At Home in Ikea

My home is a collage of recent and not-so-recent Ikea catalogues. I eat at an Ikea table, sit on Ikea chairs, work at an Ikea desk, arrange my books on Ikea shelves, lounge on an Ikea couch, draw Ikea curtains, and sleep on an Ikea bed. And in this collage, the actual Ikea catalogue sits in a pile of brochures and pamphlets in the living room’s Ikea coffee table. Where my private home meets the famed catalogue of domesticity and an Ikea public showroom is a blurry line.

Last year, this sort of public-private fuzziness took centre stage in Saudi Arabia, with the erasure of women from the catalogue’s kitchens, living rooms, and bathrooms, and in Paris, with the simulation of an Ikea-furnished home life in a train station.

Hiding the Private from the Private-in-Public-in-Private View, or the Ghost of Women in a Saudi Arabian Catalogue

Ikea catalogues are artifacts of the Swedish retailer’s notions of industrial and interior design, home and family life, food choices, leisure activities. Page after page, readers move their eyes from object to glorified domestic scenario to object, perhaps transposing the visuals to their own homes and budgets. And the increasing use of digital 3D graphics, as opposed to digital photography only, allows Ikea to tailor its sets and catalogues to particular markets’ “aesthetic” preferences. In a few mouse clicks, Ikea’s graphic designers can choose a red Expedit for one market and catalogue, and a grey one for another.

Beyond easy aesthetic choices, this shift also produced controversial positions on women.

In the 2012–2013 Saudi Arabian Ikea catalogue, Ikea removed the women. They all left home on that day. The girls, however, were allowed to stay.

The woman entering her bedroom with an Ikea bag and box on page 52 of the American, Canadian, English, or Japanese catalogue? Gone in the Saudi one. The woman wrapped in a blanket and holding a mug in the rising sun on page 62? Erased. The woman brushing her teeth next to her son on page 93? Disappeared. The group of women eating around a table on page 118? Effaced. The female Ikea lamp designer on page 213? Obliterated.

To be fair, one woman remains. On page 314. Why her in particular? Maybe because she’s not in a domestic or private setting; she’s in a parking lot. Or maybe because she has her back to the reader and her skin is covered entirely. In the Saudi catalogue, censorship removed women from the one place they are seen to belong: the home.

In Paris, the play between private and public was just as extreme. Here, the catalogue came to life.

Going Private in the City

A year ago today, five actors entered a particularly public set that would, for the next six days, pay their bills: a 54-square-metre apartment furnished by Ikea and located in Paris’s Auber RER Station. Conceived by Ubi Bene, a communications and event agency, the glass apartment encouraged passersby to look at Ikea products in their natural setting: a home. This event made five actors’ simulated private lives, well, public. Commuters snapped photos of the actors eating breakfast in pyjamas, brushing their teeth in front of mirrors, and getting ready for “work.” (Weren’t they already at work?)

Turning the Inside Out

Both events objectified and staged “clean” versions of domestic life.

In Paris, there were no sounds, smells, or messy human relations. Spectators simply watched, watched, and watched. Anyone who hadn’t before could now say, “This is what an Ikea life looks like.”

For a Saudi Arabian market, Ikea erased women from their “natural” sphere. At once, the women were objectified and placed in the shadows of public representation.

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