For so many people I know, IKEA is not a store so much as the answer to all of their problems. Furnishing an apartment, especially for a twenty-something in a crowded urban environment, is a nightmare. Cost and flexibility are key: no one wants to be that friend who starts a desperate group text in an attempt to unload their old mattress.
IKEA's appeal is intrinsic. We've all succumbed to the wonders of its sensible domestic tableaus, but as much as the store's lure is experiential, it's also the reassuring thought that someone else has solved life for you. The aisles speak to a brighter, cleaner future without rough edges or the haunting specter of costly mistakes. Because as easy as it is to feel beleaguered by choice in IKEA, the real complacency sets in when you realize they've done all the work for you.
This is the kind of authority and pragmatism put into practice by the world's first interior decorators notes Joan DeJean in her book, . "[They] reinvented the room," says DeJean, "[and] made it a space designed no longer strictly to impress others, but above all with the well-being of its occupants in mind." Now, more than ever, well-being is a worldview, and IKEA's democratic values—smart, affordable, egalitarian—make it the consumer-centric socialist decorator of our dreams.
I don't own any IKEA.
This is not to say that I find myself above it, or immune to the pleasures of a Scandinavian utopia fantasy. But big box furniture is, to me, furniture without context, simply something to sit on, a surface off of which one might find oneself inclined to eat. Clean lines are well and good, but at some point ease starts to feel like erasure. We forget that good design starts with good ideas, intention, and love. A meaningful story, a gut reaction, an emotional connection—these are the language of design as much as wireless phone charging panels and Murphy beds. IKEA, West Elm, CB2, RH, Pottery Barn—all of these brands and many more narrate our homes to us, absolving consumers of the responsibility of hiring a decorator by stepping in and handing them a catalog.
Our visual culture might be partly to blame. Contemporary furniture, particularly that which echoes the mid-century styles made popular on Mad Men, lends itself well to the kind of curated minimalism that garners the most likes on social media. But how does it feel and function in a space? And does that matter if you're never home and primarily need a room that reflects how artfully uninhibited you manage to be on Instagram — traveling to Cuba one week and "unwinding" at home with a cup of coffee and a good book the next?
Gully Wells lamented this phenomenon in the , commenting on the lost art of collecting. "Accumulating objects was a way of placing yourself in a historical continuum, of assuming temporary ownership of something that once belonged to someone else and, after your death, would belong to someone else still." Nowadays "accumulate" is a loaded word seemingly aimed at the one percenters, an audience plagued by another Warhol to unload. For the rest of us in the golden age of Marie Kondo, our only reference point for excess is the landfill. But collecting, inheriting, passing down—these actions don't require a fortune, nor do they ask us to rent an additional storage unit. Has amassing become taboo?
I, for one, am an admitted collector, and I do it for myself—and, well, maybe one day an Etsy shop. I'm the proud owner of more than a few street finds, one of which turned out to be vintage , another of which simply mimics the lines of Gio Ponti's Superleggera chairs to eye-catching effect. I am constantly combing through my parent's old junk calling "dibs," much to their chagrin. I've got my name on a pair of old captain's chairs (not literally—I didn't want to damage them), and routinely pore over old photos my father took, stashing away my favorites to be framed. The more I have the better it all works together; I see patterns emerge and more of myself in the mix. Maybe decorating shouldn't be easy, maybe it shouldn't be fast.
The thrill of collecting and storing and referring back to is, for me, a high I can't let go of, or hand off to someone else. I want to be able to see myself in my space, and the people I aspire to be should have a presence there, too. 's Michael Zipp blames the convenience of online shopping for millennials' affinity for chain stores, eschewing the web himself in favor of shops, boutiques and flea markets, the end goal being an accumulated room that reflects its owner's sense of self. "When it comes to decoration it's sometimes hard to slow down and really consider what you are buying, but the payoff of having a collected, eclectic home is definitely worth it." Laura Schneider, former PR director for online marketplace 1stDibs and a collector herself, confirms that the "inherited look" is coming back into fashion, urged on by the fresh viewpoints offered by the likes of designer Michelle Smith and Cabana editor Martina Mondadori. "If traditional antiques are artfully mixed with contemporary design, the result is cozy and inviting."
And so I find myself between the hackers and the hoarders, wondering if this is really what the contemporary design spectrum looks like for a budget-minded twenty something. Either I own nothing, or everything I own is trash. At least I can turn to that great equalizer of taste, the Pinterest board, where you'll find me rhapsodizing over Italianate case goods and African textiles. If these boards reflect nascent preferences and a sense of innate style, my bedroom is a workshop where these worlds actually get to collide, found objects and used furniture working in unison to mimic an aesthetic ideal that's just out of reach for now—and maybe tomorrow. And maybe a few more years after that. And that's ok.
Sean Santiago is a freelance creative consultant and digital producer living in Brooklyn, NY.