Ikea has built an empire. The Swedish furniture giant has more than 300 stores in 28 countries. It had 771 million visitors to its stores last year. More Ikea catalogs are now printed and distributed each year than the Bible.

Many of us live out our lives surrounded by Ikea furniture. So it makes sense that the art world, too, would reflect not the rolling landscapes or pastoral scenes of old, but the stuff of modern life -- Poang chairs, Malm dressers and Billy bookcases.

A new exhibit at the Warrington Contemporary Arts Festival in northern England is doing just this, inviting artists to misconstruct, repurpose and even explode Ikea furniture. “It’s a show about the power of transformation in which IKEA provides the raw materials,” says Paul Carey-Kent, the curator of “The Dream of Modern Living? Contemporary Artists Explore Ikea.”

In one piece, American artist Joe Scanlan takes the “Ikea hack” to a new level, selling a 50-page instruction book through his website for turning Ikea bookshelves into a do-it-yourself coffin. The project, which he gives the pseudo-Scandinavian name of Kläps, is “a great choice for anyone who prefers that their funeral be a modest but stylish affair,” Scanlan writes.


DIY, 2003. Ikea parts, offset ink on paper, fresh flowers
arrangement variable
Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands

DIY, 2003. Ikea parts, offset ink on paper, fresh flowers
arrangement variable
Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands

Other pieces of artwork focus on the weird artificial world of the Ikea showroom – a kind of real-life doll house, in which customers follow a designated but winding path through realistic bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens.

Guy Ben Ner, an Israeli video artist, shoots a short film in several showrooms without permission. He brings his wife and two children to “live” among the furniture displays, price tags and curious customers in Ikea stores in Tel Aviv, Berlin and New York.

“Honey, I’m home!” he calls as he walks around the Ikea showroom, sets down his things, takes off his tie, and jumps into the shower. Through the course of the film, the family has discussions, washes up (without plates), gets into bed, and, of course, repeatedly gets kicked out of Ikea stores.


Guy Ben-Ner: Stealing Beauty, 2007. Copyrighted to the artist

The film shows a kind of pirating of the Ikea lifestyle rather than buying into it, says Carey-Kent, the curator. But in some places, where people treat the local Ikea as a kind of community center, this pirating isn’t actually too far from reality. Ikea customers in China for example, are notorious for using the showrooms to take naps and the cafeteria as a place to assess potential dates over free coffee.

Other works of art in the show are more straightforward, using the components of Ikea furniture as building blocks to create modernist sculptures – stacking Lack tables to look like the work of modernist artist Piet Mondrian or combining the designs for Ikea kitchen units into minimalist drawings, for example.


Samson’s push, or Compositie, 2010 ©Ryan Gander. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery. Image Ken Adlard.

Clay Ketter: Surface Composite Reconsidered, 2013. Archival Inket on paper, Edition of 12

These pieces hint at an already-close relationship between minimalist art, which aimed to question and push the boundaries of what kind of stuff belonged in the museum, and the affordable design of today.

Ikea has succeeded in its goal to bring the good design of mid-century minimalism to average people, and in the process that aesthetic has trickled down to mass-produced furniture sold at Target, Wal-Mart and elsewhere. (If you don't believe this, just check out this quiz, in which you have to distinguish cheap furniture from minimalist sculptures by the famous artist Donald Judd. It definitely takes a careful eye.)

There are other entertaining pieces in the show as well – one artist takes a video of himself constructing Ikea furniture blindfolded and without training, for example. Another sets off a plastic explosive in a pair of Ikea boxes cast in white plaster.


David Rickard: Absent Minded 2013. Plaster, steel and plastic explosives

Other artists outside of this show have also done interesting pieces with Ikea furniture. Dutch artist Helmut Smits offered tutorials on starting fires using eight standard IKEA products. Berlin artist Nathan Baker created beautiful reconfigurations of Ikea’s Stefan chair. The famous graffiti artist Banksy (or perhaps someone pretending to be him) even created an anonymous mural featuring Ikea.

Like our views of Ikea itself, the mood of these works ranges from sunny to funny to dark. It’s easy to see why this would be the case, because Ikea’s effects on the world are also complicated.

For many, the company’s omnipresent furniture is a symbol of globalization, erasing local difference with its unified, mass-produced aesthetic. Ikea is cheerfully domineering. It tells you how to assemble your furniture and how to decorate your rooms. It even controls the exact path you take through its store. Its success has made living spaces around the world look more cookie-cutter and uniform. (I can attest to that, having had the same shoddy Lack coffee table in both Shanghai and in Washington.)

Yet, it’s the individual who ultimately puts Ikea furniture together, offering almost endless opportunities for creative mistakes. And today, the Internet is full of “Ikea hacks” that allow people to remake and personalize their furniture. Ikea just gives you the raw materials to choose from.

“Thus IKEA, when treated in the right way, offers not levelling and global uniformity, but the very opposite – a form of do-it-yourself existential individualism,” Cary-Kent, the curator, writes, in the introduction to the show. “In “Isn’t It Great to be Swedish” (1991), the writer R. Fuchs saw this quite clearly:  ‘Life is like assembling IKEA furniture: it’s hard to understand what the point is; you’re unable to put the pieces together, some essential part is always missing, and the final result is never at all what you’d hoped for.’”

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