Small Spaces

My three-decade obsession with IKEA and rules for a successful shopping visit

By Mary Lowengard  | January 4, 2021 - 1:30PM

"I trek to one or the other IKEAs encircling Manhattan (Brooklyn, Hicksville, Elizabeth, and Paramus) on an irregular basis even though I should have outgrown IKEA 20 years ago," our writer says.


Jules Antonio/Flickr

Do you think IKEA is exclusively for recent college grads or cooing couples feathering their first nests? Guess again. I am neither and I have a true-blue-and-yellow loyalty to the megalithic, monolithic, monsterific “furniture and home goods” (and so, so much more) emporium. Before you click away, let me tell you why you might want to search out a little lagom (that’s Swedish for hygge) for yourself, too.

I trek to one or the other IKEAs encircling Manhattan (Brooklyn, Hicksville, Elizabeth, and Paramus) on an irregular basis even though I should have outgrown IKEA 20 years ago. I know I should be leaning into Ethan Allen, CB2, Pottery Barn, or Design Within Reach like other adults. In fact, I probably should be döstädning, the so-called gentle art of Swedish death cleaning—decluttering in order not to burden your loved ones after your demise with six, paperback-filled Billy bookcases (one sold every five seconds, perhaps because it’s the easiest to pronounce). But I’m not. It’s a Friday morning in late December and I’m at IKEA.

I headed there in search of truth, justice, and the American way to help explain this seeming conundrum: What is it about the big barn that I adore? Is ongoing patronage evidence of my savvy consumer instinct—or an unresolved mental health issue?

It is both and neither. I like IKEA, but I accept it for what it is and manage my expectations accordingly. Foremost is a commitment to the certitude that the IKEA experience will be pleasant and productive, on average, every other visit. I can attest to times when I zipped through, scooping up everything I came for (and then some), flew through checkout and escaped, happily munching a skorpor kardemumma.

But other times, it can be quite the opposite, a descent into the Fourth Circle of Dante’s hell. Like that time when the lamp I came for was still on the boat; I was heel clipped thrice, and the box I wanted would squish me like a bug if I tried to pull it off the shelf. Plus, the checkout queue extended across state lines and the frozen hunks of salmon were out of stock until next Tuesday. 

The first IKEA

For sure, part of my fierce and continued affection for IKEA stems from sentimentality—and no small amount of pride in the fact that I was an early adopter. No really, hear me out: I “discovered” IKEA back before many others did, like the Vikings bumping into North America five millennia before Columbus.

I was tipped off by my pal Pam. She gave me the IKEA birds-and-bees talk one winter day in 1987. Yes, the first IKEA opened in the U.S. in 1985 but remember, there was no internet, no Facebook, no cell phones to get the word out. In those days, it was merely a local furniture shop out in suburban Philly that happened to be Scandinavian, big, and cheap.

Pam told me about the vastness, the no-nonsense Swedish styling (overstuffed chintz was de rigeur that year), the Allen wrenching and the mind-bogglingly low prices, all while I was gently bouncing in a Poäng birch veneer chair. Which she still has.

My usual IKEA routine

Here’s how I furnished my closetless West Village sublet over the course of the next few months: I took a bus to Newark Airport and rented the largest, cheapest car on the Budget lot. Then I drove 90 minutes southwest to the IKEA in Plymouth Meeting, PA. I came, I saw, I shopped. I crammed my spoils into the car. I did this three or four times over the span of my 13-month tenancy.

Then, I headed down the Schuylkill Expressway, arguably the most terrifying road in America, for an overnight visit with my friends Jean and Dan. We unloaded everything into their vestibule—their West Philly neighborhood was a tad sketchy. The next morning, we reloaded the car. I drove back to the city, lugged my purchases into my apartment, returned the rental and boarded the bus home. All this before the real work began: Opening the boxes and building the furniture.

IKEA has long been a journey for me, not a destination; a catalyst for a pleasant repast with friends and 24-hour escape from the city. And a necessary capstone of that journey is the life-affirming, confidence-building, patience-demanding exercise of interpreting the construction instructions, written in ancient hieroglyphs. It is a rite of passage to put a piece of IKEA furniture together, stand it up, and realize it is backwards.

Nowadays, it is possible to skip this character-building (no pun intended) activity altogether by passing the shopping and set up duties on TaskRabbit—a company that so excelled at this niche business IKEA bought it three years ago. I make use of this from time to time, rationalizing not only is the bureau set up for me, but I’m also saving tolls, not to mention the $50 of impulse purchases I would throw in the cart on my way out.

Alternatively, you can buy IKEA furniture that’s already built if you’re willing to buy used. Search by name, like Hemnes bureau, and you’ll get lots of hits on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. Word to the wise: Before you hand over cold cash and maneuver that bureau down five narrow flights of stairs, try to remember you recently traded your family-friendly Honda Pilot for a snappy BMW 3 Series. Measure twice, buy once. True story.

Can't break up with IKEA

The funny thing is—just when I started to exhibit signs that I was outgrowing fiberboard furniture, I acquired a couple of kids. And as so eloquently expressed in Godfather III, right when I thought I was out, I got pulled back in.

By this time, the mid-1990s, the Elizabeth store opened, abutting Newark Airport. I now owned a car. We could be at Exit 13A in a mere 20 minutes, grab a table on the cafeteria terrace and watch the planes come in, bouncing as they hit runway R4/L22. A single serving of Swedish meatballs and fries was ample nourishment for my trio. (I opted for gravlax.) Then, it was off to the ball room, to drop the boys to play in a pit of germy multicolored plastic balls, which I rationalized was building their immunities. Me, I stole an hour of quality time with my baby girl, introducing her to the latest, greatest in IKEA kitchen design. IKEA had morphed into our own museum/ luncheonette/daycare center/Swedish-themed amusement park.

We repatriated to the city a few years later and I went full-on IKEA throughout the apartment and for the kitchen reno. As we waited for the contractors to grace us with their presence, unopened boxes of cabinetry, trim, and appliances sat in the living room, a custom parcourse for the kids. That kitchen put in 23 years of good service; well worth waiting the three months for the installers to show up. I upgraded it this spring, a whole other story.

My recent stroll through the market maze called to mind the essential tenets I’ve followed over the years that keep my love for IKEA alive. Here’s my list.

  • I go first thing in the morning or just before closing, never on Sunday or for that matter, Saturday.
  • I check inventories online; if there are two doohickeys in Paramus and seven in Hicksville, Hicksville is where I’ll head. Blasting Billy Joel on the way of course.
  • Feeling construction averse? Hello, Task Rabbit.
  • Buyer’s remorse? You have 364 days to bring the stuff back. Unless it’s Leap Year. The worst part is matching all the crazy Swedish names on the receipt to the items.
  • Teenagers can be useful. I would deposit my kids in separate checkout lines while I did the Swedish Supermarket Sweep. We’d reunite in whichever line had inched closest to the cashier. Their reward? IKEA Bistro hot dogs all around.
  • Overwhelmed? The IKEA Planning Studio is a godsend. It’s free! You can book an in-person or virtual appointment. Their consultants know a thing or two about design for tight spaces.
  • Thinking about a kitchen upgrade? Think Home Depot will do a better job? Be my guest. Good luck finding a jar of sylt lingon there when you’re scoping out countertops.
  • While I have enjoyed a Girl’s Night Out meeting my FiDi friend Angela off the ferry at the B’Ikea (as we call it), there is not one earthly reason I can think of to ever cross any IKEA threshold in the company of a spouse or spousal equivalent, a significant or insignificant other, or Bumble first date that I would desire to be on speaking terms with after the visit. Just say no.  

An hour later, I was heading for the Brooklyn Bridge with four packages of Fantastik paper napkins (truly fantastic), a mini-spree in the lighting department, a back-up French press coffee pot, and some random tchotchkes. Not bad for a trip intended as research for this article. I’m just hoping it doesn’t count against my “pleasant IKEA visit” quota. Hope springs eternal.

Two bags of Sour Viking gummies were consumed in the writing of this story.

Mary Lowengard is a writer and editor who has been in a New York Real Estate State of Mind since 1971.


Mary Lowengard

Mary Lowengard is a New York City-based freelance writer with more than three decades of experience as a journalist and editor.

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