The uncluttered influence of Ikea?

Inside Story, a current affairs and cultural studies newsletter from Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, has published an interesting article exploring the uncluttered influence of Ikea. “Decluttering with IKEA” explores a shopper’s desire to buy more to look like he has less.

Since many of our Workspace of the Week features include furniture from Ikea, it’s apparent that a good number of our readers (myself included) feel drawn to the clean lines and modern aesthetic Ikea offers. However, as the article points out, Ikea is a marvel at offering products that contain stuff instead of actually forcing their owners to purge. So, have we all been tricked or are only some Ikea shoppers tempted by the idea of uncluttering instead of the reality?

From the article:

… while IKEA encourages us to subscribe to the modernist design aesthetic that less is more, it manages at the same time to convince us — and this is the truly brilliant bit — that more is less. By means of a sophisticated sequence of in-store placements and displays, we are led to buy not just a sofa but a lamp and some drinking glasses and some other bits and pieces as well, all the while under the illusion that the process being engaged in is not one of randomly accumulating stuff but of de-cluttering and streamlining an overcrowded life. It is no mean achievement that IKEA has continued to embody in the public mind the modernist ideals of simplicity and minimalism yet all the while its total product range has been growing — to the point where, by 2010, it comprised some 12,000 items.

I’m interested to know what you think of the article. Check it out and then come back and lend your voice to the discussion.

30 Comments for “The uncluttered influence of Ikea?”

  1. posted by Vanessa on

    Hehe, sometimes I feel that purchasing storage furniture (like cabinets or side-boards) encourages hoarding, even if it’s out of everyone’s sight and pretty.

  2. posted by Sally on

    I sometimes feel the same way when I look through the CB2 catalogue. “I could be more organized, and my space could look cleaner and more streamlined…if only I had 5 more pieces of furniture!” Lol, I think I get tricked right along with everyone else into thinking that you have to buy things to hide your things instead of truly getting rid of all the excess ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. posted by AlexisAnne on

    Hmmmmm, so what they’re saying is that instead of redoing my basement with Ikea stuff stufflike this
    I should purge some stuff? yeah probably!!!

  4. posted by Nine on

    “…Ikea is a marvel at offering products that contain stuff instead of actually forcing their owners to purge…”
    To me this suggests that it is IKEA’s duty to encourage (or ‘force’) their customers to purge but I doubt that that is really a part of IKEA’s own policy. At a guess they want to provide their customers with various products that might be used as a tool in uncluttering and organising and they want to sell these products to make a profit! The article shows how IKEA ‘works’ and how they (IKEA) are able to make a customer buy more than they actually came for. It is not an unfamiliar strategy or one that IKEA has designed. In fact, any supermarket you go to would probably do the same! If you are aware of this mechanism you can, as a customer, guard yourself from falling into the trap of buying more than you actually need. Having said that, if you use your common sense (and possibly a shopping list) you should be able to use whatever products IKEA has on offer as tools to unclutter your living and working space.

    On a personal note: I prefer the clean lines of Scandinavian and Dutch design but I cannot always afford ‘the real thing’ (whether or not IKEA is ‘the real thing’ is probably worhty of another discussion). If I can use a product from IKEA to organise my living space I will (the IVAR shelving system is perfect to organise my library/study and I have been using it with great success for many years). However, before I go into the store I make sure to have a list of the things I need and keep to that! For me shopping (especially to aid your unclutter adventures), whether at IKEA, your local supermarket or a high end design or fashion store is about taste and common sense.

  5. posted by tricia on

    I don’t think IKEA encourages uncluttered lifestyles, either. The catalog images of their furniture in action always shows packed-to-the-gills bookshelves, pillows and throws on every sofa and chair, enormous kitchens with packed cabinetry, six-layer curtain systems, and two bedspreads layered on every bed. The reason there are lots of IKEA items represented in Workspace of the Week is because they’re ubiquitous, that’s all. Someone who lives an uncluttered life can buy the same products as someone who doesn’t; it’s what you do with the products that matters.

  6. posted by Christina Rodriguez | The Diva's Home on

    I agree with the article. How we can be fooled into thinking that by buying more stuff we will have less is beyond me, but it happens all the time. I stopped buying things from Ikea because they are made of particle board and fall apart quickly.
    Cheap is good if it is something that will stand up to use, but Ikea’s storage products won’t store things for long.I just finished a year long round of yard sales to get rid of things from my home and a business I used to have. What we didn’t sell went to Goodwill. It felt so good to be rid of all that stuff and I didn’t have to buy any storage products!

  7. posted by adora on

    Anyone who has gone to design school knows that things that appear to be simple never are.

    The so-called minimalism design is about hiding your stuff behind closed doors. But you have to give it to Ikea for making it affordable.

  8. posted by lafou on

    It’s up to the consumer to purge and then organize what remains. I got into the habit of buying pretty containers to handle excess, but in many ways it is putting off the inevitable…sorting, shredding and tossing. My M.O. with Ikea is to go in with a list and stick to it.

  9. posted by Morgan on

    Ikea is a fascinating study in marketing. They’re designed precisely to keep you seeing something new and another gadget that will make your life easier. They remind me of Vegas, no clocks, no windows, carpet designed specifically to keep people moving towards the high-rolling tables, etc.

  10. posted by susan on

    Thanks for this article. It was really interesting. Ikea is a fascinating place. I wonder how many divorces have happened circling Ikea on a Saturday afternoon?

    I agree with Adora that Ikea has made design affordable and there is no cheaper place to find seriously clever design. That said, we generally only buy the “high end” ikea stuff because the lower end stuff is just too cheap and does not last (Christina’s point). We have shifted to buying used furniture– the quality is much better–we re-upholster, paint, and refinish instead.

  11. posted by Kari on

    Hmmm. My take on Ikea has always been that they have democratized design so that more people can afford it, and that their stuff helps people live more efficiently in smaller spaces, at least in Europe, where they go their start and where traditionally living space has been a good deal smaller than in, say, the US. It seems to me that people need to decide to do the purging or whatever–I don’t influencing that any more than any other place that sells stuff to help furnish, and yes contain things, in our homes.

  12. posted by Mackenzie on

    On the one hand, you’d think the giant bookshelf I got from IKEA would become a reason to collect more clutter, but it really doesn’t. It functions as a room divider between the living room and my computer/desk/hobby area and holds all my books (or at least the ones that aren’t in the “to sell” pile), spare computer parts, CDs, DVDs, sewing basket, art supplies, and paperwork. It still has a few empty shelves. The only hobby stuff it isn’t currently holding is my yarn stash.

  13. posted by Anita on

    I’m always very skeptical and wary of any store that makes itself the protector of a value, because that’s often used as a means to take the attention away from the sub-par quality of their products. I’m especially skeptical of any store or brand who purports to cater to a minimalist lifestyle. To me, that’s a contradiction in terms.

    That being said, never have I heard or seen IKEA being promoted (by its marketing team, that is) as a minimalist or uncluttered brand. At least where I live, their ad campaigns have ALWAYS been about aesthetic, NEVER about minimalism or uncluttering. Their most recent slogan is “any space can be beautiful”. Before that it was “love your home”. What in either of these (or any of their past ones, really?) speaks of minimalism or uncluttering?

    In fact, the only people I have heard exalt IKEA as a minimalist’s dream were minimalists; and they, presumably, have the good sense to only buy what they need and see past the temptation of a new candle holder and 100 tea lights.

    I like IKEA for their products: I like their look, they’re exceptionally functional, they’re affordable, they’re easy to clean and maintain, and I won’t cry over them if something gets stained or scratched. As a grown-up, I’m perfectly capable of deciding what I need and don’t need in my home (so anyone who becomes a “victim” of marketing or temptation will get no sympathy from me), and I’m certainly not about to rely on a retail store for life guidance. If we act like rational human beings, rather than magpies, I think we’ll all be fine ๐Ÿ˜›

  14. posted by Liz on

    I used to work at Ikea and I must admit that I “drank the kool-aid,” as it were. I absolutely love the company and the vision that it holds itself to. I think they have a great corporate value system and I must say I really loved working there.

    The descriptions in the article of what is called “The Long Natural Way” make me chuckle at the truth of that. The floorplan of Ikea is very precisely laid out to encourage you to see everything, each turn presenting a new vision of inspiration – and products. There is also the opposite of the Long Natural Way – the short direct way, as I call it. (I think there actually is an internal name for it, but I don’t remember it.) I have made a conscious effort to know the shortcuts in my local Ikea (not the store I worked in); this is a holdover from working there and knowing how to get from anywhere to anywhere else in the store quickly and efficiently.

    As far as the uncluttered design aesthetic, I think that Ikea tries to promote and ideal picture of what your home COULD be like. Much like how a staged home is specifically presented for sale, Ikea wants you to picture yourself (and your stuff) in the environment. Specifically in the store (not so much in the catalog), there is an image of closets that are NOT full-to-bursting, bookcases that are perfect vignettes, kitchens that really do have a place for everything… The impression is that if you buy THAT closet, or bookcase, or kitchen cabinetry, that YOUR stuff will fit the way that the staged vision is shown in the store. This is much like when you stage your home for sale, you empty out your closets and cabinets and bookshelves so that they look bigger and the buyer can vision their stuff in your space.

    Ikea is presenting and idealized version of your home. And I think they do a damn good job of it!

    On the uncluttering side, Ikea presents so many boxes and bins and baskets (not to mention shelves and storage units and sideboards…), that it can be overwhelming. The use of these as organizing tools needs to be planned, but Ikea is not at fault for the customer’s poor planning. A trip to The Container Store can result in the purchase of lots of bins and baskets and boxes and buckets too. Either way, the bins don’t solve the problem, only contain it.

    Perhaps there needs to be a marketing push to encourage the customer to purge before they buy and to assess their needs before they hit the stores. But then people would only buy what they need, and not make the emotional purchase that they think will result in a beautifully organized silverware drawer. Oh, capitalism….

  15. posted by Mike on

    Well, here’s the thing: Are we talking MINIMALISM or are we talking UNCLUTTERING? Because the two principles overlap, but are not identical.

    Minimalism is about living with less stuff. As others are saying, I’m not sure IKEA travels that road. Their entire raison d’etre is to get you to buy more stuff!

    Uncluttering is about having a place for everything and everything in its place. In this regard, IKEA’s products excel.

    /every room has its expedit bookshelf, and every room uses it well

  16. posted by chacha1 on

    EVERY home-furnishings store stages “rooms.” That is not unique to IKEA. You can go to La-Z-Boy or Ethan Allen or Macy’s and see a lovely little “living room.”

    Where IKEA stands out as a marketer is its consistent design aesthetic (it doesn’t do an Asian collection one year and a Chippendale or Adam collection the next) and its view of the whole home. You really could furnish an entire home in one afternoon, if you so chose.

    I have certainly never read anything in an IKEA catalog, or seen anything in their ads, to infer that their ulterior motive is to drive a decluttered OR minimalist lifestyle. I think those qualifiers are *read into the material* by those who do, or don’t, want to live that decluttered or minimalist life.

    IKEA just wants to sell you stuff. And they do it well.

  17. posted by KateNonymous on

    IKEA is generally not my taste, but I do find it useful. However, I hope never to enter one of their stores again. Even when looking for a specific list of items, I find my trek through their store to take too long (even if I can find a shortcut), and the purchase and retrieval process is often more complicated than it needs to be.

    On my last trip, about two years ago, we wanted to buy a faucet for our bathroom sink (which the previous owners purchased at IKEA, meaning that it was the only place to find a faucet that would fit it). The faucet was not one of the items you could pick up in the showroom. It was not one of the items you could pick up on the warehouse floor. No, it was an item that had to be purchased, and then we had to take the paperwork over to another section for them to retrieve and bring out to us. For no apparent reason, that process took 45 minutes. Between the din and the frustration, both of us walked away not just with the faucet, but with the added bonus of migraines.

    Next time I may just replace the whole sink.

  18. posted by Jenny on

    That’s how I feel about Real Simple magazine. I enjoy reading it, but it seems to take a lot of stuff to get to “real simple.”

  19. posted by Living the Balanced Life on

    I believe that Ikea has got great marketing strategies and great products at affordable prices. Just as others have said, you have to be smart, go in with a list and buy what you need.
    We never had decent bedroom furniture. I hated our mismatched dressers which tended to be overflowing. We eventually got the Ikea wall units, 12 feet of them, with the frosted glass doors. They are to the ceiling and should we ever choose to sell the house and move, they will be considered built in.
    Now instead of mismatched dressers, everything other than our bed & 2 small Ikea nightstands is in the wardrobe. I love our bedroom now and the clean, organized look it has. The room was small to begin with, but this has helped it to look pulled together.
    I think like with everything else, you have to be an adult and not be swayed by companies marketing tactics.

  20. posted by Linda Varone on

    IKEA’s design aesthetic and gob-smacking price points are a big part of their appeal. If we can step out of the typical American mind-set of “more stuff will solve my problems” and move into the European view of small spaces and hectic lives need fewer things. And what I do use can be intelligently stored. Business wants us to comsume, it is our choice whether we buy into that or not.
    About the comment of the anonymity of IKEA design: if you decorate only with IKEA your home will look generic, but if you mix and match IKEA with your own pieces – heirlooms, flea market finds, ethnic souvenirs – you will have a space that expresses your personality and supports comfort and functionality. It is like right brain and left brain thinking – all logic is boring and all emotion is overwhelming. Have fun and use both.

  21. posted by Sue on

    I’m confused. I read the article, and I don’t understand the point. It sets up IKEA as a minimalist/declutter brand, but I think that premise is wrong. It cites one example – a women whose mother, after her visit to IKEA, thought she should get rid of a lot of stuff. Then it used a character from a book who starts her life over with a shopping trip to IKEA. From these two examples, it concludes that IKEA is all about starting over/minimalism/decluttering. Um…no.

    Just look through the IKEA catalog. Every sample room is packed with stuff. The catalog is not filled with clean, minimalist spaces (like the CB2 catalog, for example).

    Sure, a lot of people setting up a new apartment may decide to start, and end, at IKEA. That’s mostly because there aren’t too many places where you can acquire absolutely everything needed for a new home. Furniture stores don’t generally sell cutlery. Big box stores have some furniture, but the selection is limited.

    People trying to declutter are also often trying to organize. In this case, IKEA’s ample selection of storage items helps us contain the stuff we keep, or helps us make better use of a small space and therefore cut clutter.

    Minimalists are drawn to the clean lines.

    And just about everyone is drawn to the prices. I wish I could afford high-end furniture, but I can’t. I’m not alone.

    Yes, the in-store experience can be painful. I’ve learned the shortcuts and sometimes walk against the arrows when something I need is closer to the end of the maze.

    But overall, I found the article started with a faulty premise, so the rest of it is fault, too.

  22. posted by Marrena on

    I don’t own anything by IKEA and I’ve never been to one of their stores, although for some reason I got the catalog until I do-not-mailed myself out of junk mail. So I can’t really comment except for the last part about it being impossible to truly unclutter. That’s not true at all and I have this blog to thank (among other influences). Instead of increasing my storage I’ve just gotten rid of my extraneous stuff. I haven’t had to buy new furniture to hide things at all. I’ve even pruned my books so that they all fit in my existing bookcases.

    On the other hand I haven’t tackled my basement yet, so I shouldn’t rest on my laurels!

  23. posted by Re on

    A store that wants me to buy what it sells? Not exactly surprising news. I thought the article went in too many directions and never really hit home with any one point.
    Oh, and I quite like the commercial with the cats. Very cute.

  24. posted by Anamarie on

    I mentioned this post to a colleague this morning and he told me about the article in Time about how a *cluttered* store is good for business, in fact! How interesting! (Link:

  25. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Anamarie — If you read Underhill’s research, it might use the words messy or cluttered but not in the way we do on Unclutterer. It talks about store shelves being “full” and there being a perception of stocking even more on the shelves. Full is quite different than messy. A store with stocked shelves looks like it is doing well during an economic downturn. A store that is barren looks like it is about to close.

  26. posted by Caroline on

    When minimalism became my focus, all Ikea shopping ended. Wish I could get those 3-4 years of Ikea-cumulation back ๐Ÿ˜›

  27. posted by Anne on

    How timely! On Tuesday, April 5 I received an email ad for IKEA which read, “Want to make clutter all but a memory? Box it, stack it, slide it, hang it.” Give me a break was my thought.

  28. posted by Nancy on

    I enjoyed this article. Just two weeks ago I was telling my sister about stopping by IKEA on my lunch hour and, once again, having trouble finding my way. The emergency exits are clearly marked, but regular exits aren’t. Finally, I made my way to the check-out stands with several little odds and ends and had to do the self-checkout because no cashiers were on duty (though someone WAS on duty to tell me no one was on duty). I must have looked wild-eyed because an IKEA employee came over to help me scan my items. Then she asked if I wanted to “buy a bag.” They no longer provide bags in our local store; you need to buy them or bring your own. My sister said her experience was much the same and that she felt like a rat in a maze. I see there’s even a name for it in the article: “IKEA rage.” I’m not sure I would go that far, but shopping there isn’t particularly enjoyable.

  29. posted by Gil on

    I agree with Katenonymous…A trip to IKEA can be useful, BUT getting out is a chore, especially when crowded.

    Personally, while some of their products are functional, this company does not promote the minimalist or uncluttered lifestyle. As one poster mentioned, one look at their catalogs will reveal filled shelves, cabinets and such. Naturally, they want you to fill your cabinets with THEIR items.

  30. posted by Chris Beiser on

    I would disagree. While they do sell their fair share of knickknacks and junk, the stuff I’ve ended up with from Ikea has really helped me declutter.
    A side table; now I have somewhere to put my alarm clock.
    Matching Garbage and Recycling cans.
    Hooks; now I no longer have my hats and clothing on the floor.
    A shelf; now my knickknacks that have sentimental value have a dedicated shelf.
    A wardrobe; now I have a place to put and hang my clothes.

    As long as you buy things you need, not the plastic leafs or hanging solar-powered lamps, decluttering is on it’s way.

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