IKEA Makes the Most of the Least, Part 1: Cost-Effective and Space-Conscious Design

One of my favorite ways of passing time in college was to spend it at IKEA, the Scandinavian (Swedish, for those specificity-lovers out there) home furnishings store.

Sure, the escalators for shopping carts were a novelty.

It may not be actual size, but it still is a deal at fifty cents!

It may not be actual size, but it still is a deal at fifty cents!

The food (fifty-cent hot dogs!!!) was delicious.

And the ten-dollar-coffee-table [with a name you couldn’t pronounce] but it was truly a bargain.

But what really drew me in? Their space-management.

Like most college students, I lived in a city apartment. Unlike most college students (save fraternity or sorority-house members), I shared that apartment with four other roommates. Now you can see why I’d be interested in getting the most out of the smallest amount of space possible.

My entire apartment was 1212 square feet, and divided by the five roommates sharing it, it made for 242.4 square feet per person. That included common spaces, like the kitchen, living room, and dining area, making the “bedrooms” even smaller than 242.4 square feet each.

One apartment. 270 square feet. You do the math.

One apartment. 270 square feet. You do the math.

Lucky for me, and every other city apartment-dweller, IKEA’s showroom flaunted a 270-square-foot “home.” Yes, this is taking the idea of space management to the extreme, but it does prove that you can make a home in such a small space. There were larger “homes,” too, ranging from 475 to 590 square feet, but I was most fascinated with their smallest design. Ingeniously (in addition to the requisite double bed sleeping area) they managed to fit full-sized kitchen appliances and a full-sized bathroom into the design. No longer were “small apartment living” and “cramped living” synonymous with another.

IKEA almost makes a mantra out of the idea, saying: “A home doesn’t have to be big, just smart.” The sentiment rings home to Americans of our time and our economy. When money is tight and space is tighter, you have to make do with what you’ve got. Apartment renting becomes more and more common, while the idea of home-owning is becoming increasingly more difficult. New construction is almost unheard of (especially for first-time homeowners). If you were to go on HGTV’s House Hunters with a budget of $86,500 you wouldn’t be able to afford a home, much less, a new one.

If you were to go to Portland, Oregon?

You could buy a home with that kind of money.

A brand new home, at that.

A company that makes prefabricated homes has developed a home not only mindful of budget, but space management as well. More to come on that in Part Two later today!

Have you ever been to an IKEA store? Do you use their products in your own home? What do you do in your own home to maximize space?

Image credit to Gerard Stolk, FredericksBlog, and

Eric Labanauskas

Eric is a data entry specialist and contributing writer for the QLP Blog Squad. He is a city boy with a country heart, with an appetite for anything chicken-fried. He has studied as an apprentice at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, performed across the country as Buddy Holly in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," and can tie a bow tie by himself without the aid of a mirror. 1950's rock 'n roll is his soundtrack, especially while on road-trips with his lovely girlfriend. Suffice it to say, he is also the owner of some good cocktail party stories from his many experiences. You can also connect with Eric on Google+.


  1. Jaimie Smith

    Eric! I LOVE LOVE LOVE ikea!
    I would probably be in there everyday if it werent like an hour drive from my house.
    I can’t wait to read part 2!! 🙂

    • Eric


      Ironically, I pass the Bolingbrook store every morning on my way here, to work. It’s only 20 minutes form my own house, but the store layout’s all over the place. Literally a rat maze, and if ever there’s a fire there, good luck to them trying to evacuate it. I prefer the Schaumburg location. Three floors, more parking, and escalators for shopping carts (cool to look at and practical if you’re carrying things around on any floor other than the ground one).

      More to come this afternoon!

      • Mandy Kilinskis

        It’s funny you mentioned the Bolingbrook IKEA, I just went on a tirade about that store in my office. I was calling it a museum (with the map and being ushering through every dang display even though you just want a bookcase), but I think that rat maze is far more accurate. Since that’s my only experience with IKEA, I am not a fan.

        • Eric

          Scaumburg is the remedy to all the IKEA Bolingbrook layout issues, that’s for sure. It’s a three-tier design, with the escalators in the center of an the octagonally-shaped floors. If you ever get lost, just walk back to the center, and walk around. I’ve been to the Bolingbrook store more than a dozen times, and – let me tell ya, Mandy – I’m no more familiar with the layout now than the first time I went.

          When all else fails, though, just skip past the escalators, cut through the checkout lines, and head straight for the warehouse section. All the bookshelves are in one spot, they’re stocked right there, and you can just pick up and go. It’s also by the “As Is/Odds and Ends” section, which is a great place to find the occasional bargain…plus those items usually come assembled, too.

  2. Bret

    I absolutely DESPISE IKEA.

    I can live with their cheap build it yourself furniture. I can even accept their mission or goal of low, low, low prices – same as Walmart. What I can NOT accept, nor understand, is:

    – Their poor customer service. Try and find a representative who knows anything about anything. What is that? You can’t? I didn’t think so. At one point in time I had 5 representatives (2 of which were managers) trying to figure out how to void a transaction after an associate accidentally charged my wife’s credit card $3,300.30 instead of $33.30.

    – Their system are super outdated. The Apple I is more powerful than ALL of IKEA’s systems combined. Their inventory is never accurate. Their systems are slow. They can’t look up receipts by credit card. They are stuck in the 80s. Their sales associates aren’t even qualified nor smart enough to operate a solar calculator. They’d probably mistake it for a pancake and try and eat it.

    – Once while purchasing something from their kitchens department the lady who placed my cabinet order made a mistake, failed to give me the discount/sale price that was advertised, and it literally took customer service 2.5 hours (I shit you not!) to adjust the receipt because every sku had to be adjusted manually. Not every line item – every sku. Those 92 hinges that appear on your receipt? Guess what – that lady has to key in those 92 hinges one by one and apply the discount to each one manually. Why should I have to suffer standing at the returns counter for 2.5 hours for a mistake that was not mine?

    – They don’t answer their phones. If you have any questions you have to visit the store. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if their store locations weren’t located in the middle of nowhere. You are forced to leave a VM where someone is to call you back but they never do. At one point they noticed a mistake on my counter top order, I owed them $9.95 (my original purchase was over $8,000.00!) and they would not allow me to pay the balance over the phone or via fax. I had to drive 2 hours round trip to pay the $9.95 or risk my order being held hostage until the balance was paid.

    – Everyone who works there is miserable and rude. I’ve seen bums and homeless people living on the streets with a brighter smile and more positive attitude than IKEA employees.

    – I tried to do a return this past Monday. I had my original receipt and credit card in-hand. The product was unopened and only a week old. It took 90 minutes to process my return (it was a broom and dustpan).

    – Don’t even get me started on their self check out or their methods of checking out customers…

    I don’t care how cheap IKEA is; if their customers had half a brain they would realize there time is worth more $ than what the savings IKEA offers is worth. The moment people realize this – is the moment IKEA will close forever.

    I long for, pray for, will do everything in my power to make sure IKEA does not survive. They are the poster child of EVERYTHING that is wrong about retail in America.

    • Eric

      …hot dogs, man. Can’t go wrong with the hot dogs.

      Alright. Giving me a run for my money with this comment, so I’m going to be sure to give it a respectable reply.

      Customer service? Part of it probably comes with the inherent stubbornness of being a guy who doesn’t ask directions, but I’ve always just carried the “help yourself” philosophy straight through the store. I know they expect you to build the furniture yourself, but the past few times I’ve been there, it’s always come down to locating it myself, too. As much as I hate being molested by commission-hungry salespeople, I’m not a fan of wandering aimlessly, either. There’s a middle ground they’ve yet to find there, sure.

      God bless you. I can’t imagine purchasing anything sizable, say, a kitchen…all those knobs, parts, pieces…being individually rung-in. I’m not even going to ask if they’ve touch screen technology, there.

      They’re – more than anything – a novelty store. For many reasons, but they did make a big stride forward when it came to selling designer furniture affordable to the masses, which is something (like it or not) to be commended. Now, when it comes to how long that ten-dollar-coffee-table will actually hold up for? I won’t vouch.

      I think they could use an update, Bret. Ain’t gonna argue that point. I wouldn’t give up on them entirely, though. They’ve done a lot for American design, and have actually helped push the envelope for how we think about interior design, here.

      Did I mention they’ve got good, cheap food? 🙂

      • Bret Bonnet

        I hope they fail miserably.


        • Eric

          Damn! Guess I ought to return that IKEA gift certificate I was getting you for Christmas, Bret. (Knowing them it’s some cutesy variation in pseudo-Swedish, titled “SERTIFIKAT,” or the like.

    • Jeff Porretto

      Ahhh, but I did not see any complaints about their space management ideas =]

      • Bret Bonnet

        That’s because I was trying NOT to insult small people.

        When I sit on an IKEA chair… only bad things happen!

        • Jaimie Smith

          ^^Hahahahaha! Bret you would know!

  3. Shawn

    I HAVE been to a few IKEA stores. And, being semi-poor at the time, we always would buy the cheap food and take advantage of the free babysitting. This was at the Minneapolis IKEA which is near the Mall of America. (Yeah, browsing IKEA was our cheap date activity on a few occasions!)

    Where I live now (New Orleans) we don’t have an IKEA. The last time I was in Austin, TX we stopped in just to check it out, however. IKEA is one of those companies that just seems to do everything right – from the moment you walk in, they present multiple hooks to keep you in the store and to help you buy the products.

  4. Jen

    I really like Ikea for the most part. The stores are very interesting and I like the well thought out displays, but I don’t like the maze they create on the sales floor. Because of the poor layout I spend on average 4 hours in the store every time I go (which isn’t very often) trying to find the item I want. I usually have something specific in mind when I go in and leave with out it because they are out of stock or don’t carry it in the store. I have a love-hate relationship with Ikea, I love the prices and selection but I hate the overall layout of the stores. Great write up Eric, I can’t wait for part two 🙂

    • Eric

      I was back there not all too long ago looking for someone commonplace household item they didn’t make their own version of. I really wish – above anything else – they could accurately represent their full line in their catalog as it’s available in the store. Or there’re things in the stores released after the catalog publication. Normally I’m not an advocate for pushing things in the direction of online exclusivity, but as far as an accurate catalog goes, I think the best bet they’d have would be in keeping it available online. That way, they could update it. If they could figure out a way to represent store inventory on the website, too, for more than the big-ticket items? That’d be a huge bonus.

      Their design philosophy and ideology is second to none, but their functionality as a store could use improvement.

      For further reading on the sentiment, see Bret. 🙂

  5. Cybernetic SAM

    Being an absolute believer that happiness exists through your environment, I love the inspiration and low cost of Ikea. I have NEVER lived anywhere and not spent countless hours adjusting for optimal feng shui! Ikea is like walking into my brain. Ikea really brings out the concept to decorate a room’s design not the other way around. You have to let the room tell you where things should go and what is missing. Look at the lighting and maximize and minimize optical layout. Yeah IKEA!!!!!!!

    • Eric

      Right on. There’s always the added bonus of having a room look good, but the biggest strength IKEA brings to the interior is optimizing the amount of usable space to make the most of that 745 SF. There are a lot of homes out there – especially in American suburbs – that needlessly waste space and create areas either infringing upon another, or ones that are rendered unusable. With lighting built right into the ceiling, you minimize the need for table lamps, tables to hold said table lamps, and so on and so forth. Hence, more floor space that can actually be used. Thanks for preaching right on back to the choir, Sam! 🙂

  6. amy

    Knowing that IKEA is Swedish makes me proud to be part Swedish for some reason. I don’t know why, but it always has haha. I love their products, but I do wish I could just run in and out for one thing without getting stuck in the rat maze of their stores. No, I don’t want to walk through seven departments to get to the lamp section. I’ve just learned to wait until I have at least 5 items I need and then I make one trip, and I don’t shop there on Saturdays- always weeknights!

    • Eric

      Haha, the weekends at IKEA. Oh, the weekends. I’ve always gone when I’ve an afternoon off of work, or even after my shift. Much easier to get around, and – if you’re like me and cruise the “As Is” section – you’ve a much better chance of scoring some legitimately good finds.

      I figured out Bolingbrook. Start downstairs, cut through the warehouse, and do the store in reverse order, only going upstairs if needed. All the “Ala Carte” items you don’t have to track down on the warehouse shelves are sold there (lighting, kitchenware, etc.).

      And that concludes today’s “IKEA Tips ‘n Tricks from Eric.” 🙂

      Thanks for commenting, Amy!

      • Amy Swanson

        You’re a genius! I’m totally trying that next time!! So much useful information in this blog, Eric. Thanks 🙂

  7. Jill Tooley

    Huh. I had NO CLUE that Ikea sold food, let alone that it was worth eating! 🙂

    Those apartment setups are my favorite. I love browsing them, all the while dreaming of having such a tidy living space. It makes me seriously rethink the way I use my space at home, though!

    • Eric

      Well, it’s not like they’ve got Rick Bayless back there cookin’ it, but for the price, it’s pretty darn decent grub. The cinnamon rolls are my favorite.

      Absolutely love the mock-up apartments, too, and I’ve taken home ideas from them to get the most out of my own space. Almost wish they’d publish a book full of them, one day. Lot of people could find good use in that!

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