Monday, May 9, 2016

IKEA This!

The Dental Empress and I recently made our second trip to an IKEA store. For those of you who are not familiar with IKEA, it's a Swedish company that...well, I'll let them tell you from their website.

"The IKEA Concept starts with the idea of providing a range of home furnishing products that are affordable to the many people, not just the few. It is achieved by combining function, quality, design and value - always with sustainability in mind. The IKEA Concept exists in every part of our company, from design, sourcing, packing and distributing through to our business model. Our aim is to help more people live a better life at home."

Kitty litter also accomplishes the same goals, but that's not what IKEA does.  What they really do is design and sell ingenious thematic, space-saving, low cost, build it yourself furniture and related home accessories for urban living. My understanding of urban living might be tempered somewhat by the fact that I've never been a resident of a core urban area, but I think it means residing in extremely tiny and outrageously expensive cubicles in neighborhoods alive at night with the noise of millennial lamenting the capitalism of their parents that got them their college degrees and the lack of safe spaces to whine about it, or in places you probably shouldn't hang out after dark.

IKEA is very a cool place. The showroom...and it's huge, not just like a really big Wal-Mart Superstore but Donald Trump laid out in a way that you have to see everything is order to get anything. (This promotes impulse buying of things you never knew you needed, which is why I now have an eight-pack of wooden hangers new kitchen tongs, a battery-powered alarm clock, and two stuffed animals. A fluffy puppy and a Daddy fox with a kit, if you must know.) The products themselves are often quite clever. Designed to maximize function in minimal space, they open, close, expand, contract, twist, and turn, and are able to be mounted on walls, floors, and ceilings in ways you'll never expect short of a zero-G space station. My favorite part of the store is where they've constructed a model apartment with a full kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living/dining room, and a spare alcove bedroom in less than 600 square feet. It's brilliant stuff.

(Just so you know, I didn't buy everything. For example, I put down the fire-engine red heart-shaped pillow with arms that I think are supposed to enfold your child to give them a big hug. Instead, I picked up the pillow and made the arms flail me about the head and face, telling the Empress it was a heart attack. That didn't go over well.) 

It's also important to note that everything belongs to some sort of complimentary set, and that each set has a Swedish name. None of these are Swedish words you may have heard of. There is no ABBA four-piece place setting, no Garbo entertainment center, no Vasa sink, no Stockholm Syndrome. Instead, the collections have names like. Oppland, Liatorp, and Stocksund, which according to the Google Translator seem to be made-up words to describe the style, kind of like I'm pretty sure the made-up word "Frito" is a descriptor for the real-life noun "Bandito."

So as I was idly looking about while the Dental Empress was taking careful notes to make sure we got the Malm dresser rather than the Hemnes one, I noticed that all the books on the shelves used to fill out the displays are the same. It seems there are about ten individual titles in the entire store, but each one has been used hundreds of times on the shelves. And these are not hollow plastic imitations of scholarship; they complete hardcover books fully printed on each page, umlauts and all. You almost get the sense that IKEA is single-handedly supporting the entire Swedish publishing industry, making works such as "Smultron och Svek" a perennial best-seller. It reminds you of one of those late-night 1980's commercials for Slim Whitman, who reportedly outsold the Beatles in Bulgaria. In a similar vein, you could also say that Annica Wennstrom has sold more than one million books worldwide, without mentioning that 987,000 of them serve as unread fodder in IKEA stores.

(Interestingly, where CD's are supposed to be represented, there are only empty jewel boxes. Which means that I have more Swedish music in my home than does IKEA, because I not only have ABBA Gold but also a 1990's CD by Tomas Ledin featuring the song "Du Kan Lita Pa Mej," which I think means "You Can Lita on My Mej."  I know this because I also used to watch late-night 1980's commercials for the children's game Husker Du.)

The way IKEA works is that as you work your way through the store you pick out what you like, and if there are things that don't fit into your basket you go to the attached warehouse to load up the big items so you can build them yourself at home.  And so few hours later, a bit of Sweden has been dragged into the house.  ("Look!  It's like they're pooping!" exclaimed The Empress as we opened just the end of an eight-foot box, tipped the unopened side skyward, and watched the pieces cascade, one by one, out onto the floor.)  Buried within each carton was a set on instructions.  The thing the remember is that as an international brand, IKEA has to be able to communicate with anyone regardless of language.  So the instructions use pictures only, and the first page begins with a few introductory cartoons. The cartoons show the wrong way to do things on the left, and the correct way to do them on the right.  It's kind of like Goofus and Gallant in the old Highlights for Children.  ("Goofus leaves as quickly as he can while you're asleep and doesn't leave a phone number.  Gallant makes coffee in the morning and says he had a wonderful time.")  So one of the cartoons shows a person sobbing because there's a crack in his project from building it on the hard floor; the corresponding picture shows him smiling with the project safely cushioned by a carpet.  Another one shows a puzzled man looking at the instruction book; the adjacent drawing shows him calling IKEA for advice.  And them there's the picture of one unhappy person looking at a stack of prefab pieces and parts next to two happy ones gazing at the same pile. The message is clear.  It takes two.

First project is the dresser. The Empress has a tool kit in her house. It contains one ladylike lavender hammer, eight flat head screwdrivers (all the same size) and one narrow Phillips head item, a pair of pliers, a packet of Allen wrenches, and forty plastic cable ties in a rainbow of colors and hues. She also has one cordless drill for which there are no drill bits, but she uses as a power screwdriver. Because I try to obey the admonitions on the right side of the Highlights page (Gallant says "Please use the cordless drill and save your delicate hands;" Goofus says "Go screw yourself"), every minute or so I hear a chirpy, "I'm done! It's because I have a power tool!" Meanwhile, I'm still working on upgrading from moderate to severe carpal tunnel syndrome ratcheting in the second of eight screws, Part #10863. Because I am a supportive boyfriend, I look up and smile at her every time she does this, fighting every urge I have to make some sort of remark about her and power tool (and you can guess where this might have gone, especially in a commuter relationship). 

We made it past the drawers in good order, carried the dresser into the closet where it will reside, and put together the storage unit with a minimum of fanfare. The entertainment center, however, was another matter entirely. Multiple boxes, misplaced rods and ratchets, and difficulties fitting pieces together made it a less than joyous coulee experience. The pot came to a boil after I asked her to tip the piece as a whole up so I could attach the top, and as it did I heard the sickening crack of particle board, splitting the wood over both of the bolts that would secure the bottom of a piece backing up the TV to the rest of the structure.

"F--k a duck with a f-----g duck f---k.!" I exclaimed. (Even when I curse, I like alliteration)

She peered at my with Marlin Perkins interest. "You're mad."

"No, I'm not. I'm frustrated. That's different," I lied.

"Well, it's not my fault. I helped just like you told me to."

I can see where this is going. I'm going to try to bail out the sinking ship, but still make my point. Bad move.

"You're right. I should have told you to keep a hand on that piece while it was moving so it wouldn't fall backwards. I thought you would do that and I didn't specifically tell you to. It's my fault."

"Yes. Well, it's fine." (Fine is never a good word in a relationship.) "It's on the back and nobody will see it."

"No, it's not okay. It's not fully structurally intact. I don't think it's a major problem but it's not okay."

I'm not the most self-aware person, but one thing I do know is that after the initial explosion, my voice drops a few scales and I start talking in a slow, measured fashion. I'm now in full James Earl Jones, deep Mississippi mode. She knows this. She thinks it's hysterical that this is the only thing that can shut up my otherwise constant chatter. 

"You're seething." There was that a note of glee in her voice.

Still looking straight ahead. My teeth are set, my mouth doesn't move. I'm like a bad ventriloquist looking to project my voice somewhere, anywhere at all. 

"No, I'm not. I'm frustrated. That's different." 

(I've also officially run out of new things to say.)

It's now the sound of triumph tinged with just enough righteousness. "No, it's not."

It's at this point that I'm looking around the room for some kind of distraction, and my eye falls upon the last page of the instruction book. And it's at that moment that I realized why there was no cartoon of happy people rejoicing over the finished product after the final step. The Swedes may be many things, but they are not liars. For not only have they lured you into buying their products, they are now going to play the ultimate Nordic prank on you, the one that makes up for them all having Seasonal Affective Disorder and being unable to uproot Julian Assange from the Bolivian Embassy. They knew that the after picture should show only the finished project, and not the carnage in blood and relationships that follow.

Despite the temporary setback, the Empress and I set things right. We managed to back the entertainment center into a corner so the broken piece is leaning against a wall. And then we went to a local bistro and had two bottles of wine and smoked a hookah flavor called 50 Shades. Afterwards it was 1 AM Steak N Shake for Takhomsak Chili Mac with extra cheese. Gallant says, "May I pour you a nightcap?"  And The Empress says, in her best Eva Gabor voice, "Of course, dahling."  It's all good.

(PS: For more information about Sweden, I would refer you to The Suite Life on Deck, "The Swede Life."  In a related note, The Teen tells me that the question of London or Bailey is this generation's version of the "who do you choose" quandry. And just so you know, the correct answers to the classic questions are Mary Anne, Julie Newmar, Veronica Lodge, Jennifer Marlowe, and the Green Orion Slave Girl.)

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