With so many of the accomodations listed by the online housing marketplace are stocked with furniture from the Swedish retail giant. Why not just become a single company?

By Julie Lasky
October 07, 2015
Credit: Original Photo via Getty

In the last six months, I’ve rented lodgings through Airbnb in three very different places: Mill Valley, California; Milan, Italy; and Woodstock, New York. And guess what? They all looked like Scandinavia. In each, I turned a key, crossed a threshold, and found myself in Ikea-land. Even when the appointments were sparse, the chunky blonde objects and cheerful textiles shouted “comfortable!” and “homey!”

Ikea is to Airbnb what oxpeckers are to rhinos and Donald Trump is to Fox News: a symbiotic partner. Thanks to Ikea, the renter of, say, an Airbnb flat near the Milan Cathedral need not fear a sudden, traumatizing encounter with Italian radical design. The furniture will beneutral and familiar. Rather than a sofa shaped like lips injected with too much silicone, you’re more likely to find a perfectly ordinary Ikea Landskrona divan (599 euros for the two-cushion model). And should you spill pasta puttanesca on it, your host will probably not call you a puttana.

Which leads me to this proposition:Airbnb and Ikea should just go ahead and merge.

It may seem perverse to stump for standardization when Airbnb is known for its diversity, withlodgings in not just chateaus and cute bungalows, but also tree houses and shoe houses. SomeAirbnb interiors can be so instructively quirky that the home renovation guru Bob Vila titled a recent blog post “11 Lessons to Be Learned from Airbnb’s Tiniest Homes.”

But dig a little deeper and you’ll find the cool lingua franca of Ikea permeating Airbnb’s 1.5 million listings like fat marbling rib-eye steak. Show me a one-bedroom riverfront apartment for rent in Klaipeda, Lithuania, and I’ll show you a Poing chair. A New York Times article in February that described a retired couple who had been Airbnb-hopping around Europe for more than a year quoted the husband as saying, “I have washed more Ikea plates than any human on Earth.”

Ikea is a natural for Airbnb hosts not just because it’s cheap, inoffensive, and disposable, but also because the store delivers purchases at a flat rate that starts at $59. This makes it attractive to people buying furniture for spaces to be used exclusively for short-term rentals—the kind of people who have crossed the line from host to hotelier, driving big hospitality chains and government officials crazy.

Of course, Airbnb’s penetration is much greater than Ikea’s. The home-sharing site has listings in more than 34,000 cities in 191 countries, while the Swedish furniture giant operates merely 315 stores in 27 countries. So when Jon Wheatley, a product designer in St. Louis, wrote on his company’s blog about buying a Las Vegas apartment for $40,000 solely to rent it on Airbnb, he lamented that the closest Ikea was in Los Angeles. Fifty-nine-dollar shipping was not an option.

Imagine how happy Jon would have been if Airbnb could have furnished his Las Vegas apartment with Ikea pieces.

At first glance, Ikea and Airbnb appear to have mismatched corporate cultures. Ikea is all bricks and mortar and factory-made consumables; Airbnb owns no assets other thanits app. But take a closerlook. Both companies were started by design-sensitive people under the age of 30. Both were developed along radical cost-cutting principles (flat-pack/self-assembly; sharing economy). Both simultaneously appeal to our thirst for adventure and our hunger for comfort.

Imagine what the companies could do for each other if they truly came together:

  • Ikea would get much more web savvy. The retailer has struggled in the past by focusing too much on its stores and catalog, and not enough to the internet. Who better than Airbnb to teach it a thing or two about the online marketplace?
  • Each Airbnb accommodation could be a tiny Ikea showroom. And Airbnb hosts could earn additional revenue by selling Ikea goods at a markup.
  • Ikea is heading into hospitality anyway. Last year, Marriott recruited the Ikea Group to collaborate on its Moxy brand of stylishly no-frills budget. The chain, with some 65 branches in the pipeline in Europe and the United States, aims to loosen Airbnb’s grip on millennials.
  • Ikea would have a vast pool of research subjects for product development. The company already knocks on doors around the world to find out how people live. With a merger, Ikea could just providesome survey questions for Airbnb host reviews. Who knows? Maybe Ikea mattresses would improve.
  • Cuba, where Airbnb began doing business in April, more than three months before the American embassy reopened, wouldn’t know what hit it. I rest my case.

So enthralled was I with my vision of a merger that I called an Ikea representative to ask if the company might be entertaining apartnership with Airbnb. A woman from the USA corporate public relations department phoned back and left a message to the effect of “no.” (She did allude to one small spot of strategic cooperation: a sleepover Airbnb hosted last year in an Ikea showroom near Sydney, Australia. “But I can’t speak to that,” she added.)

Next I contacted Airbnb. So far, no response.

Airbnb’s slogan is “Belong anywhere.” That is Ikea’s ambition, too. As the world flattens a little more every day, thanks to global networks and ease of travel, homogeneity feels like destiny. Even ifthe two companies remain independent, you can be sure of one thing: We are all slouching toward Stockholm.