When Ikea threw open the doors of its new store at Edmonton, north London at midnight on Wednesday, neither management nor staff had any inkling of what would happen next. They were expecting around 2,000 flat-pack furniture lovers to turn up in search of special offers such as a £49 ($90) leather sofa. That's how it had gone at previous openings. Instead, 6,000 discount hunters, desperate to get their hands on a bargain, stampeded in the store.
The result was mayhem. The 50 security guards quickly lost control, shoppers were knocked down in the rush, men traded punches and a man threatened a woman with a mallet. People shouted "Mine! Mine!" as they fought over who had first laid hands on one of the limited-offer sofas. Some collapsed with heat exhaustion and 20 needed hospital treatment. Britain's biggest Ikea store was forced to close after just 30 minutes. Nine ambulances, six fire engines and an emergency control vehicle joined police at the scene.
Sales have never been a pretty sight, as buyers squabble over the best bargains, but it must say something that the object of such fury should be contemporary design. And it's not the first time Ikea has witnessed such scenes. Three people died in September 2004 when an even bigger crowd of furniture shoppers went crazy at an Ikea store in Saudi Arabia.
The whole thing sounds like something out of a J. G. Ballard novel - High-Rise, Super-Cannes or his recent Millennium People - where some deep, resistant strain of psychopathology causes the populace to go on a violent rampage, despite living in conditions of enormous prosperity and material comfort. It's the deadening effect of comfort, Ballard seems to be saying, that triggers such an extreme reaction. In Dawn of the Dead, the visceral recent remake of George Romero's 1970s horror film classic, unheeding waves of flesh-eating zombie shoppers assault the mall where they had spent their days when they were "living".
A commentator writing in The Independent took the view that something like this had taken place at Ikea: "Riots that occur through need are about to be replaced by their opposite: riots of unsatisfied excess." A Guardian editorial conjectured that, "Historians may look back on the Ikea outbreaks as the precursor of fundamentalist consumerism, marking the start of guerrilla shopping wars as the nation state weakens."
Exciting stuff if you are a dystopian novelist or film-maker, but all rather exaggerated in this case. More likely the pressure-cooker situation caused the riot: too many people, in insufficient space, pursuing ridiculous bargains. It would have been more significant if the incident had taken place under normal shopping conditions. It would have been even more remarkable (and Ballardian) if wealthy middle-class consumers prepared to pay through the nose for expensive designs at exclusive metropolitan showrooms had lost control and staged a violent protest. As a Labour Member of Parliament pointed out, the new store is sited next to the second most deprived constituency in London, as Ikea must surely have known. No wonder people were prepared to queue outside for 12 hours for the chance to buy a £30 ($55) double-bed.
Clearly, Ikea failed to anticipate the overwhelming demand its advertising would generate and that was a misjudgement. But for anyone who wants to attack the phenomenon of "unsatisfied excess" in our culture, which is real enough, the Swedish company is hardly the most deserving target. In a list - yet another list - of the 21 most influential individuals, organisations or things in design, published in the March issue of the fashionable design magazine Icon, Ikea comes top. "The company has done more to bring about an acceptance of domestic modernity (in the traditionally-minded UK market at least) than the rest of the design world combined," note the editors.
It's hard to fault that assessment. I write this sitting on an Ikea swivel chair that is well made, looks great, mixes in seamlessly with non-Ikea pieces of furniture, and that, even without a discount, cost peanuts. Wasn't this the utopian modernist dream for design: stylish, simple, functional furniture and objects for the home that anyone could afford? In its "elite designers against Ikea" advertising campaign, featuring spoof designer Van den Puup, Ikea pokes fun at the idea of elitist design. The commercials are ludicrous and not entirely fair, but if you believe that design should be about more than the expression of social status, they do have a point. Perhaps all that the Ikea stampede shows is that people are getting the message.
Now a riot at this year's Milan Furniture Fair, where the world's elite designers gather to show off their wares, really would be something to see.