Ikea celebrates its 30th birthday in the UK this year. I don’t think it hyperbolic to say that, since its arrival in 1987, it has transformed the way the British furnish their homes. It has entered the cultural mindset to such an extent that I feel a promise is required to readers that this column will contain no jokes about assembling flatpack furniture – the apparently humorous comfort blanket of every humdrum observational comedian on the circuit and panicking weekend supplement writer on deadline day.
Besides, Ikea is so much more than swearing and Allen keys. It has, to an extent, achieved its aim of democratising design by bringing affordable, non-fusty furniture to the masses. It helped the country part ways with its snobbery regarding middle-class home decoration, encouraging us to “chuck out the chintz”, the fussy three-piece suites and the paint-by-numbers watercolours in favour of clean, modern lines and bright colours.
Ikea was cosmopolitan and fun, minimalist and egalitarian, favoured by students, first-time buyers, and established family units alike. The shop, which shepherds its docile customers around an infuriating one-way system like livestock, stuffing them with meatballs when they become faint with hunger, was a shining palace of tealight holders you never knew you needed.
But it has also, for my generation at least, become synonymous with a kind of “beigeification” of interior design. Every flat we move into is furnished with blond wood, MDF wardrobes that look as though they might collapse when anything heavier than a gossamer-thin sweater is placed in them, paper-thin curtains and steel bed-frames that ensure there is no mystery regarding your flatmates’ night-time activities.
For all its fun and modernism, living like this can feel vaguely depressing, the temporary nature of your lodgings hammered grimly home every time you cast your weary eye over the ubiquitous uplighter in the corner that stands next to the nine-quid, appropriately named LACK side table. Because that’s what Ikea furniture can be: a reminder of what you are missing. That is, a stable home decorated with furniture you have chosen, in which you feel like an actual person, rather than a cash dispenser inside an investment opportunity, paying someone else’s mortgage as you sit bleakly in a sea of pants trying to slot the bottom back into your bedside chest of drawers. It feels as though landlords who take no care in furnishing their buy-to-lets are baldly declaring what we all really know to be true – that you, like a hastily knocked-together BILLY bookcase, are ultimately interchangeable.
I’m unique among my friends in that I have now lived in the same rented flat for six years. As a result, much of the Ikea furniture has long gone, the chairs having finally collapsed even while people sat in them, the bed frames twisted and buckled from years of bodies, to be replaced by stuff found mostly on the street, in junk shops, or on jobs that my carpenter brother-in-law did for rich people. Our sofa came off Freecycle, from a man who had collected so many aquaria he had run out of space (my husband and his brother, who went to collect it, said they momentarily feared ending up in a tank themselves, though he turned out to be not a B-movie horror maniac but a very nice man).
And it’s fine. In fact, I quite like it. I’ve been primed for it thanks to a skip-raiding mother. Even though nothing matches, it is, at least, sturdy, and that is a privilege in times like these. Such virtual skips, along with sites such as eBay and Gumtree, are the new middle ground between the cheap mass market and the out-of-reach, and that can only be a good thing. Since mid-century furniture has become fashionable, my generation have been begging pieces from bemused older relatives. There is also a whole community of “Ikea hackers” out there – about whom Ikea has been curiously twitchy, to the point of sending legal letters regarding use of the Ikea name – who use the flatpack furniture as the creative starting point for customised pieces.
I’m not anti-Ikea; I love a browse of the catalogue as much as anyone. Its meatballs are delicious. Yet its impact has been mixed, tied up with years of crappy flats and careless landlords. The time comes when you want to develop a style of your own.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian writer