Is Ikea Normcore?

29 June, 2017

In a recent conversation in our Penthouse Library, W magazine’s Alix Browne and design guru Jim Walrod held forth on fashion versus function and the cultural impact of America’s favorite Swedish import finding its cool factor.

On the design generation gap

Jim: “A younger generation has been locked out of buying design. When I was a kid, I was able to go into thrift stores and buy sixties and seventies furniture. If you’re born in the eighties or nineties, where do you find Memphis [Group]? In a thrift store? How do you even begin to look for that? It was a failure in the United States. The prices started off around $1,000 to $2,000 for a lamp. No wonder kids buy stuff that’s really, really plain. They’ve been locked out of their past.”

‘Flamingo’, ‘Kristall’, and ‘Polar’ Tables by Michele de Lucchi, designed in 1983 for Memphis
'Lido' Sofa, by Michele de Lucchi, designed in 1981 for Memphis; from David Bowie’s personal collection

On normcore

Alix: “Normcore seemed to be reaction of kids who decided they didn't want to participate in fashion. Maybe you say, I can’t afford it; it's not for me. I don't want to wear someone else's idea. I'm just gonna not participate. I'm gonna wear a normal t-shirt, some ugly jeans, and some white sneakers. In a funny way, that sort of anti-fashion stance became more of a form of snobism than anything people who really take fashion seriously could put out there. It’s a new form of fashion nihilism, a reaction to what's going on in the mainstream, but the joke’s on them. When it gets co-opted by fashion, that's when it becomes ironic and cynical.”

Alix: “I like the spirit of disruption that Normcore brings to the fashion world, but at the end of the day, I'd rather buy that look from Goodwill or American Apparel, which sadly doesn't even exist anymore, than from Balenciaga. How many of you would buy a $2,000 leather version of those 99-cent Ikea bags from Balenciaga? It’s too ironic.”

Alix: “Ikea is the most earnest, happy place. They're just making furniture so people can live in nice spaces. You can buy Ikea ironically, but it's not designed ironically. Balenciaga right now is designed ironically. So you can't buy it sincerely.”

Alix: “It's about intent more than anything. You can judge things based on the virtue of their design, but what's the intent of the person who's selling them and designing them and putting them into the world. And the person who's buying them.”

Balenciaga Menswear SS18 Collection
Jerry Seinfeld is a reference in Normcore Fashion
Adam Sandler in Normcore Fashion

On aspirational design in the U.S.

Jim: “If you want a designer look, you can go into a thrift store and get it. With design and furniture, you can't do that. There's nothing comparable. Imagine if you wanted to buy a shirt and had to hire a stylist in order to get it. And that stylist was gonna get 20% off and charge you 20% on top of that. There's no real design market in the United States because there's no way people buy furniture besides Design Within Reach.”

Alix: “At some point the idea that college kids were the ones buying Ikea came in. But I was looking at the new Ikea and they have a lot of groovy designers designing stuff for them now.”

Jim: “Gio Ponti once designed for Ikea. They hired so many good people. They were all anonymous because they didn't think there was any premium in the name of the designer on top of it.”

Prototype Walnut Writing Desk; Gio Ponti, 1953
Chest of Drawers by Gio Ponti, 1952-1955

On anti-fashion becoming mainstream

Alix: “In everyone's favorite period of Marc Jacobs, he would come out in his nerd glasses and high-waisted khakis and a button-down. He was already taking that anti-fashion stance, even though he was flying high as one of the most important designers globally. Being in it, but not of it. It’s appealing for kids to say I'm not going to participate, but my look is going to be considered and stylish, in opposition to everything else that is going on in fashion.”

Alix: “When you're suddenly elevating these kinds of looks to the level of fashion, it's like the snake eating its tail: they're setting themselves apart from fashion and yet putting them on a runway, advertising in Vogue. It starts off as something radical, but then you're asking people to pay a fashion price for something that they're saying is not.”

Marc Jacobs's normcore period

On the business of design

Jim: “The design business is one of the worst businesses in the world. It's so snobby. It precludes people from buying and having great objects and makes people feel bad about themselves. You walk into places and all of a sudden it's like the objects are better than you.”

Jim: “I had a client who was 80, and I took her to buy a piece of Italian furniture and the salesperson said to her, well, you know, you can buy it, but it's gonna take 15 weeks. And she looked at the guy and said, who knows if I have 15 weeks. What am I gonna do? Count down the days until I'm able to get a fucking sofa in my house?”

On fetish & fashion

Alix: “With fashion, there are people who are like, oh, I love that Gucci look, I'm gonna go buy it at Zara. And there are people that are like, I'm not going to buy into the Gucci look at all. There are people who are equally snobbish about an acid-wash, high-waist jean as someone buying that Gucci fur-lined slipper.”

On fashion vs. furniture

Alix: “There's a certain level of confidence in furnishing your home that doesn't exist in fashion. People wear clothes every day, and you're buying stuff constantly. But buying your first sofa? I was terrified. I'm like, oh my God, it's this piece of furniture I'm going to have for my whole life and I can't buy the wrong one. Furniture is much more complicated than clothing for many people. So they just buy something neutral and blank.”

Typical college dorm room layout
College dorm room furniture line staged by Ikea

On democratic design

Jim: “You could argue that [Ikea] is the most successful out of any of the design movements. Bauhaus failed the second that Mies van der Rohe started fucking around with Barcelona chairs and pushing the price up to $500 a chair in 1923. That precluded furniture for the masses.”

Alix: “Ikea has design for everyone. It’s not about knowledge: it's about taste. You can’t learn taste. Design is a much more magical process. You can go to school and study design, but that's not necessarily going to make you an innovative and interesting designer.”

Jim: “Ikea has educated a lot of people in the United States. Because its derivative of a certain type of design. It's not offensive and for people that don't know design, it's actually really flashy.”

Alix: “The conundrum of Ikea is that it’s aesthetically designed to last, but not built to last.”

Jim: “Cheap design that's tasteful is better than 90% of the furniture that's in households in the United States.”

Moment sofa by Neils Gammelgaard for Ikea, 1986

On challenging aesthetics & taste

Alix: “Design allows people to feel very superior, like a more evolved person. Someone says, that's a fucking ugly chair. And you’re like, no, no, no. Let me tell you why this is an important chair."

Jim: “I like living in a very uncomfortable way. I can have some ugly stuff that challenges me. Why does it all have to be beautiful?”

Alix: “The average person doesn't want to come home at the end of a long day at work and be challenged by the chair they're sitting in.”

Jim: “There should not be a job for me. It's like, a decorator? Come on, what the fuck is that? All of you have is your own taste, your own perceptions. It's almost like a Rorschach test.”

Alix: “Taste is a function of what's important to your peer group.”

On breaking up at Ikea

Alix: “Ikea's a theater of humanity.”

On Ikea's meatballs

Jim: “I want fucking meatballs.”

Ikea meatballs

On how Ikea became the norm

Jim: “Before Ikea, homes all looked exactly the same: an overstuffed sofa, some French provincial dining table and chairs. It was radical, the idea of clean-line, blonde, functional furniture. Now, it's just the language of what somebody young furnishes their apartment with.”

Alix: “Ikea’s furniture isn't meant to take over a room. It's just meant to be there and not challenge you.”

Jim: “When I was 16 years old, I went to work at a store that was the testing ground for Memphis. I walked in there and I thought, ‘wow, look at these Italian guys trying to make American fifties cartoon furniture.’ I had no idea what they were doing. But I started to figure out what the principles were, and went back to comb the history of American-made furniture. It opened up the door to something. In a lot of ways, Ikea does that for people.”

Alix: “The sad thing about Ikea is the sense of transience that it inspires. Everyone in that store is in transition. They're having a baby. They're going to college. They got divorced. They're getting their first apartment. As well-designed as it could be, it never inspires a sense of permanence. It's built to satisfy that very immediate need. Design should be built to last.”

Jim: “I have Ikea shelves covered with laminates, just because it was the cheapest way to get shelves in the house. To this day, everybody says, where did you get those?”

Alix and Jim in conversation in our penthouse

Words by Alix Browne, Jim Walrod, and The Editors.

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