Rick Poynor | Essays

The Ikea Riot: Unsatisfied Excess?

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.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Product Design

Comments [19]

I don't think the modernist design credo included the notion of lowering prices through the exploitation of cheap labor. Perhaps we should wonder why Ikea's wares are so cheap before wondering whether they democratized design.
Étienne Després

Great point. Ultimately, once you get past the seductive designs and the cheap prices, what difference is there between Ikea and Wal-Mart? OK, Ikea probably has more of a commitment to green product sourcing and almost any major retailer treats its labour force better.

Look at Ikea as a system, rather than a brand. Products are sourced from all over the world; shipped from all over the world; vast resources are consumed (wood, plastic, metal, and especially, oil and energy). The stores are large-surface big-box outlets, which require large energy inputs for heating and cooling (I didn't see any green roofs, geothermal pumps or solar panels last time I visited). They are located out in the burbs and exurbs, you need a car to get to them: they contribute to sprawl.

In that sense, Ikea is very, very bad design.

In a world that will soon run out of cheap oil energy, the entire "system" of Ikea will collapse. If Ikea is to continue, it's going to have to shift to local production; ship atoms rather than bits, licensing local artisans to produce bespoke editions of their wares on-demand.

Will it be more expensive? Probably. Will it be avoidable? Probably not.

I would just like to say that the first two comments were very well-stated. Excellent points in both.

IKEA is style first, ask questions later. My wife and I are always freaked out by how incredibly cheap everything really is these days. Too cheap in many cases. Yet, still out-of-reach for those who actually produce the wares in their daily work.

Modernism wasn't about good design for only the developed masses was it? Universal first-world style?

Just curious.

If there are specific charges that can be leveled against Ikea in the case of anti-environmentalism or exploitive labor practices, I'd like to hear them. For their own part, Ikea claims to be a model of corporate responsibility.

So what is this really about? Every marketer loves the "mob scene at the grand opening" story. Broadway producers like David Merrick used to hire arthritic ticket booth agents whose inefficiency would create the image of the hit show with "lines around the block."
The Ikea riot sounds like exactly this kind of press agentry in action, but gone horribly wrong.
Michael Bierut

Ikea products have a life span of approximately 2 years, give or take (as a guess). Not exactly heirloom quality. Whether they have a commitment to green product sourcing or not, most of their stuff ends up in landfill sooner than later. You get what you pay for.

As for sheeple who are willing to beat each other with mallets to get their hands on a cheap sofa, I just shake my head. On second thought, go for it... cull the herd.
Andrew Montgomery

'Consumerism' is surging as an actual ideology: not just the mechanics and habits of how people shop, but the actual driving force to which all other aspects of people's lives are in service. 'Fundamentalist consumerism' is unfortunately very real for some people. We can only hope that more positive life choices than this will have a tipping point of their own.

The Ikea riots are a good example of what Peter Whybrow calls American Mania, his book is an excellent read on the deeper roots of these issues.

Nick Arauz

As I write this I am sitting next to an IKEA bookshelf that my parents bought me when I was 9 (about 20 years ago). It's been all over the country with me in the intervening years. While I'm sure that every once in a while they produce a real dud. The sheer quantity of affordable and well thought out pieces that they make is a testament to a rare desire to make useful stuff, not just money. I recently saw something on Discovery/TLC/Whatever about the history of the company and the process they go through to make each piece. As Mr. Bierut pointed out, they also make more of an effort to use responsible manufacturing than any other large company that I know of. Pick a better target for your anti-globalist action.

Not just a symptom of the west. Saudi

While Ikea does use cheap labor, I must retract my own claim and admit that I couldn't find a single report of human rights abuse linked to them in recent years. While their supplier policies are not stellar, they are certainly solid, and in some countries they undoubtedly raise their workers' living standards.

As for environmental issues, Ikea has a pretty good record compared to other large companies, but the issues raised by aj are very real. Hauling materials from all over the world for assembly, and then shipping off finished products to worldwide locations is a model that is fundamentally bad.
Étienne Després

Hauling materials from all over the world for assembly, and then shipping off finished products to worldwide locations is a model that is fundamentally bad.
So all those developing countries can just forget getting things like desalinization plants (that could provide millions of people drinking water) until they can make them themselves from mining the ore to fashioning the final product.
Kenneth FitzGerald

I'm not suggesting that all freighting should be outright abolished; in most Western countries, Ikea goods have locally-built equivalents (possibly not as well-designed) that are much less a burden on the environment, and in this context I think the model is flawed from an ecological perspective.
Étienne Després

Thanks for the link to Adam Greenfield's excellent Ikeaphobia and its discontents. The echo of Freud in his title is appropriate; Greenfield concludes that the No Logo crowd often attack the wrong people, the people closest to themselves -- the syndrome Freud described as "the narcissism of minor differences". I believe it's the same syndrome which makes metropolitans launch attacks on Vice magazine for its ironic use of rural right wing white trash style rather than on the rural Bush-voting white trash themselves.
Nick Currie

As the article says, it's not much of a surprise, given that Edmonton is the second most deprived borough in London, and as such one of the few places you can buy a three-bedroom house for under 200 grand. It's also the site of Britain's largest waste incinerator, and the stabbing capital of Britain (someone was stabbed on the night of the Ikea opening, though police say the incident was unrelated).

Put together a bunch of knife-packing plebs driven mad by the dioxin cloud, and whipped into a frenzy of excitement with the lure of bargain flatpack furniture and cheap meatballs, and it's a recipe for exactly the kind of crazed consumerism you describe.

However, it's probably not really middle class enough for a JG Ballard novel, for this you'd really need a riot at a Habitat or a John Lewis, plus Ballard doesn't generally drift outside of West London.

Interesting article. I just name checked an 'ikea riot' in my band's song 'Kill yourself,' albeit in the context of a tongue-in-cheek existentialist pop tune lyric rather than a damning-indictment-against-or-defense-of-capitalism vogue, (and the lack of middle-class element doesn't really negate my original words!), which I wrote on Fri 11th Feb. I was looking for some news info etc. as a guide to the lyrics for when I handed out the sheet to my other bandmates as I'd only heard of the incident through hearsay. I never thought I'd venture on this! Thought-provoking stuff.


PS if anyone's ever in Leeds at any point, come check us out! We're supposed to be releasing said song as a single quite soon too.

LINKS: www.futuresonsofrome.com

(sorry I'm no good with HTML tags!)
Pat Bourne

re: the riot.
If this is what it's like for some cheap, be it 'stylish (sometimes)' furniture - what's it going to be like when the food and water run out?
Ikea, you can't knock'em.
Storming the Milan Furniture Fair idea sounds more like it - maybe something good would come out of it - like designs that are not only 'stylish', but are actually useful, definitely more affordable, that respect the environment, etc... ie. that actually make sense?

Further to the comments made about IKEAphobia - I like to add to the discussion comments about H&M - a clothing retailer which is something of a favourite of mine.
H&M is cheap and cheerful, and is a similarly respected brand as IKEA; I can't buy a simple black t shirt from anywhere else except H&M for £2.99. And yet I look on the label and sse that they have been produced in Vietnam, or Indonesia, or some similarly 'deprived' country. I know that this garment cost very little and was probably produced with sub standard care for environment and working condition of the employees. However, as a consumer I still buy it, however guilty I feel, because it is so cheap - and it is quite refreshing not to have to pay over the odds for a garment that is not worth it, and the shop is not make a massive profit out of it. The same for IKEA.

ok, i work at IKEA and they treat us very well. they make sure we know what the company is about and what they are doing around the world. We are informed where the products come from and who makes them. Ikea is a great company who doesnt use child labour and is constantly giving back to society and the world. just look up what fundraising they do. you'll also notice the choices they make when extracting natural products and that they also give back to the earth. My point is that this is unlikely in other companys and rarely do u see any concious effort by any company to be environmentally aware. in the store we have a large department just 4 sorting out waste and recycled matter and batteries and old cellphones! who else thinks of that. you cant expect perfection but acknowledge the growing effort and concentrate your efforts on other corrupt issues. yes, its constantly busy and annoying hahaa but id rather buy from ikea knowing they exemplify great values and a great return policy!

Personally I like Ikea. Their furniture may be cheap and cheaply done but as a student I really love the fact that I can actually afford some of their stuff. Especially since it rarely happens that one can purchase things that are both inexpensive and aesthetically pleasing. The fact that Ikea's quality is not so great is a whole different story but wouldn't it be too much and too perfect to expect something very durable and reliable for such a low price? I mean, let's be realistic. It's exactly like H&M. You get what you pay for. I don't think anyone who shops at H&M assumes that he or she will be able to wear their cloths for a long time. But what one gets looks cool and in this sense I consider it a triumph of good design over endless options of cheap and ugly mediocrity. It is true that Ikea is a huge corporation and as such it is not perfect, but as Rich, its employee, wrote it's a pretty good corporation, which treats its employees well. (And that is rather rare.) The thing that bothers me the most is not so much Ikea and its strategies for selling but the consumers. I guess I will never be able to truly understand consumer fundamentalists. What happened in Edmonton or for example in Saudi Arabia was totally crazy and horrible. However, I am not sure that the blame can be simply put on Ikea alone. Despite all the consumer conditioning we all endure on daily basis I still believe that each one of us, being a grown individual, is responsible for his own actions. It is sad that people get so carried away with their desires for buying but it seems obvious to me that a business will never educate its consumers about moderation. Quite on the contrary. Perhaps it is going to sound too naive but I still believe that the only solution to this issue, which would help at least a little, is better education. Better education at schools or through public, government sponsored programs.

I live in India - a global source for low cost manufacturing, especially in clothing (Gap, for example, sources more of their stuff from Indian mills/manufacturers than from any other country).

Through having customers and friends in the export business, I know that all high profile international companies (and IKEA certainly qualifies) have extremely stringent preconditions for doing business with local companies - minimum wages, maximum work hours, employee benefits (including things like the number of toilets per employee!), environmentally friendly processes etc etc. These criteria are laid down prior to signing contracts and are included in the contracts - random site verifications are factored in, and happen.

It is no longer just good enough for a local manufacturer to be able to produce an acceptable quality product at an acceptable rate. They now have to comply with many other requirements.

Living in developed economies I think many of you forget (and thank you Étienne Després for your mention) that by giving developing economies their business, these corporations are infact raising the standard of living of families around the world.

I'm not making a case for or against IKEA in particular - I don't know enough about them (they don't have outlets here), but just want to let you know that you've got to consider working conditions in the context of the country in question. What you, accustomed to an air-conditioned office and ergonomically correct furniture may consider a 'sweat shop' may actually be a fairly acceptable work environ for many people around the world.

And, to reiterate, all large organizations do have non-product-related requirements if you want to do business with them.

The scenario - at least from a human perspective is really a fair bit better than seems to be thought.

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