This is the seventh post in the series, Succession II: Queering the Environment, a fourteen-part series in which contributors explore topics related to unruliness, care, and pleasure. Succession II centers queer people, non-humans, systems, and ideas and explores their impact within the fields of environmental history, environmental humanities, and queer ecology.
The showroom is one of the most unique features of the shopping experience at IKEA. While other home goods retailers tend to divide the store into discrete sections (couches, tables and chairs, dressers and armoires, lighting, etc.), IKEA uses showrooms to display furniture and appliances in a way that models how they might be used in different spaces. Fully-fleshed kitchens, living rooms, bathrooms, bedrooms, and even complete apartments of varying sizes are the main attraction. These display rooms serve the practical function of showing how IKEA can furnish your entire home, but they also communicate subtle — and sometimes not-so-subtle — values relating to what the Swedish furniture giant calls “democratic design” and the ideal lifestyle.
Sometimes what they’re selling you is the virtue of minimalist, small-space living. Other designs foreground eco-friendly practices. The division between “adult” and “kid” bedrooms reinforce certain normative ideas about performing childhood or being a grown-up (especially for first-time renters, one of IKEA’s key demographics). Gender, too, gets negotiated in the built environment of the showroom. Although IKEA generally avoids overtly gender-prescriptive design, cultural gender norms find their way in. Advertisements for children’s toys depict pig-tailed girls playing with tea sets and kitchens and short-haired boys playing with blocks and tool sets. Customers who enter the showroom seeking masculine “bachelor pad” styles with dark color schemes or bright and cheery hosting spaces for women have no trouble finding rooms that reflect their expectations.
In Nino Cipri’s sci-fi novella Finna, the character Jules, who is trans and uses they/them pronouns, refuses to buy any furniture at LitenVärld, the book’s IKEA stand-in located in the United States, because “Everything at [LitenVärld] is a part of a set with everything else. . . . I don’t fit into any of those sets.”1 One of the showrooms in the book is called the “Nihilist Bachelor Cube,” a small apartment with a “tiny kitchenette, a fold-out desk beneath a loft bed . . . [and] a single brown leather chair in front of a flatscreen TV” featuring titles such as Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and Camus’s The Stranger on the bookshelves, all intended to encapsulate (quite literally) a certain image of masculinity.2 Other themed showrooms at LitenVärld include “Coked-out Divorcée, Parental Basement Dweller, Massage Therapist Who Lived in Their Studio,” and “Midlife Crisis Mom.”3 (The novella doesn’t make clear whether these are funny nicknames given to the showrooms by employees or their official names in the world of the story, wherein the narrator almost takes on the persona of a disgruntled employee in order to poke fun at the absurdity of LitenVärld specifically and being a retail worker generally.) Jules struggles with working at LitenVärld and has to perform a queer form of emotional labor; not only do they find the set displays gender-normative and constraining, but customers are constantly misusing their pronouns and generally making Jules feel like an outsider.
IKEA’s/LitenVärld’s layout is meant to direct the shoppers toward “appropriate” desires and lead to more purchases through consumer “wayfinding.” Its crowning jewel, the showroom, is carefully designed to create a sense of organization and exude orderliness, a literal model for the “dream life” promised — and oftentimes enforced — by heteropatriarchal capitalism. Though the showroom’s strictly guided paths are meant to instill comfort and confidence, for the characters in Finna, it often has the opposite effect, including for Jules’s fellow employee and recent ex, Ava. The central action of the novella takes place when Jules and Ava are sent on a dangerous assignment by their manager to find an elderly customer who wandered into a maskhål (wormhole) in the showroom and is now lost in an alternate universe known to be accessible by all LitenVärld stores. As Ava begins looking for the lost customer in the store (even before entering the wormhole), the showroom reveals itself to be a kind of distorted house of mirrors. “Each room was alien and strange relative to the one before it. Strung together, they resembled an ugly necklace designed by a child, picking out the most garish beads to thread. That familiar sense of disorientation came over Ava, that slight queasiness at seeing all these clashing rooms squeezed together.”4 Here, disorientation is not a queer or playful decentering but rather the dizzying effect of normative categorization and corporate replicability.
In contrast to the one life path prescribed by heteropatriarchal society and reinforced by their world’s LitenVärld, the multiverse shows Jules and Ava that there are “infinite iterations.”
The term “LitenVärld” in Swedish means “little world,” here suggestive of the ways IKEA (and the novella’s proxy for it) is a microcosm of society. Though the showroom offers a very spatial, directed shopping experience (which scholar Ursula Lindqvist has likened to a museum or archive5), it also reinforces temporality-based social norms relating to life stages and prescriptive notions of how to “progress” into adulthood: education → marriage → homeownership → child-rearing → retirement. Queer folx like Jules and Ava, however, often do not follow heteronormative timelines, a phenomenon scholar Jack Halberstam identified as “queer time” in the early 2000s. “Queer uses of time and space,” he wrote, “develop in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction.”6 Building on this work, Sara Ahmed has written about queer phenomenology and the multiple ways “orientation” intersects with time, space, and sexuality. “The concept of orientations allows us to expose how life gets directed through the very requirement that we follow what is already given to us,” she writes. “For a life to count as a good life, it must return the debt of its life by taking on the direction promised as a social good, which means imagining one’s futurity in terms of reaching certain points along a life course.”7
For many people, following this prescribed “life course” is as easy as following IKEA’s assembly instructions, which are famously opaque and difficult to use despite their attempt at simplicity and global accessibility. As Ava and Jules embark on their mission, they struggle with how to activate and use the FINNA (the store’s homing device), which comes with IKEA’s iconic “universally understandable” diagrams and written instructions in Swedish, French, and Japanese.8 Jules can read French due to their Creole upbringing, while Ava insists that the diagrams are “foolproof” and “intuitive.” (This, of course, is the kind of disagreement that reminds them why they broke up in the first place.) “It’s not intuitive for me!” Jules says in frustration. “My brain isn’t wired like that and I don’t want it to be!”9 But all the things about Jules that make life in LitenVärld difficult for them are an asset in a place like the multiverse. “They may have moved in a personal chaos field, but it made them more at ease with the unexpected strange than anyone,” the narrator describes in parallel with Ava’s thoughts. “Jules was the person you always, always wanted on your zombie apocalypse team.”10
Indeed, Jules seems to be at home in the multiverse, with its permaculture gardens, carnivorous chairs, and honeycomb walkways. Even as they enter more dangerous alternate iterations of LitenVärld filled with “retail zombies” who are hostile to strangers, it is Jules who knows what to do and has the courage to face danger in a way that’s both frustrating and impressive to Ava, but also literally life-saving. In contrast to the “good life,” the one life path prescribed by heteropatriarchal society and reinforced by their world’s LitenVärld, the multiverse shows Jules and Ava that there are “infinite iterations,” not only of the world they know but they lives they know.11 “LitenVärld liked its worlds small, contained in their claustrophobic cubes, and under their control,” Ava thinks while enjoying herself in a friendly no-cash/trade-only bazaar in one of the worlds she visits with Jules. “But now there were options. Doorways into other worlds and other possibilities opened up all the time, apparently.”12
Fighting for their survival in the multiverse brings Jules and Ava together; somehow, it’s easier to get along here than while navigating their lives in their own world, where anxiety, depression, financial precarity, and transphobia loom large. Traveling through the multiverse offers them both glimpses of happier versions of themselves and each other. “Risking departure from the straight and narrow makes new futures possible,” writes Ahmed, “which might involve going astray, getting lost, or even becoming queer.”13 Jules and Ava learn to disorient, or embrace being disoriented, not in the style of the showroom’s sickening sameness but by welcoming the multiplicity of paths, worlds, and selves that open up to them when they traverse the wormhole.
The multiverse offers both characters glimpses of happier versions of themselves and each other.
The term “disorienting” is used again to describe Ava’s reaction to running through the wormhole (the doorway between universes) as it collapses: it “was like walking quickly through the showrooms at her LitenVärld, the disorienting effect of seeing wildly different rooms stacked next to each other. The walls of the maskhål reflected and refracted images of other universes, all of them focused on her: a thousand different versions of herself, some nightmarish, some wildly surreal, others utterly mundane.”14 As Ava returns back to the store, she realizes that the distorting and uncanny qualities of the wormhole are merely an exaggeration of the haunted house that is the showroom at LitenVärld — or the harsh reality of her own universe, where workers like Jules are treated as disposable. “Was this her world?” the narrator asks as Ava finally, improbably, makes her way back to the Nihilist Bachelor Cube where this all started. “If it was, why did it feel so strange?”15
For these characters, being lost in the store (or in the multiverse) starts as a fairly straightforward metaphor. Jules is “lost” in a sea of gender-normative expectations, unable to find social acceptance or financial stability at LitenVärld or in the broader world it represents. In Ava’s case, it’s being “lost” as an anxious and depressed young adult, and especially a young employee, in late capitalism (and after a romantic breakup, no less). But by the end, both are able to repurpose the idea of being lost. Jules gets a chance to live out their wanderlust while protecting others in the multiverse. Near the end of Ava’s journey, she recognizes that “to go where she wanted, she had to get lost, and it seemed almost instinctual to do that now. She’d been lost for a long time, rudderless,” but through (mis)using the FINNA to follow a new path, she “chased that particular sense of disorientation, recognizable now; somewhere between the feeling of falling in love and falling out of it, of pursuing and fleeing, of not knowing and still going forward.”16
The twist is that the extraordinary and dangerous work their boss asked Jules and Ava to do, and which they agree to do to show they “care” sufficiently about their jobs to avoid being fired, becomes an opportunity for them to discover a more radical form of care, where they disobey corporate orders and instead look out for each other, the customer they were sent to find, and other employees. Jules and Ava perform a kind of queering of time and space, rejecting both what LitenVӓrld has asked them to do and what the world designed by it has asked them to be.
- Nino Cipri, Finna (New York City: Tor, 2020), 18.
- Cipri, Finna, 17–20.
- Cipri, Finna, 20, 21.
- Cipri, Finna, 16–17, emphasis added
- Ursula Lindqvist, “The Cultural Archive of the IKEA Store,” Space and Culture 12, no. 1 (2009): 43–62.
- Halberstam, “What’s That Smell?: Queer Temporalities and Subcultural Lives,” The Scholar and Feminist Online 2, no. 1 (2003): §1, available at https://sfonline.barnard.edu/ps/printjha.htm.
- Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2006), 554.
- Cipri, Finna, 37.
- Cipri, Finna, 39.
- Cipri, Finna, 43.
- Cipri, Finna, 74.
- Cipri, Finna, 85.
- Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 554.
- Cipri, Finna, 111–12.
- Cipri, Finna, 114.
- Cipri, Finna, 134.