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Catalogue of culture

IKEA's annual interpretation of ordinary life — and they also sell furniture

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IKEA is always looking ahead. In fact, the Swedish furnishing giant is already living in 2015, as you might have noticed if you’re among the 6.5 million Canadians slated to get copies of the new IKEA catalogue dropped into their mailboxes starting this week.

 IKEA began as a mail-order business, and its annual catalogue is still its key corporate statement. This compendium of Lack tables and Malm dressers goes beyond mere marketing to become a form of missionary work, spreading the gospel of Scandi-modern design. The 326-page 2015 edition is expected to reach 217 million people in 27 languages. In recent years more copies of the catalogue have been printed than the Bible.

IKEA’s influence is ubiquitous, then. Whether you’re a true blue-and-yellow believer, constantly stopping by for cheap meatballs, or a get-in-and-get-out skeptic, driven only by the desperate need for a $49 Billy bookcase, the IKEA catalogue can be seen as a fascinating cultural document.

So what does 2015 look like, at least the well-accessorized IKEA version of 2015?

WE’RE ALL SLEEPY: IKEA’s theme this year, which is framed by visuals on the catalogue’s front and back covers, is waking up and going to sleep. The catalogue leads off with a suitably soporific bedroom section.

In a time when work relentlessly follows us home on our phones and computers, IKEA has envisioned the bedroom as an escape, a retreat, a refuge. These duvet-strewn pages make a direct appeal to our time-stressed, sleep-deprived culture.

I didn’t know whether to go shopping or just go to bed.

WE’RE ORGANIZED (BUT NOT TOO ORGANIZED): The photogenic living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens of 2015 are ingeniously organized, with a tiny-European-apartment way of making use of every square centimetre of space. This year’s catalogue offers all sorts of specialized storage solutions, including ways to corral your tennis balls and vintage fedora collection.

At the same time, IKEA 2015 is a little loosey-goosey, with layouts that reveal rumpled beds, clusters of photos randomly pinned to the wall, toys and skateboards left lying around. One of the bathroom setups even features mould in the tile grout. (Is this a mistake? A way of making us feel better about our slipping cleaning standards? A strategy for getting us to buy Lillholmen wall lamps to cheer up our dingy WCs?)

This likeable laxness is partly a result of social media, which has allowed us to peer into real people’s homes. Catalogues and shelter mags have responded by abandoning their pristinely ordered visuals and embracing the casual clutter of everyday life. IKEA’s layouts are still staged, but now they’re staged to look as if someone just walked out of the room, leaving a cereal bowl and the sports page spread out on the coffee table. It’s reassuring somehow.

OUR KIDS LIKE VIDEO GAMES: Part of IKEA’s global success comes from hitting that sweet spot between the real and the ideal. The 2015 catalogue is a little bit aspirational and a whole lot relatable. It features several perfect IKEA children, for example, the kind who do jigsaw puzzles, make castles out of egg cartons and cook alongside their parents. One two-page spread features a couple of redheads getting physical activity by playing with IKEA toys designed in consultation with a Swedish circus troupe (Yes, really.)

But there are also regular, more recognizable kids, in the familiar guise of today’s youth — you know, basically slumped into their chairs and glued to their electronics. Again, this is somehow comforting.

WE’RE NOT ALL THE SAME (THOUGH WE ALL LIKE INEXPENSIVE TEALIGHTS): Pushing birch-veneered dining tables from Dubai to Dublin, IKEA is known for its global mass production and vast economies of scale. That might suggest an oppressive, standardized sameness, but the company is shrewd enough to feature lots of individualized options.

The 2015 catalogue points to all sorts of family configurations. One two-page layout offers a rather poignant summary of the realities of joint custody, for instance, by showing how to shift a tight sleeping area for nights when a single parent is alone and nights when the children are there.

WE’RE NOT SURE WHAT TO MAKE OF THE SCANDINAVIANS: As seen in the North American mania for books by Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson and television series like Borgen and The Bridge, there’s a double message coming out.

Maybe it’s there in IKEA, too. On the one hand, IKEA represents social democracy in design, all blond pine and wholesome egalitarian hominess. But maybe there are glints of something darker. What about that Hemnes storage unit packed with a collection of bird motifs? That would probably signal some kind of sinister secret in one of those gloomy Nordic-noir crime novels.

WE LOVE CATALOGUES: IKEA stores can be daunting. My experience of our giant Winnipeg location often involves hours of slightly dazed wandering. But there’s something supremely satisfying about the IKEA catalogue, which offers pages of possibility — and no parking hassles.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

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