suppliers, and with our customers. It is not only for cost reasons that we avoid luxury hotels. We don't need flashy cars, impressive titles, uniforms or status symbols. We rely on our strength and our will'.

It is easy to forget that Kamprad's highly-strung manifesto concerns a furniture company, and not some religious or political movement hoping to save mankind from the temptations of worldly evil. In the slightly bombastic Chapter Nine, Kamprad's teachings reach an apex, where his theory of self-discipline is transformed into an avowal of metaphysical optimism: 'Let us grow to be a group of constructive fanatics, who with unwavering obstinacy refuse to accept the impossible, the negative. What we want, we can still do. Together. A glorious future!'

Despite IKEA's enormous effect on everyday life across much of the Western world, the company has rarely been perceived as a threat. The public perception of the firm is nicely summed up by the opening sentence of Kamprad's manifesto: 'Once and for all we have decided to side with the many'. For most people, IKEA stands for democracy, rationality, and an open-minded attitude to modern life. Given this well-established image, it came as quite a shock when, in 1994, it was disclosed that, as a young man, Kamprad had belonged to an extreme right-wing group. Even worse, he had remained a financial contributor well into the 50s.

Although the scandal was widely discussed in the European and American press, it seems to have had little, if any, impact on the company. The democratic image of IKEA was so secure that not even aggressive articles portraying the founder as a full-blown Nazi made much of a difference. What other multinational could survive such a severe blow with the same ease? IKEA seems strangely immune to criticism: the confessed Nazi affiliation was soon forgotten, and the launch later that year of the first overtly gay commercial on American national TV - showing two middle aged men living together - increased goodwill towards the company among liberals. IKEA's 'furnishing of the world' could proceed.

Life, today, is the same everywhere; everybody thinks, acts, talks, and lives according to the same general rules, dictated not by personal conviction or a sense of responsibility for one's own life, but by some other, more anonymous agency. It was Martin Heidegger who first suggested that the history of Western metaphysics shows a gradual 'forgetfulness' of being. Abstract as it may sound, the effects of this oblivion are declared to be concrete enough and concern man's most elementary handling of everyday objects. The original form of 'dwelling' in the world - supposedly to be found in a more genuine but long gone era - has given way to an inauthentic way of life, marked by a powerful tendency towards 'levelling'.4

In Being and Time (1927), Heidegger did his best to map the structures of inauthentic existence. Today, however, we are in possession of another manual. While it may appear less philosophical, the IKEA catalogue is perhaps a more efficient guide to the structures of everyday life in the West. It is the anonymous agency which Heidegger designated 'das Man' (usually translated as 'the they' or 'the one'), setting the standards for everyday existence. IKEA's declared ambition to 'furnish the world' is not just a throwaway advertising copyline.

'Inauthentic', in Heidegger's sense, is not necessarily a negative term. On the contrary, he understood that humans need common rules and patterns of behaviour. From a Heideggerian perspective IKEA best sellers such as 'Billy', 'Ivan', and 'System 210' do not represent a corruption of everyday life, but have merely formalised what is already there; the IKEA catalogue only makes the tendency towards uniformity more conspicuous. Heidegger's global 'levelling' is not a critique of the common forms of everyday life as such, but of their passive acceptance. At the end of metaphysics, levelling is complete - no one questions the catalogue.

Contemporary art gives hope, though. A number of recent art projects deal critically with IKEA's furniture and its impact upon everyday life. Two Swedish pioneers in the field, Anders Widoff and Stig Sjölund, have long been aware of the political, not to say metaphysical, power inherent in the company's products used in their installations. Given the omnipresence of the furniture, it should come as no surprise that artists working with ready-made objects often end up using IKEA. 'IKEA art' - a new and lively genre - has now reached far beyond the Swedish borders; recent projects by Andrea Zittel, Jason Rhoades and Clay Ketter all seem to comment on some aspect of IKEA's global influence.

There is, of course, a long tradition of artists designing or using furniture, reaching back to Mondrian, and including Donald Judd and Richard Artschwager amongst others. But this phenomenon is different. For IKEA artists, a product such as the shelf 'Billy', probably the most common piece of furniture in the world, is not just a wooden shelf - it's a cultural hieroglyph brimming with covert significance.

This type of work is not always critical of IKEA. For example, Zittel's 'Living Units', mobile furniture units comprising the bare necessities for living, seem to propose a kind of Spartan living reminiscent of Kamprad's metaphysics of 'simplicity'. Zittel calls it the 'luxury of minimalisation'. Her projects emphasise the strange mixture of control and freedom inherent in Utopian modernism from Bauhaus to Kamprad, and her catalogue, A-Z Administrative Services, conveys a rather lugubrious atmosphere. Of course, it could be read as a dark parody of IKEA; who is being administered, and with what right?

Ketter's recent sculptural projects rely on a more positive view of the world of ordinary objects. He believes that an abundance of artworks are just waiting to be discovered: 'Perhaps the primary purpose of the artist is not to make art, but to recognise it as already consummated in the world around him. By this recognition, the artist can baptise these ready manifestations as art'.5 In his quest for art hidden in the everyday, he soon came across the world of IKEA. In Ketter's hands it exhibits unexpected aesthetic qualities. Through small adjustments, a kitchen is displayed as a minimal sculpture, full of intricate references to art history.

It turns out to be Rhoades, however, who most expertly deals with the IKEA philosophy. His Swedish Erotica (1994) and The Future is Filled with Opportunities (1995), both involve subtle allusions to the company's ideology, the latter being the appropriated title of IKEA's official biography. The first work has been described as 'an IKEA store transmogrified into a bachelor's machine around a pinup-like photograph of the artist's mother.'6 In Rhoades' large and messy installations, the do-it-yourself approach of the 'IKEA world' is combined with sexual imagery and mystifying autobiographical material. The references to IKEA recur, and one gets the sense of a real obsession.

Does Rhoades perceive IKEA's powerful influence as a threat or as a positive characteristic of our times? Perhaps what is in question is a Heideggerian Destruktion of the language of the tradition - in this case the code of the IKEA catalogue - made one's own through a furious act of appropriation. Heidegger talks of a necessary Gewaltsamkeit (violence) when relating in a creative way to the tradition. Rhoades takes a similar stance, and interprets it quite literally in his recent installation Frigidaire (1996), produced in Wanås, Sweden, in immediate proximity to Kamprad's Ur-IKEA. The work consists of miscellaneous IKEA products which have been deconstructed in the most physical sense of the word, creating a mess in which every element appears five times - supposedly a reference to the five IKEA stores in Rhoades' home town, post-historical LA.

Perhaps this ritualistic violence has created a sense of freedom in relation to the global levelling of IKEA ideology. The catalogue dictates the general outlines of everyday life, but it is ultimately always you, the customer, who puts the things together. Everyone who has tried to assemble a product from IKEA knows that the possible combinations and mistakes appear to be infinite. Thus IKEA, when treated in the right way, offers not levelling and global uniformity, but the very opposite - a form of do-it-yourself existential individualism. In Isn't it Great to be Swedish (1991), the writer R. Fuchs saw this quite clearly: 'Life is like assembling IKEA furniture: it's hard to understand what the point is; you're unable to put the pieces together, some essential part is always missing, and the final result is never at all what you'd hoped for'.7

1. A more detailed version of the IKEA saga can be found in Miriam Salzer's Identity Across Borders. A Study in the 'IKEA-World,' pub. Linköping, 1994.
2. Salzer, p. 62.
3. Reproduced in Salzer, pp. 255-266. All subsequent Kamprad quotes are from this text.
4. See Hubert L. Dreyfus, Being-in-the-World, pub. The MIT Press, 1991, pp.157-58.
5. Ketter quoted in my 'Before and After Painting,' pub. Galleri Andreas Brändström, Stockholm, 1995.
6. Robert Fleck, in Jason Rhoades, pub. Kunsthalle Basel, 1996.
7. R. Fuchs, Visst är det härligt att vara svensk, Stockholm 1991, p.171.