There Is No “I” in Ikea

I go to Ikea because it makes me feel unique — just like everyone else who shops there

I grew up in my grandmother’s house. You may have seen it — it’s decorated in the same fashion as every other Italian grandmother-of-a-certain-age’s house: French provincial furniture, salmon wall-to-wall carpet and custom-fitted plastic on the couch. The centerpiece is a television, housed in its own carved wood cabinet and given a place of honor, like a prized antique. I made fun of this decor growing up. Often. When I grew up, my house would never look like that. I would be unique! Different! I would have rustic hardwood floors and they would be intentionally scuffed!

Then I went to Ikea last weekend and realized life is a cruel joke, sitting on a plastic-wrapped couch.

Okay, maybe not a cruel joke, but if you ever thought you might be an individual, Ikea is the best place to remind you that you are absolutely not. [SIGNUP]

I love Ikea. Because as much as I’d like to have a house full of carefully curated sustainably harvested wood furniture, custom-whittled by local artisans fueled only by fresh, local, and organic fare, I have a financial constraints. And time constraints. Need a stylish bookshelf on the fly on a middle-class budget? An upholstered armchair? Thirty ceramic mugs for an ill-conceived beef stew party? Ikea is a faithful friend.

But a friend you kind of want to pop in the face sometimes for being so popular. During this recent visit, my husband — the wielder of the Allen wrench that holds our Ikea life together — and I wandered through the massive South Philly Ikea and stopped to linger over a dresser, one we already have. And so do our friends Jim and Annie. Come to think of it, so does everyone else of a certain age: mine. It’s a nice dresser (the HEMNES) and we all bought it for the same reason: it doesn’t look really like an Ikea dresser. Except when everyone you know has it, in which case, it looks exactly — especially — like an Ikea dresser.

Before you say that you don’t shop at Ikea and this doesn’t apply to you, remember, you shop somewhere and it’s probably the same place as your peers. I’m talking to you, Main Line Mom with the same Pottery Barn couch as your neighbor. And also to you, Etsy Craft Chick with an apartment full of pillows needlepointed with ironic tattoo motifs.

I thought about this as we waited in line to pay for our new desk (the LINNARP): how we all want to be accepted by our peers, to feel included and not “other,” but different and unique at the same time. Can we have it both ways? Or are we just lemmings, flinging ourselves off a Swedish cliff into a pile of GRUNDTALS and EKTORPS and BILLY bookcases?

It’s humbling, hilarious and a tiny bit horrifying to realize you’re just like everyone else you know, but there’s something also humanizing about it. Yes, you’re very, very special, but sometimes it’s comforting to know that you’re on the same wavelength as other people. You’re yourself and a part of something larger at the same time.

And in a way, you’re just like your grandparents. And someday, your grandchildren will make fun of your decor. By then, French provincial TV cabinets, wall-to-wall carpets and plastic-covered couches will be all the rage.

KIRSTEN HENRI is Philly Mag’s food editor.