Re-assembly Required: Artists on IKEA


IKEA has had a profound effect on our everyday lives; at the very least, hordes of us have acquired a BILLY bookshelf or gone in search of meatballs after losing our way in the showroom. After coming across an online quiz this fall that asked us to guess whether photos were of minimalist sculptures by Donald Judd or pieces of cheap modern furniture, we started wondering about the ongoing interactions between artists and the affordable design powerhouse.

If IKEA has seemingly digested the forms of Minimalism, what do artists see when they look at the blue-and-yellow behemoth today?

Way back in 1996, as IKEA was extending its global reach, Daniel Birnbaum wrote an article in Frieze about the company’s philosophy and how artists like Andrea Zittel and the late Jason Rhoades were casting a critical eye in its direction. Since then IKEA has become an even bigger presence and a new set of artists have picked up the charge.

Field Guide to Style and Color, 2007

With over 175 million copies printed annually, the IKEA catalog allegedly beats out the Bible as the most widely circulated publication in the world. Catalog in hand and armed with software that averages visual content, Jason Salavon set out to “transform that ubiquity of design into varied pure color arrangements” in a set of three projects. Joining the two others, 374 Farben and Catalogue , Salavon’s Field Guide to Style and Color reproduces the entire 2007 IKEA catalogue, reducing it to its fundamental colors and basic layout.

Untitled Chair Forms, 2008-2009

Berlin-based artist Nathan Baker uses the ready-to-assemble pieces of IKEA’s basic Stefan chair as the building blocks for faux-modernist or -minimalist sculptural forms, which he documents in photographs. Baker is interested in how creativity is limited by available resources, and the possibility of emulating sculptures using mass-produced components that are supposed to be the skeleton of a simple, functional object.

FLAMMA, 2008, photo via Platform21

Of course, finding unintended uses for IKEA goods has emerged as a cottage industry in its own right, with the spread of blogs devoted to IKEA-hacking. Artists have gotten in on it too, though their contributions tend to be satirical or vaguely subversive rather than aimed at squeezing new function out of shelves and table lamps. Take Dutch artist Helmut Smits, who provides a tutorial on how to start a fire using eight standard IKEA products.

Joe Scanlan does one better. Among the various “art commodities” that he has sold through his website Things That Fall is a DIY coffin you build out of IKEA bookshelves ($27.50 shipped, some assembly required). It even comes with pictorial instructions and a pseudo-Scandinavian name. As Scanlan deadpans on the site, “it’s a great choice for anyone who prefers that their funeral be a modest but stylish affair.” Sad to say, it’s currently sold out.

Catalogue (Blue Tables), 2007

Jeff Carter also reconfigures IKEA components but he often adds electric motors, creating kinetic sculptures that allude to “the tourism of objects” and the effects of globalized design. In Catalogue (Blue Tables) Carter transforms a coffee table into an angular ocean where the replica of a disposable water bottle “floats” on the waves. Meanwhile, other artists, such as Bjorn Andreassen deal with tourism more literally by photographing store visitors and “mapping the world of IKEA” (a map from his Ikea Atlas starts off this post).

Guy Ben-Ner‘s recent video, Stealing Beauty, 2007, adds a human face to questions of displacement and economic exchange. As Postmasters Gallery described when they exhibited the work in 2008, “Stealing Beauty was shot without permission at numerous IKEA stores around New York, Berlin, and Tel Aviv. In the movie [Ben-Ner and his wife and children]… inhabit idealized showroom interiors with price tags dangling from furniture, and shoppers occasionally interrupting the family’s daily routines.” Filmed with a hit-and-run style, the piece is funny and poignant but more than a little political too.

And as we wrote about in September, apparently even Banksy has a few thoughts on the topic (though he hasn’t officially claimed this one).

Leave a comment about your favorite IKEA-tweaking artworks or share your own project ideas, whether you love their flat-packed agenda or loathe it. Me, I might just have to round up other lucky people who share a name with a piece of IKEA furniture for a series of people+product portraits. Apparently I’m a swivel chair.