Homes Are Us: The World According To Ikea

In seven decades, Ikea has spread to 41 countries, shaping the globe's domestic habits. But looking closer at the Swedish standard also shows national cultural differences holding strong.

On July 28, the Swedish brand celebrated its 70th birthday
On July 28, the Swedish brand celebrated its 70th birthday
Laure Belot

What is the most printed publication after the Bible and Mao’s Little Red Book? The IKEA catalogue. That's right. About 3.9 billion Bibles have been printed since 1815, more than 900 million copies of President Mao Zedong’s Quotation are circulating in China and elsewhere. Beginning August 19, 220 million catalogues of the Swedish furniture retailer will be dropped in mailboxes all across the world.

Roughly speaking, one billion people will have within reach images of these perfectly "lived-in" homes, filled with just-boisterous-enough children, that classy-without-letting-it-show look.

And yet there is so much we don't know: just last month, on July 28, IKEA celebrated its 70th birthday. In the greatest discretion. No salmon parties were held, no worldwide advertising campaigns were broadcasted to glorify its 342 stores across 41 countries.

IKEA keeps a low profile. True, in the past months the neat image of the 70-year-old Nordic giant was tarnished by several scandals: French employees who say they were spied on have taken their case to court; Chinese customs authorities found fecal bacteria in chocolate-caramel crisps sold in 23 countries; eventually, beef-meat was very discreetly replaced by horse-meat in the “Köttbullar” – the famous meatballs to dip in cranberry jam that bring so many to the store at lunchtime.

In September 2012, M Le Monde's weekly magazine asked IKEA to use its data in order to analyze lifestyle changes around the world. The pieces of information eventually obtained are a remarkable reflection on our globalized world. Along with Facebook, IKEA is the only economic agent that knows our private lives so well. But, unlike the social network that makes money thanks to the lexical analysis of the writings of its billion members, IKEA is a "bricks-and-mortar" furniture seller.

First observation: just as the Great Wall of China is visible from the Moon, IKEA has already left its mark on earth. In 2012, about 700 million human beings came to these famous blue buildings with their yellow logo that you see from the highway.

Standards of cheap and chic

A truly efficient marketing strategy: affordable prices, abundant tricks, uncluttered style. Their 9,000 home products revolutionized the young and modern living in the late 20th century. IKEA is then a real inspiration, but wouldn’t it be more accurate to talk about influence, as the group seems to have defined a “standard” way of living, a sort of “casual, cheap & chic” worldwide norm?

“It’s a tough question”, admits Kristina Petersson-Lind, IKEA design director. “It is true that our stores spread our relaxed lifestyle. We inspire and influence people.”

Within a few decades, wide entrances, airy living rooms and open-plan kitchens – the fluidity associated with Swedish design - became international standards. Some pieces of furniture are now iconic. Without being aware of it, we perfectly know the names of Scandinavian men (all the desks and chairs’ name), of Swedish islands (garden furniture), of Nordic rivers (bathroom accessories) and insects (kids products)! One in ten Europeans would have been conceived in an IKEA bed. Our DNA and the Swedish brand are intertwined, indeed.

However, we do not ride towards the Mecca of low-cost furniture to satisfy the same needs. From Dalhmut – its headquarters hidden in the heart of the forest – the group distinguishes four types of international customers: people from emerging countries and the others; city people and country people. In a metropolis, city-dwellers seem to live in the renowned village praised by publicists. “From Shanghai to New York, we perceived similar aspirations, the same way of consuming news, a growing concern for environment, for the past three or four years a strong creativity need probably linked to the development of the digital life and the same need to live well in less space,” Petersson-Lind says.

In these big cities, the firm has discovered a desire of people to distance themselves from the mass-consumption society, “especially in Western countries.” The global financial crisis accelerated this move: “Consumers invest in what is more important to them. Most of the time, it’s not goods, but a better way of living,” she adds.

In the emerging countries, the Swedish firm focuses on “consumers reaching a higher standard of living.” Owning goods is then far from being a problem: “In Russia and China, our clients want to show they can buy,” Petersson-Lind explains. Actually, once the shopping is done, “the home organization emphasizes the new acquisitions.”

In Guangzhou, China - Photo: Chintunglee / GNU

Thus, on one side of the planet you tend to buy pieces of furniture to conceal them, on the other side you buy to show them. In these societies undergrowing rapid economic growth, more and more women come to the Swedish stores alone – a new trend that might have to do with their recent emancipation as well as the increasing number of divorces.

The globalization game with four happy families... Is it that easy to decipher us – all summarized in equation with four unknowns: city, countryside, old countries, young economies? Well, no! The devil is in the details and our local characteristics are both “precious assets,” according to the Swedish group, as well as a major challenge. To the Swedish firm’s surprise, American and British people did not give up the sitting rooms that are of little use and disappeared from most of the European homes in the 1990’s. They buy a lot of big pieces of furniture to arrange, “not that Americans are overweight" - Petersson-Lind, like most Swedes, is very polite – but “because they look for more comfort.”

Japanese lessons

There is no denying that IKEA has a flair for business. Since it ventured outside Sweden in 1963, the group has been on the lookout, drawing its inspiration from local characteristics to enrich its catalogue. When they settled in Japan in 2006, “they discovered people of different generations living under the same roof, which is not the case in Sweden.” Japanese catalogues now contain pieces of furniture mixing generational universes (casual and design) in one room. Sometimes local crazes even set the tone for the rest of the world. In this way, Italian shoe-lovers led the way for the Swedes - less known for being fond of shoes – to propose pieces in cupboards for shoes that are “now sold everywhere,” Petersson-Lind notes.

In fact, very few products are locally adapted, except to fit standard sizes (doors, household appliances), norms (metric system, safety, electricity) and the inhabitants’ morphology (Japanese people are smaller than Norwegians). IKEA then proposes an almost globalized offer. And that is how the magic happens. Without really analyzing it, the firm notices small details that make us who we are… a nice twist to globalization and the prevailing standardization.

Bedroom geopolitics is for instance rather complex. Americans want soft mattresses, Russian hard mattresses, and Asians extra-hard mattresses. The French – along with Spanish – hold the record for the narrowest beds, as well as the record consumption of anxiolytics (it was proved that you sleep less well when you are too tight!). Italian, American and Asian couples make themselves comfortable in Morphee’s arms (bedsize from 160 to 180 cm), whereas Germans and Nordics often chose more innocent twin beds.

As for darkness to sleep, it is not a universal need. People living close to the poles, used to the midnight sun, do not put obscuring curtains on their windows, whereas the ones living in over-lit cities adopted them to feel the taste, though artificially, of a desired black night. However, in every country, parents install blinds in kids room – an elaborate tactic to make their nights last longer.

When it comes to tidying up, our Swedish retailer-psychologist is positive, human beings have trouble throwing away things they no longer use. As a logical consequence, we are desperately looking “for solutions to store everything” everywhere, the director explains, which led IKEA to imagine drawers under and above stairways.

The North and the South are divided about the bathroom. The shower curtain is useful for two reasons: it blocks water and creates an intimate cocoon hiding you from indiscrete looks. Nordic countries are closed to this later aspect: Norwegians, Danes , Icelanders, Finns are more likely to install see-through curtains. Moreover, Dutch and Swedes buy far fewer curtains for their windows, maintaining this openness to others that was sometimes mistaken for easy morals in the 1970’s. On the contrary, Britons love small curtains, French, Spanish and Italian people prefer them white.

Next country to conquer

In front of this cultural diversity, IKEA does not seem to lose its capacity for adaptation. Stronger than the crisis, the group keeps on growing. Before 2020, the retailer wants to see 40 little yellow and blue flags flying in France alone. After China and Australia, India should be the next conquered country.

Any risk of growing too much? “We’ve not reached this point,” the director answers.

Photo: Calvin Teo

Still, recent issues of Live: Homes and Ideas – the magazine for the members of the “IKEA family” – praises collage, diverse usage, mixing of styles: In short, plenty of advice so that our homes are not meant to be so Swedish anymore. This is meant as a way to counter the certain weariness that threatens the 40-somethings who were spoon-fed with Gravalax, the famous sauce for salmon popularized by IKEA. At the same time the firm tries to differentiate itself from the host of rivals that have stepped into the breach of discount design in the past decades.

To stay in the game, IKEA tries to stay one step ahead. How will the world look next year? It is not a surprise, the world is becoming old and... IKEA feels it. This year’s flagship piece - on the 2013 catalogue front page - is the updated edition of the 1951 Strandmon, a comfortable grandpa-armchair.

Other trends: as any complex mammal, the homo numericus wants to reconcile the irreconcilable – “conviviality and connection.” The firm is thus reflecting on a way to adapt our homes to the seven billion cellphones and millions of tablets that have arrived. How do you make these new family evenings, where everyone has a screen in his hands, more harmonious?

Sometimes IKEA fumbles, blame it on these cultural features. Indeed, in Asia, the assembly instructions are not sufficiently understandable. Each ideogram has a meaning in the Chinese alphabet. Swedish ideograms would not be visual enough.

In the Middle East, the firm's direction was forced to publicly apologize last year for removing any feminine representation in the catalogue designed for Saudi Arabia. The attempt to play to local standards was especially offensive back in Sweden, a world leader in women's rights. According to the latest news, women will be back in the 2013-2014 catalogue, standardized again, and distributed all over the world.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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