Friday 26 April 2019

How to use Ikea... Many of us have been missing a trick with the Swedish furniture giant

Flat-pack fury aside, many of us have been missing a trick with the Swedish furniture giant

Norraker chairs, €60 each
Norraker chairs, €60 each
Bror trolley, €95
Odger chairs, €80 each
Stepladder with three steps, €35
Bemz covers for Ikea furniture
Brathult corner sofa bed, €385
Hemnes bookcases, €145 each
Kallax shelving unit, €49

Eleanor Flegg

Admire a woman's outfit and she'll probably give you a twirl, proudly proclaiming: "Penneys!" How times have changed. Irish women used only to buy cheaper clothes when we were broke and admiring comments led to the shifty confession: "Oh this old thing, sure it's only from Penneys." Now, there's no shame in flaunting a bargain. Fashion has become less about the label and more about the skill in putting an outfit together. The less it costs, the better.

Something similar is happening in interiors. I recently admired a friend's dining table - an impressive looking piece in oak with a super-silky finish. "That's from Ikea," she said casually. I did a double-take. It certainly didn't look like an Ikea table, but that was partly due to context. The table sat beside an antique sideboard, under a painting by a well-known Irish artist, and was surrounded by Arne Jacobsen Series 7 chairs from Lost Weekend. Those chairs, I knew for a fact, cost €400 a pop.

That all seemed like very posh company for an Ikea dining table, but the blocky design of the Mörbylånga six-seater looked good without drawing too much attention to itself. I commented on the gorgeous grain of the wood. My host laughed, admitting that her husband, who is an architect, had spent an entire weekend fine-sanding and oiling the table top.

This is a new way of thinking about Ikea furniture. In Sweden, they've been doing it for generations. "We started much earlier with that mix-and-match approach to interiors," says Liz Nilsson, a Swedish textile artist who lives in Dublin. "It began in the 1920s with the ethos that everyone should have attractive things in their home and Ikea was a continuation of that."

Bror trolley, €95
Bror trolley, €95

Nilsson grew up in Sweden where the store has been around since 1958. That makes her an Ikea-native. As an artist and designer, she has sold designs to Ikea and worked for them directly. She's also seen the way in which the Swedish chain, which opened in Belfast in 2007 and Dublin in 2009, has raised the awareness of interior design in Ireland.

"When Ikea first came to Ireland, people in the craft circles thought that it would destroy their livelihood," she reflects. "That didn't happen. People found out that you can do both." Like the fashionista who combines a high street dress with a vintage handbag and a scarf that cost more than the rest of her wardrobe put together, Nilsson's home contains a mixture of family heirlooms, Ikea furniture, and handmade artisan items. And that my friends, is the secret to using Ikea to very best effect.

But back in 2009, it was like Santa had come to town. Ikea had tremendous novelty value and people flocked from every corner of the country. Because it's a one-stop-shop, and a long trek from almost everywhere, we filled our homes with Ikea stuff. That resulted in a lot of very boring interiors. Naturally, we blamed the retailer. "Ikea furniture is boring!" we complained. That wasn't entirely fair. A room composed of items from any one shop will always lack character.

Then, there was the quality issue. At first, beguiled by low prices, we bought the cheapest Ikea furniture that we could lay our hands on. When it failed to stand the test of time, we gave out about "disposable furniture". Now, nearly ten years on, we're beginning to realise that Ikea's more expensive pieces are better quality, and will last longer, than their cheaper options. That seems obvious, but it took a while for the penny to drop. In Ikea, just like everywhere else, you get what you pay for.

My neighbour's Mörbylånga table, for example, retails for a substantial €600. It's a beast of a yoke, measuring 220x100cm, so you'd want a large room to house it. The smaller version (140x85cm) costs €500. They are good value, but you couldn't call them cheap. Alternatives include the Ypperlig table, a good family workhorse in ash wood (200x90cm) for €200. But the Ypperlig might not inspire you to spend the weekend polishing its surfaces and it probably would look a bit incongruous with the Series 7 chairs.

In Sweden, some of Ikea's better quality pieces have a cult following. They're not treated as disposable furniture at all. People love them, care for them, and even buy them swanky covers. The Swedish company, Bemz, sell loose covers for Ikea sofas that often cost more than the sofa itself. A two-seater Klippan sofa, for example, costs €225. Ikea sells removable covers (€55) in white, grey, green, and a pattern that looks like liquorice allsorts, but there's not a lot of choice. If you love your Klippan, but fancy a different fabric, covers from Bemz come in every shade of gorgeous and cost anything from €179 to €499 (that's for Brera Lino Duck Egg linen from Designer's Guild). In one way, that's an expensive way of treating a cheap sofa. In another, there's something cool about treating Ikea basics as a blank canvas.

Bemz covers for Ikea furniture
Bemz covers for Ikea furniture

Then, there's the flat pack thing. Not all Ikea furniture is flat-packed, but the larger items are and assembling them can go horribly wrong. "Follow the instructions!" says Roger Bennett, wood turner. "Don't ever try to second guess them. If the instructions don't work, it means that you've done something wrong." He tells a horror story of someone whose builders decided that they were smarter than the Ikea instruction booklet and could assemble a kitchen without it. They failed. Eventually, they abandoned the project leaving boxes unpacked, their contents jumbled, and the units half-built. "Each one had to be dismantled and reassembled from scratch," he says. "That's the way not to do it."

When Bennett was buying his own kitchen he went out to Ikea so many times that someone suggested that he should be paying them rent. "As a craftsman I felt a bit guilty about not having a bespoke kitchen but I couldn't afford one," he explains. He purchased the kitchen on Wednesday, 105 boxes were delivered on Thursday, and he assembled it over the weekend. "There wasn't a screw missing!" he says, but admits to being a meticulous person with good carpentry skills. The kitchen cost €1,875, excluding appliances, five years ago. "I don't know how long it will last but it certainly hasn't been damaged in any way in the five years."

Ikea isn't Santa - we've learned that the hard way - but it's brought something to Irish interiors that wasn't there before.

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