Israelis Who Love IKEA

Two weeks ago, one of Israel's two IKEA branches burned to the ground. A thorough reading of the catalog illuminates the deep connection between the store and its local fans.

Omri Herzog
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Omri Herzog

The IKEA catalog for 2011 is a hefty volume of almost 400 pages containing photographs of products, listing their prices and adding technical specifications. But it also tells a story. That may explain why the catalog also functions as reading material, constantly leafed through in living room and toilet, even in the absence of a concrete intention to buy anything from it. Catalogs of office equipment and descriptions of items available at perfumeries get thrown out; the IKEA catalog stays at home.

IKEA catalog.

It is a permanent domestic feature in almost every home in Israel, transcending class, religious and ethnic differences; it appeals to men and women, youngsters and adults; it's the most popular text in the Hebrew language. In a society where battles are fought over the terms "home" and "identity," the IKEA catalog is a common denominator, replacing the telephone book as the printed verbal text in which every person can find himself.

The book's genre (henceforth I will call it a book and not a catalog, because it is also a book - indeed, primarily a book ) is a skillful integration of a manual for leading a better life and a leisure-time magazine. It is entertaining in the deepest sense of the term; what entertains us - pleasures us or consoles us, often both - tells us what we already know. It simply says to the audience it is aiming at: "What you already know, is right."

This same element is innate in gossip columns, the Channel 2 news and American action films: their messages never provoke, even if they generate amazement, sadness or mockery. We need them because they are consistent with a predictable world view, and they allow us to take pride in making the inherent distinction between good and bad, between legitimate and deviant.

Realize your dreams

IKEA catalog.

The IKEA book is entertaining. We already know what it will contain and the world view it reflects, one toward which it behooves us to aspire, for it has something for everyone and no one can evade it. The title, which appears below the author's name (IKEA ) is "For a better everyday life!"

The book enjoins us to undertake the urgent task of development, progress, upgrading in order to realize the good, and tells us how to achieve it: "Bring this style home today!" "Introduce this design into your homes immediately!" It's cheap, it looks great, it's convenient, it's exactly for me, for my life and my dreams, and for the person I am; because "This is where life happens," "This is the place for dreaming," "This is the place where you can be the real you."

What is this wonderful place? Is it the store or the furnished home, or maybe the book itself, the promise it holds out? Through its agency I can be myself, my taste can be my own, my dreams mine and not others' - and I can realize them in all their dizzying surfeit. The book promises us supreme individualism, just what you need, what you always dreamed of. It declares relentlessly: "your place, your way," "the combination that best suits you," "choose for yourselves."

But how to choose? The very thought is tiring, with all the mistakes along the way and the efforts to figure out what there is to choose from, and what for; so "let us help you find the most suitable pots and pans for your kitchen." Everything is special, everything is suited especially to you, will be exactly the right size for you, if you only surrender to the beneficent, liberating and consoling understanding that what suits you alone lacks all distinctiveness, averts any distinctiveness; that the choice is not really yours. What a relief! Yes, everyday living is already better, because "the boxes are exactly the right size, both inside and outside." IKEA denies its customers what it promises them.

IKEA catalog.

Every year there's a new collection, but the items in the catalog - chairs, sofas, lamps, plastic glasses - only appear to change. Like movie stars, chart-busting songs and prime ministers, the switching of items reflects no more than the entertaining power of the stereotype. There is no style here: the designed products actually lack design, because this is the only style that exists, the only conceivable one. The demand to "renew," to "refresh," to achieve a better home and a better life creates a predetermined pace of consumption, as consoling as the noise of the refrigerator and the talkfest on TV. All is subject to the old scheme, from which nothing must deviate. The new ideas are reproductions of the identical.

Still, everything must be renewed, refilled, there are always "new ideas to refurbish the house." Nothing must remain the same; you must rush to an IKEA store today, join the wonderful orgy of new products, new solutions and new ideas for better everyday living, to ensure that everything remains fixed and in place, so that nothing new unseemly enters the house. Accordingly, we are offered "A sofa that stands up to anything. Even changes of mind." And you'd better hurry up and buy it, so that any possible change of mind will be anchored in the same old position, which won't oblige anyone to get up from the comfortable sofa. Just NIS 2,450, and you won't have to change your mind again.

Where you make memories

IKEA Israel's CEO, Shlomi Gabbai, has written a foreword to the book. And of all the possible things he could have written about, he tells us about the family photo albums (his? ours? ) and adds, "As they do every year, my family prepares the exact same dishes for the Rosh Hashanah meal." Here he stands in a photo, one hand resting on his stomach, index finger jutting out from his palm and pointing at us, inviting us into the familiar fold of memory and nostalgia, of the heritage to be passed down from generation to generation, completely intact - a fish head, a new sofa, yellowing photos of our forebears, bathroom curtains. Everything stems from the same arrangement of periodic fixity, in which everything remains the same, each year anew.

IKEA catalog.

"Where you make memories" the book declares on a later page, and the photo of a well-lit kitchen in which a mother and her two daughters are amusing themselves preparing a meal has only a sales text: "waste sorting bin, NIS 45 per unit."

The book is written in the second person, always addressing "you" in the plural, not "me" and not "him." Precisely when the book takes note of my separateness, it locates me within the plural "you" - that is, inside the book. The book knows exactly what I need. And amazingly, it's always right, it's right on every single page. The book understands me, predicts me, knows what I truly need, the things that will improve my daily life - as though any other life exists. That's why there is no distinction between my home, the real one in which I live, and the IKEA book. They are one; and if they are not yet one, they shall become one.

The IKEA book subsumes the intimate into the general, makes me one of the family. You can't find a more addictive feeling than that: the fire that consumed the store was a disaster of addiction which cries out for compensation, for everyone to hurry to the alternative branch in Rishon Letzion, to be a consumer of the place that understands us and predicts us. All the reports about the fire on the front pages of the papers and as the lead item on TV and radio newscasts reminded us that advertising and editorial considerations are identical: Do not betray those who understand us. There are so few out there who understand us; and in our - IKEA's - "life style" there is little chance of understanding ourselves.

IKEA catalog.

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