ATLANTA—IKEA, the rapidly growing Swedish retailer of inexpensive home furnishings, claimed another 10,000 American lifestyles in 2003, according to a report released Tuesday by the Center for Interior Design Control.
"This epidemic of self-assembled, clean-lined modernist furniture is still largely contained to densely populated urban areas, but the danger exists that it will spread to other regions throughout America," CIDC spokesman Chris Greeves said Tuesday. "At the rate it's moving, our nation could suffer European levels of Scandinavian design within a decade."
Greeves said IKEA is not easily controlled, as it spreads largely through word of mouth.
"It passes between rooms until it has infested not only your living room, but also your 1.5 bathrooms, your cleanly appointed kitchen, and then your entire sun-drenched, open-plan loft apartment. In the most extreme cases, it will even spread to the string-light-decorated rooftop patio overlooking your recently gentrified neighborhood."
The IKEA encroachment began attracting attention in 1985, when the first American IKEA store was diagnosed in Philadelphia, infecting an estimated 2,500 homes with Stenkulla tables, Blankhult chairs, and Ingebo sofas almost overnight.
"My friend Kyle was the first person I knew who got IKEA," said Adam Goldman, a Manhattan web designer who said he now knows "20 or 30 people" who have the furniture. "I was at his place on a Friday night, and everything was normal. He mentioned that he was going out to shop for a little bookcase the next day. A week later, his whole place was so thick with blond birch veneer and chrome wire shelving that he could barely stand up."
Goldman's friend lost the apartment later that year, but Goldman could not confirm IKEA as the cause.
"The real problem isn't the furniture—it's actually been around for years," Greeves said. "The problem is the people who spread it. Many of them are embarrassed that they have it, but they show a brave face to the world and talk about low cost and convenience. What those who've contracted it won't talk about is the fact that IKEA is mostly self-assembled."
Greeves added that many people who have lost their lifestyles to IKEA started out thinking of full-blown IKEA home remodeling as "something that happens to other people."
"They know the danger is there—they've been to those dinner parties," Greeves said. "But they think, 'That's not going to happen to me. I'll just get some CD racks… and maybe one of those canvas magazine holders."
Greeves continued: "Those whose homes are infested with the IKEA fittings are mostly young and newly financially independent. They're not careful with their new freedoms. In a spontaneous moment, a chrome Stalaktit seems like a sensible lighting solution. They don't stop to think, 'Hey, this could be something I'll have to live with for the rest of my 20s.'"
CIDC officials say they are unsure exactly how many U.S. rooms have been claimed by the furniture and décor line, but they fear that the number of homes in which one or more residents have been exposed to IKEA could increase as much as 80 percent by 2008.
"The chances of contact with the infectious brand are increasing rapidly, because very few areas of daily life are safe from the IKEA bug," Greeves said. "The existence of such seemingly innocuous items as IKEA tea lights, napkin rings, desk accessories, and beach-sports equipment dramatically increases the average person's chance of falling prey to IKEA consumption."
Karl Westin is an actor who came down with a truckload of IKEA when he moved from Seattle to Burbank, CA, in 1996. In recent years, he has spent thousands of dollars eradicating it from his house.
"For me, it started slowly," Westin said. "I had a Poang—it's a form of chair—and I just couldn't seem to get rid of it. That led to a lot of other things I'm not particularly proud of. I indulged in Leksvik, Branas, even a Svingen. If you don't know what those are, consider yourself lucky."
Although Westin said he has been IKEA-free for more than a year, saving his lifestyle was neither easy nor cheap.
"It took a lot of expensive Restoration Hardware sessions before the IKEA was totally wiped out," Westin said. "And I'm one of the lucky ones. I hate to think what happens to people who can't afford to go out and get the new window treatments they so desperately need."
Greeves said the IKEA threat, once dismissed as a weak European form of viral marketing, increases for Americans daily. There are already 18 known IKEA centers in the U.S., with six more poised to arrive soon in such heavily populated areas as Minneapolis, Phoenix, and Dallas-Fort Worth.
"If an individual lives within 100 miles of an IKEA store, the chances of finding IKEA inside his home increases 20-fold," Greeves said. "It's important for anyone in close proximity to one of these stores to take precautions. That friend with the SUV who invites you to come along to IKEA 'just to look' is exposing you to the risk that you'll walk out of that place carrying a 24-piece teal-blue plastic picnic set."
This year, the CIDC will team up with corporate partners Wickes and Ethan Allen, who have each pledged $200,000 to a campaign to spread the message about alternatives to cheap composite furniture, even for those who are young or on stipends.
Still, experts fear that things will get worse before they get better.
"At present, the IKEA epidemic is mostly limited to the coasts, but if the populace isn't educated about the very real aesthetic dangers of IKEA, more lifestyles will be lost all across the nation," Greeves said. "Just last week, we received a report about a young man who'd moved to Wyoming to go to college. His very first week in the dorms, he went to the IKEA web site. A week later, he broke out a bright red Klippan sofa. He's just 18 years old, the poor guy. No matter where he ends up going in the coming years, he'll be carrying the IKEA sofa."