Setting the Stage for the Home: 500 Days of Summer, 1 Day in the Furniture Store

In an earlier blog post, I explored the representation of an individual junk shop. I look this week at the opposite end of the spectrum, which is the corporate furniture store. And what epitomises this space better than Swedish furniture giant IKEA? The American film 500 Days of Summer (2009) explores the interior of an IKEA store, raising questions about the connection of space to reality and about the visualisation of past and present values.
The visit to IKEA in 500 Days illustrates how the furniture shop operates as a Foucauldian heterotopia, a site that has the qualities of a real space and yet remains always different from it.[1] IKEA is a space that features all furnishing of a home; yet the building never functions as a real living space. While a poster in the filmic store promises “true everyday quality”, protagonists Tom and Summer joke about the television and sink that are not working – and never will. Tom’s ironic exclamation “Home! Sweet home!” harks back to John Howard Payne’s eponymous 1823 song that proclaims “there’s no place like home.”[2] Indeed, IKEA as that Foucauldian “Other Space[]” is no home.[3] This holds true even if the corporation promotes “the right to belong” that is characteristic of the modern Swedish welfare state, as design historian Sara Kristoffersson explains.[4] In the furniture store, ideas of belonging are tangible and yet slipping through your fingers.
500 Days demonstrates the workings of the furniture store most illustratively by highlighting the shop’s kinship to filmic space. The film, reflecting on its own spatial but also narrative and technological workings, explains the mechanisms of the film-like space of IKEA. Both film theorist Giuliana Bruno and cultural historian Jann Matlock have advanced how cinematic space, too, is a heterotopia, linked to the real world and yet set apart.[5] 500 Days as a heterotopia integrates the heterotopic furniture store to similarly revelatory effect as the films that, in Matlock’s study, double the heterotopic spaces of hotels.[6] The dating protagonists in 500 Days navigate through IKEA’s different show areas – from the living room to the bedroom – just as cinema audiences, according to Bruno, navigate through the three-dimensional space of the film world.[7] Rather than plan a home on two-dimensional paper at the “Plan Here” desk in the aisle, the lovers act out a home life in three-dimensional space, pretending to live together as “Honey” and “Darling.” Their overstated performance emphasizes their fictional relationship to the space in which they perform. Summer’s stagy choreography as she throws herself into Tom’s arms in one of the kitchens recalls the dramatic love scenes of classical Hollywood films. The bedside lamp in the bedroom is, as is so often the case in the cinema too, not the main light source in the furniture store. The bright room lighting off-camera ensures the visibility of the intimate scene on the IKEA bed. The on-looking family in the adjacent bathroom provides the apex of the IKEA-as-cinema sequence, acting as the personification of the much-cited voyeuristic film gaze.[8] By showing a quasi-film within a film, 500 Days demonstrates the otherness of the furniture store. IKEA has more in common with cinematic space than with the real space of the home due to its spatiality and the evocation of fiction, the technology, and the spectatorship that come with it.
The film does not fail to stress the cinema’s ultimate superiority over the furniture store: In the protagonists’ fiction of living, IKEA functions as a stage set that looks like a home. The fiction performed by the two actors playing those protagonists takes place, not on a film set, but on location in the actual IKEA in Burbank, California. The cinema’s mobility surpasses the capacities of the stationary spatiality of the furniture shop.
The film produces a clash between the meanings that the characters’ performances evoke and those meanings with which IKEA endows its furniture design. The clash engenders a palimpsest of meanings in the film narrative. Tom and Summer’s performance conjures up the gendered domesticity of post-war America. He puts his feet up on the coffee table and waits to be served in the kitchen, speaking in an exaggeratedly masculine voice. She serves him an imaginary dish that she cheerfully claims to have prepared herself. The woman among modern kitchen appliances is, according to Ruth Oldenziel, a common image in 1940s and 1950s media promoting American designs.[9] The lovers’ evocation of this iconography is expressively ironic, stressing it to be a thing of the past that today serves as nothing more than a joke. Yet when Summer ends the sequence by announcing she does not want “anything serious”, Tom’s disappointment betrays his underlying hopes. His look reveals that all he wished for was a monogamous relationship that involves exactly such intimacies as choosing your shared home and even traditional gender roles. His first sight of Summer in the film had sparked a black-and-white sequence picturing her in Fifties’ clothes and riding a bike through a suburban street. This earlier sequence corroborates Tom’s dream of a traditional relationship.
Unlike the patriarchal values of American post-war media, IKEA’s self-image mirrors the idea of equality in Swedish society, as Kristoffersson points out.[10] According to law scholars Eva-Maria Svensson and Åsa Gunnarsson, the Swedish notion of equality includes that women are not bound to the domestic sphere but frequent the workspace.[11] These ideas do not fit the fictional narrative of domesticity that the characters layer over the furniture design but it relates to Summer’s actual attitude. Whether or not customers really attribute the notion of equality to the IKEA store, Summer chooses exactly this space to convey to Tom that she is an independent woman and wishes to remain so. The fiction of her as a homemaker will not become reality; and anyway she is visiting IKEA to buy nothing more than trivets.
With this sequence, 500 Days relates cinematic to furniture-store space, and seemingly obsolete American post-war values to materially present Swedish values. The film negotiates the relationship between the real and the heterotopic, and between the now and then. In the cinematic furniture store, the values of both IKEA and Summer eventually prevail.

[1] Michel Foucault. “Des Espace Autres.” Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité, March 1984. Translated by Jay Miskowiec as “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” 3-4. Accessed May 27, 2014.
[2] Scott R. MacKenzie, Be It Ever So Humble: Poverty, Fiction, and the Invention of the Middle-Class Home (University of Virginia Press, 2013), 22, n. 6.
[3] Foucault, “Des Espace Autres.”
[4] Sara Kristoffersson, Design by IKEA: A Cultural History (Bloomsbury, 2014), 58.
[5] Jann Matlock, “Vacancies: Hotels, Reception Desks, and Identity in American Cinema, 1929-1964,” in Moving Pictures/Stopping Places : Hotels and Motels on Film, ed. David B. Clarke, Valerie Crawford Pfannhauser, and Marcus A. Doel (Lanham ; Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2009), 78; Giuliana Bruno, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 57, referred to in Matlock, “Vacancies,” 78.
[6] Matlock investigates the heterotopic hotel as an architecture that is also just not a home and that raises intricate questions about (fictions) of identity. She demonstrates how the heterotopic film space doubling the spatiality of hotels teaches us in complex ways about the workings of these hotels. Significant to the experience of both the cinema and the hotel is the movement with which we pass through those spaces. Matlock, “Vacancies,” 77-79, 100, 107-115, 119-121.
[7] Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film (New York ; London: Verso, 2002), 15-16.
[8] See especially Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6–18.
[9] Ruth Oldenziel, “Exporting the American Cold War Kitchen: Challenging Americanization, Technological Transfer, and Domestication,” in Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, Technology, and European Users, ed. Ruth Oldenziel and Karin Zachmann (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011), 315.
[10] Kristoffersson, Design by IKEA, 57-58.
[11] Eva-Maria Svensson and Åsa Gunnarsson, “Gender Equality in the Swedish Welfare State,” Feminists@Law 2, no. 1 (2012), 1.