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SocietyJanuary 10, 2019

Congratulations on IKEA, New Zealand, and good luck


You might be excited about IKEA’s possible (though far from guaranteed) arrival on this country’s shores – but just wait until your first self-assembly chest of drawers, writes Elle Hunt in the latest instalment of her series on life as a NZ expat.

Congratulations, New Zealand, on your impending Ikea. I wish you all the happiness in the world. Secretly, though, as I toast your future together, I can’t help thinking the honeymoon period won’t last long.

I was introduced to Ikea a few years ago, when I moved to Sydney. I’d arrived at my new “share house” (as it was being impressed upon me I should call it) with two suitcases pushed to their 23kg limit and no furniture to unpack them into. A kind colleague offered to drive me to Ikea in exchange for lunch of the famed meatballs, my treat.

Standing before the towering oblong on the city fringe – built to grander scale than many domestic airports, seeming to emanate an Yves Klein blue from within – I felt the same involuntary excitement, almost giddiness I’d experienced on other memorable forays of globalisation, like my first trip to Zara while backpacking in Central America.

This reaction used to baffle me as being out of character – I don’t shop recreationally, nor do I think I am in any greater thrall to brands than is inevitable at this late stage of capitalism – until I realised it was in my DNA as a New Zealander. Half my high school year group skipped class to go to Burger King the day it opened in Nelson. (I stayed behind to be educated, not without regrets.) When Topshop came to Auckland, I remember seeing young women clamouring to be its first customers, crowding its doors quite literally in the middle of a storm.

The collective excitement can be chalked up to the sense that New Zealand is finally joining the rest of the world in its proliferation of low-quality, mass-produced fare; and curiosity to see what the fuss about. Usually, it quickly becomes apparent, the answer is “not a lot”, as evidenced by Topshop’s New Zealand arm being placed into receivership and the fact that even those who skipped class to go to Burger King got university entrance.

But this was Ikea: an aesthetic, a food group, a sitcom punchline, a Twitter joke I’d so far been shut out of. One in 10 Europeans is rumoured to be conceived in an Ikea bed. It is not so much a furniture store as a way of life – bigger than Yeezus, by his own admission.

Following the marked path through the showroom, those pristine, imagined Scandi-lives there for the taking, I became so caught up in the global phenomenon that I was somewhat surprised to find myself returned to my home, two hours later, with two flat, heavy boxes bearing the promise of a chest of drawers and a bedside table.

Somehow, in the excitement of the lingonberry goods and the tiny pencils they didn’t mind you taking, it hadn’t actually landed with me that I’d have the assemble the things myself. I didn’t even have the tools. Or the aptitude. Or, really – I realised too late, with a sinking feeling – the inclination.

Over about a 10-day period, in the garage after work, I cobbled both items together with borrowed tools and increasingly hysterical Twitter commentary. Every stage had to be repeated. It made me feel stupid, like I had skipped class to go to Burger King.

Slowly, the structures began to resemble crude receptacles for soft goods (not bulky fisherman’s sweaters or anything). I proudly tweeted a progress shot. “Why do they look uneven?” replied my friend Talia. “I really enjoy watching other New Zealanders deal with Ikea for the first time,” said Will in Canberra. “I wasn’t prepared. Nobody is ever fully prepared.”

Personally, I was surprised to find that I had a fistful of leftover nuts, bolts and screws. Ikea didn’t seem the type to supply spares. When I stood each item up, it became clear: it wasn’t. The drawer of the bedside table only opened two-thirds of the way before sagging like a swing bridge. The chest turned out better, but the top drawer shut with a 20-degree gap on one side, giving it the impression of a lopsided smirk.

It mocked me. So, for a year, I never shut the drawer. When I eventually moved house I left the chest on the side of the road to be collected by the council. It felt freeing to rid myself not only of reminders of my failures, but of Ikea’s hold over me, its accessible, affordable “global functional minimalism” painfully revealed to be a chimera.

In London, I have bought all my furniture already assembled secondhand from Gumtree and Facebook Marketplace. I’ll still take up any offers of a trip to Ikea – I like the food court, and the anthropological interest to couples arguing in public. But the most self-assembly I’ve taken on was of a cardboard magazine holder.

I sense this is a lesson you will come to learn yourself, New Zealand, as I did, the hard way – the way that reduces your life expectancy by about 10 days.

Really, the only winner is Winston Peters. Whether or not it’s true that his decision to open an embassy in Stockholm played a factor in Ikea’s arrival in New Zealand, claiming credit is a political coup equivalent to making public transport free for senior citizens. That immortalised Peters in generations of pensioners’ good books; this Ikea announcement will curry favour with everyone seduced by its promise of practical, cost-effective Scandi style. At least for as long as it takes them to get the damn things home.

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