Posted by: neroli36 | November 28, 2011

The First Ikea

We were discussing the Crystal Palace a few weeks ago in class. The Crystal Palace was home to the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was meant to display the latest technology and fashionable objects from all over the world.

The article we read by Thomas Richards, “The Great Exhibition of Things” combined with our class discussion made me think of Ikea, which is similar to the Crystal Palace in many ways: the gigantic size of the typical Ikea warehouse is comparable to the 990,000 square feet that made up the Crystal Palace. The way Ikea forces you to walk through the entire store is very much like the traffic flow in the Crystal Palace. The fact that both spaces are so full of material objects that it’s impossible for visitors to really ‘see’ everything.

One of the purposes of the Great Exhibition was that it was meant to inform an aesthetic, especially of the middle class. It told the middle class what kinds of things they needed to buy in order to lead a middle class lifestyle and what a middle class life should look like. Likewise, Ikea’s room displays do the same. Who wouldn’t want a room that looked this nice and modern?

The Great Exhibition created a new sense of need and desire with Victorian consumers. As Richards noted, “the exhibition created modern merchandising, which was both a way of talking about commodities and increasingly, a way of looking at them” (39). However, the items showcased in the Great Exhibition were not for sale. Consumers had to go elsewhere to buy them. Similarly, customers at Ikea walking through the room displays must go down to the warehouse area with the item code in order to purchase it.

Thus you can see how the Great Exhibition was the precursor to our modern day stores, like Ikea. I’d like to end this post with one last image and quote that I think give an accurate portrayal of the contents of the Crystal Palace:

“The aisle itself, father than they eye can reach, is studded with works of art; statues in marble, in bronze, in plaster, in zinc; here is a gigantic Amazon on horseback, there is a raging lion…Busts, Casts, Medallions, and smaller Bronzes abound; with elegant Clocks, Chandeliers, Cabinets, &etc” (Richards, 27). I think most people who have been to Ikea have similar memories or feelings about the space–at least, I definitely do: a billion different bookshelves next to a billion different lamps near a hundred kinds of organizers, etc. It’s an overwhelming place.


  1. I love your take on the way Ikea forces you to walk a certain way through the showroom to look at all the furniture. It definitely almost makes you feel deviant (like a bad consumer) when you walk through “exhibits” to get through faster, even taking their sanctioned shortcuts. There’s also the fact that Ikea sells a lot of furniture that could be a modern take on the ‘gadget’ that was popular at the Great Exhibition – furniture that is so incredibly easy to assemble that it’s basically the gadget itself. There is also an interesting mixture of pre-made items that need to be assembled and deconstructed items to use for decorating (like a large fabric section in the marketplace [can you tell I frequent Ikea?]).

    There are also a number of really interesting differences between Ikea and the Great Exhibition, most notably, the price tags. Obviously, everything at Ikea that informs an aesthetic does so with a bit more directed purpose to sell than the exhibition in the Crystal Palace did.

    But also, Ikea is based a little more along the lines of uniformity than the Great Exhibition, where every country participating was attempting to show off the uniqueness of its objects, raw materials, and products. Ikea’s different showrooms of ‘looks’ suggest that you can pick and choose pieces for your own home, but they will always fall along the lines of a few different categories of aesthetic. Think about the last time you shopped at an Ikea – it can be difficult to choose pieces from one mock room to match those in another, and I think that’s definitely on purpose. Ikea is not about an incredibly wide variety of different things (so, not actually so many different pieces of furniture) so much as it’s about variety within a predetermined frame (a lot of different colors of the same bookshelf).

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