I’ve recently embarked on a quest to find the perfect coffee table. And when I say perfect, I mean an adequate coffee table that won’t require me to sell my right kidney to an Uzbek organ dealer to finance it. That sounds pretty simple, right? You’d be forgiven for thinking that. However perusing the furniture stores of Lebanon isn’t as straightforward an experience as you might envision.
Products fall into three broad categories. First off, you have the ridiculously unaffordable foreign brands. “Ooh, look, such a pretty desk lamp. Oh wait, it costs three months salary”. Secondly, you have the highly talented local designers, who’ve appropriated tradtional approaches to craft and who make coasters that cost more than my undergraduate education. The final and most prevalent category is the plethora of nauseating “galleries” selling faux Louis XVI armchairs and gold-plated dog bowls.
So it is with wistful melancholy, in a showroom that redefined my understanding of how many shades of grey the world has to offer, that my mind wandered to Neasden. “Not THE Neasden!” I hear you clamour. “You mean the Neasden where the UK’s first McDonald’s drive-thru opened its greasy doors in 1988?” That very one, ladies and gents. The streets of this fair neighbourhood are lined with semi-detached houses with boarded up windows, and burnt out 1993 Ford Fiestas sit idly in their drive-ways. It’s what I like to call “ASBO chic”.
But my nostalgia for this bastion of urban decay and suburban squalor isn’t tied to the golden arches or the rolled up copies of the News of the World in the dash of every Transit van. This part of the picturesque borough of Brent was home to my preferred branch of IKEA.
Man, I miss IKEA. Furnishing a flat was such an easy task. I was so enamoured by this Swedish cathedral to flat-pack furniture that I regularly volunteered to help friends with their trips to the place, even if I didn’t need anything.
Any IKEA excursion worth its salt starts with a hearty meal. You head to the canteen and savour the Swedish Meat Balls and Elderflower presse, and the endless supply of Daim bars. Once you are fully satiated, you can embark upon the epic journey that awaits you.
There’s no feeling on Earth quite like that of being gently shepherded through a maze of great-value-for-money furniture. In an orgy of blue and yellow and cheap prices, your eye wonders in amazement. You go to IKEA wanting to buy new curtains and leave with a Wok, 16 shot glasses and a life-size painting of Audrey Hepburn. All for 6.99. No wonder more people go to IKEA than to church on a typical Sunday in the UK. And that’s a fact.
IKEA has more than 313 stores in 38 countries. Imagine how many people that represents on a Sunday, all over the world. An army of bickering couples armed with little tiny pens, product numbers and oversized blue carrier bags full of trinkets they never knew they needed. That’s millions of people every week negotiating the labyrinth of Scandinavian design. I tried to depart from the indicated route they want you to take through the shop once, and I got sucked into a wormhole that sent me to medieval Hungary. Never deviate from the path. The flat-pack gods want you to tread a certain route. Do not incur their wrath.
The product names are glorious. A true festival of vowels, with little circles on the As and bars through the Os. Someone told me once that all the cool products, like leather couches, had Swedish names and all the crappy (literally) products, like toilet brushes, had Norwegian names. I really hope that’s true, because that would make it the most elaborate national rivalry gag of all time.
After the burst of colour and fake perfectly-designed living rooms of the display areas, you get to the real face of IKEA. You arm yourself with an industrial-sized trolley and prepare to face the rows upon rows of brown cardboard boxes. “ooh, here’s that dining room table I saw that looked so cool. Hang on, why does it fit in a box the size of an ice cream cone.” The reason that entire table fits in the palm of your hand, is because you’re going to spend 18 hours putting it together when you get home. A process that will cost you three friends and 4 fingers. And you’ll have to buy a new screwdriver, because you keep losing yours.
Once you’ve packed your Wok, Coffee Table and set of 16 book-ends into a bag, you can then proceed to look like a pillock for the entirety of your Tube journey home. Once there, you lay out all the pieces on the floor and grab the instruction manual. When I say manual, I actually mean “flimsy piece of A4 paper crammed with 500 steps which involve 67 types of screw”.
234 man-hours later, you have a beautiful coffee table in your living room. And it only cost you half the price of a pack of Wrigleys Chewing Gum. Of course, it’s probably cost you an arm and a leg (and those four fingers) in terms of time lost, but you’ve got a piece of Scandinavian design in your home for close to nothing.
And that’s essentially what IKEA has been doing for decades, democratizing design. Just like H&M (also Swedes) and those siesta-loving people at Zara have been doing for fashion, those big yellow and blue hangars allow people to bring functionality and beauty into their homes.
I highly doubt that IKEA will ever open its doors in Lebanon. First of all, the hangar itself would engulf 78% of the country. Secondly, we don’t really have enough people who move house often enough to justify the business model (contrarily to the huge expat communities in the Gulf). We still live in households with Teta and Jedo, and that aunt who never got married and where the couch has been passed down through 13 generations. “Just reupholster it! It will look fantastic! Aslan halla2 sarrit Art Deco!”
So, my friends, I’m heading off to buy some wood, some nails, and some paint to recreate my own IKEA experience but hammering together a table on my balcony. I’ll lose a few fingers, and a few hours, but I’ll have a cool table I love at the end of it. Let the spirit of Neasden live on!