Unfettered by the British assumption that ordinary people are unmoved by design, Sweden's no-nonsense furniture; company has made shopping at Ikea our national sport. Dinah Hall spends a few hours watching the participants
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"WHAT, you mean you're going to talk to the customers?" The girl from Ikea reacts as if we are planning to jump into a cage with a hungry lion. "They're not very friendly, you know." I ask her what she means. "Well, they're not exactly unfriendly," she says, hastily backtracking towards a customer-is-always-right position. It's just that they walk around in a kind of trance, she points out - and if you interrupt them, they might just ... bite your head off.

Dealing with Ikea as a customer might be mildly frustrating ("If it's not out of stock, it's not worth having," jokes one of the cheery red- shirted chappies on the furniture floor), but for a journalist it's plain sailing. Ikea has a fundamentally un-British attitude that starts with the switchboard: "William has his lunch at 12.00," the operator confides in smooth smorgasbord tones, explaining why the press office is unmanned. It is at once startlingly intimate and at the same time furiously efficient, this vision of William tucking into meatballs at 12 o'clock every day. The absolute essence of Ikea.

For such a massive organisation, the administration seems remarkably laid-back. You want to chronicle four hours in the life of an Ikea chair, without a moment's notice? No problem. Silly idea, but help yourself. The press officer advises us that all human life will not be found in the room containing the "Eighteenth-Century" collection of Swedish furniture (just a handful of World of Interiors readers, presumably), but other than that leaves up to us the choice of which chair to stake out. "What are you going to write about?" I'm asked, in tones of mild curiosity rather than corporate defensiveness. You get the feeling that if the reply had been "I'm going to say all the furniture falls to pieces within two weeks and you're peddling a load of crap to a nation of nerds", they'd smile sweetly and say, "Fine, go ahead", secure in the knowledge that whatever anyone writes, over 3,000 people will continue to pour through Ikea's doors every day, divesting themselves of children at the in-store creche on the way in, and a week's wages on the way out. On Sundays, the closest you get to religion on the North Circular Road is the saintly fortitude with which the heaving masses shoulder their yellow swag bags, go forth into the marketplace and buy, buy, buy.

But the girl from Ikea is right. The customers do seem to be in a trance, and it's not just that they're weighed down by the responsibility of consuming. This is all part of the Ikea Experience: from the minute you step through those yellow doors, you switch to auto-pilot. The escalators sweep you upstairs - no matter that you only came to buy 12 glasses for pounds 2.40; it is impossible to do so without being set on a predetermined route around the furniture and room sets where couples rather surreally make themselves at home, tentatively testing armchairs and sofas. But even if you are totally confident you will not be making an impulse purchase in "Beds", it takes an iron will not to succumb to the carefully planted baskets of goods dotted around the different sections, full of things so cheap it seems almost criminal not to buy them. Until this moment it has probably never occurred to you that what is missing from your life is a set of measuring spoons. This is Ikea foreplay - the gradual build-up of tension and excitement as you pass through "Kitchens" and "Bedding", past acres of ridiculously cheap fabric, and that exquisite moment as you contemplate the glass saucepans which will make boiling potatoes such an impossibly interesting experience.

But not everyone gets to consummate the relationship at the till: standing in one of the legendary queues gives you time to contemplate the objects you have flung with such abandon into your trolley. People have found that leaving a full trolley at the checkout can be therapeutic: you have had the psychological pleasure of shopping, without the pain of paying.

Still, if you have travelled 212 hours to get here, what's an hour in a queue? Zoe Shippey makes the trip to the Brent Park Ikea from Norwich several times a year, and explains that the pleasure she gets there is "like the feeling you used to get going around Biba in the Seventies. Of course a lot of it is horrible, cheap stuff but you always know you're going to come out with something nice." Then there's the company you keep at Ikea. She spotted Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh last time. In a trance? Of course not. They were being rather animated, actually, in the cheap storage bit.

But then this is the thing about Ikea - it does attract an extraordinary mixture of people. It has a classlessness about it which perhaps only a non-British company could have achieved, unfettered as the Swedes are by assumptions that the ordinary person is unmoved by modern design. Ikea has rather higher expectations of the mass market - even when it comes to food. John Major identified himself with the masses by tucking into the Happy Eater/Little Chef style of mass catering; Ikea says let them eat Swedish Isterband Sausage with Creamy Potato and Pickled Beetroot, followed by Blueberry Tarte and Cream - all for pounds 2.95.

"It's a bit different, and it's cheap." That's what they all say about Ikea, the diverse range of people who come and sit on the PS chair on which we have focused our cameras - the tattooed primary-school teacher, the East End mother, the graphic designer from Luton, the unemployed man, the photography lecturer, the social worker in the Blur T-shirt who would prefer something a little more brash and less tasteful, the publishing sales manager who would look more at home at Colefax & Fowler. They have none of the arrogance of the designer set: a man my own prejudices would have had down for the teak veneer look says The Conran Shop is where he goes to look, but cannot afford to buy. "I wouldn't look down on MFI, but I don't want to go and buy a three-piece suite. The furniture's a bit different here, without being too wacky - I'm not saying it's cheap, because that gives the wrong connotation. But it's very good value for money."

The PS range has done much to raise Ikea's status with design dictators, who have everything to lose from this democratisation of taste. When Ikea first opened seven years ago, designers were a bit wary of being seen anywhere quite so populist: big out- of-town sheds (shades of MFI and Texas Homecare) were absolutely not the place to be spotted whiling away a Sunday afternoon. But after Ikea took the Milan Furniture Fair by storm earlier this year (with its highly designed, Swedish modernist-inspired range of furniture), it was no longer necessary to pretend you were only there to look at the storage. "I've seen lots of architects skulking around there," claims design PR Yvonne Courtney, who has always been an unashamed Ikea fan and finds it perfectly reconcilable with her interest in high-brow design. "What's good about their stuff is that you can customise it: it's more individual, whereas Habitat is so themed these days that their stuff is too instantly recognisable." Johnny Grey, designer of the ultimate in craftsman-made kitchens, finds little to recommend Ikea in terms of quality. "When you look closely," he says, "it's never as good as you thought it was going to be" - but he finds it impossible to knock because "the design is just so much better than anything else on the high street."

Min Hogg, editor of World of Interiors, equipped a kitchen there in one fell swoop and has nothing but praise (something she doesn't usually slosh around) for Ikea's "Eighteenth-Century" range, developed in conjunction with the Swedish Board of National Antiquities.

Sue Crewe, editor of House & Garden, has also furnished her country house in Ikea: "With a second home, people are inclined to offer you their old sofas and lamps, so you end up making do. But I wanted to have nothing in it that I did not like, so I trundled off to our local Ikea and came back with quite significant things. I found a plain black desk with chrome legs, which makes a pure and uncomplicated table, and some wonderful spindly low-voltage lights. I love them for being so cheap - and the nicest colander I've ever had was a great big steel thing from Ikea. The shop was full of ordinary people from the Midlands who recognised that Ikea has got some kind of integrity. I can't bear this patronising assumption that `ordinary' people don't appreciate design."

But let's not get carried away; Ikea has its fair share of frosted glass flower-shape lampshades, and far more than its fair share of shoe cabinets. It's difficult to imagine anyone thinking they needed an enclosed space in which to stew their trainers, let alone requiring a choice of 10 different styles. On the other hand ... one of them has an upholstered bench on top, and a little drawer to keep your brushes and Cherry Blossom polish in. Damn clever Ikea.

! There are Ikea stores in Leeds, Warrington, Gateshead, Birmingham, and in London at Brent Park on the North Circular Road and in Croydon. The `PS' and `Eighteenth-Century' limited collections are only available from the London stores. For a 1996 catalogue telephone 0181-208 5600.