Over a year ago, in early November, I rode my bike to the IKEA Furniture Showroom in Canton, Michigan. I left around mid-morning and arrived at my destination around noon. After biking through the two lane roads and suburban grids that connected me with the blue-and-yellow behemoth, I locked my bike onto the pole of a road sign and walked inside. I rode up the escalator and touched my hand to the first ottoman in my field of vision, sitting on it as if it was in my own home.
I did have reason to act so comfortably in this particular IKEA; I have been to the Canton location at least once a year since my family moved to Michigan when I was five. And before that, we were frequent visitors at the showroom near the airport in Newark, New Jersey. As my mom helped me and my younger brother dip toddler-sized bites of the store cafe’s Swedish meatballs into warm gravy, we watched planes take off and land on the adjacent runways. We studied people lifting up their new flat-packed KALLAX shelves and placing them in the trunks of their cars.
The multi-dimensional liveliness of an IKEA store beckons hundreds of families just like ours, making a day trip out of buying a nightstand. Multiply this by hundreds of locations around the world — millions of people, eating meatballs dipped in gravy, carrying out flat boxes of disassembled shelves, putting them into the backs of their automobiles.
I’ve found that the people who go to IKEA do so in groups: clusters of friends, nuclear families, a father with his daughter, a mom with her college student. Almost everyone who ventures up the escalator into the furniture-filled showroom is connected to someone else. Their networks’ invisible strings are made apparent through distant hand gestures and eye contact or the call of a first name. They might watch a close friend sit down on a couch and then stand up from it, as if making sure they are completing the action correctly.
When I go to IKEA with my family, we maintain a similar network. My parents, armed with the all-caps European item names on tiny slips of paper, scribble notes with the store’s complimentary tiny pencils. Sometimes, my mother carries a clipboard with a black and white printout of the item we are seeking. My brother and I take on the role of furniture-hungry explorers, hunting for geometric shower curtains, drawing attention to a couch that is better than the one we have at home, opening the sliding doors to a model wardrobe, admiring extendable hangers and shelf lighting that illuminate our eyes to the possibilities of home organizing. In a section modeled after an urban condo, we pull straps and levers on couches that miraculously turn them into queen-sized beds and fold and unfold the miniature dining table that allowed this fake apartment to squeeze three rooms into one.
When our demonstrations of the latest novelties in armchair design became too obsessive, our parents moved onto media storage and office desks, their invisible strings pulling us along with them. We were the enthusiasts, my parents were the practicalists.
As my brother and I got older, and visits to IKEA became more routine, our roles while wandering the labyrinth of home goods morphed into a new standard. Our parents became more practical, zipping through the showroom to identify a specific item before speed walking through Marketplace (the soft goods section) and out to checkout.
My brother, Hector, became more efficient as well, often trying out only two or three sectional couches versus the usual dozen or more. When I broke formation and inspected the various handles of a glossy new kitchen cabinet line, my parents hurried me along with the justification of futile deadlines, like going to an art museum or reuniting with our cousins, as if anything was more important than the latest SEKTION kitchen system in a modern grey-green. My family was holding me back from becoming an expert in all things Scandinavian design — as if there is anything more culturally relevant in Southeast Michigan.
Imagine then, the freedom of wind rustling through my hair, the sun rising in the east, the tires of my bike whirring along the asphalt shoulder, passing by golf courses and farms, gas stations and subdivisions — a solo trek to interior design’s Scandinavian star. Released from the practicality of my parents and the unjust shortchanging of a time-honored family tradition, I promised myself a day to thoroughly indulge in all the trappings of IKEA Canton.
After touching my hand to that initial ottoman and searching the rest of the model living room for signs of intelligent design, I found myself in the sofa area of the store, hoping to start my solo showroom ride on a comfortable note. I bent my legs and let my back fall into the basic neutrals of a KLIPPAN sofa, mentally preparing notes on its firmness level, armrest height and vertical support.
After completing this analysis, I looked around the room, realizing I had no one to report back to. With the critical discussion of reconciling couch leisure differences absent among a party of one, I moved on to the next one, and the next one; the motion of sitting on cushions quickly becoming mechanical and burdensome. I forced myself to try out the elegant SÖDERHAMN, and the homey HÄRLANDA, knowing that I had spent an entire morning biking in search of this very luxury.
When I became too scared of embarrassment to test any more loveseats, I kept my hands busy in the kitchen section by opening and closing drawers, then pretending to wash a dish and use the drying rack on my new quartz countertop. I grazed my hands across the wood grain YPPERLIG dining table and again rated the comfortability of my seat, this time made of molded grey plastic.
I looked around the room trying to take in all of the details that my parents would normally rush me past: the woven wood chandelier, the moody blue walls, the shimmer of a metallic centerpiece. What was most eye-catching, though, were the other chairs around me. They were empty, and it was in this faux dining room where the weight of being alone in IKEA set in.
Along the slow snaking path that guides through the display area, I now moved with a new degree of self-consciousness. I kept my arms closer to myself, careful to not get too close to other shoppers to prevent infecting them with my awkwardness. I stopped bouncing in the POÄNG chair once an elderly couple walked by and refrained from laying down on the colorful floral sheets atop the MALM bed frame out of fear of being seen as odd, or worse: lonely.
To be fair, I did see other people unaccompanied on their respective IKEA visits. A young person, perhaps in their twenties, lingered around the chaises as I searched through the sofas. I glanced at them, hoping to affirm I wasn’t on my own in my loneliness. Our paths occasionally intersected as we practiced a similar showroom pace, but soon they became lost in the majority; the couples and trios and conglomerates of six crowded my vision.
Part of why I felt increasingly uncomfortable wandering alone through the Michigan branch of this Swedish staple is obvious: Everyone else was in groups, loosely bound by the laws of eye contact and soft shouts across EKBACKEN countertops, and I was not. Looking at one’s solo reflection in a LASSBYN mirror is much easier when there are others you know off stage; an arm’s reach away.
I felt that I had no good reason to be there. I wasn’t getting a new bed for my college room or designing a kitchen remodel. I was just existing on top of the colorful rugs, floating among the sectionals and grazing handles on cabinets. I had come here for a joyride, to make family tradition better through self-singularity. I felt I had not succeeded; the intimidation of social space squashing me solo. I comforted myself with a pale green smoothie and two bars of chocolate from IKEA Food before heading back to the gloomy world that characterizes post-PÄRUP melancholy.
Since this experience, I have been back to IKEA a few times, mostly with members of my family. It is harder for us all to get together now, so I go with my mom to get a holiday gift for my brother, or maybe when my father needs a cabinet replacement for the basement bathroom. The tradition is kept alive through fragments, as-is.
One year later, though, on another warm weekend in November, I retraced my tire tracks back to the asphalt fields of Canton. I rode up the escalator and touched my hand to the first ottoman in my field of vision, sitting on it to establish my presence. I was still aware of my outcast status, but the familiarity of this feeling softened sharp social pains into relatively dull, infrequent thoughts.
The multi-seat KLIPPAN still alienated me, but I found solace in a yellow STRANDMON armchair; its firmness level, armrest height and vertical support creating a new, comfortable niche for a party of one.
Statement Columnist Oscar Nollette-Patulski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.