Is it possible to outfit a family apartment with panache on Dh15,000, the typical professional allowance? Stella Rosato browses through the UAE's furniture solutions and discovers that life on a budget needn't be hard For most of the developed world, furnishing on a budget is a no-brainer: they head to Ikea. So much more than a furniture store, Ikea is a state of mind that revolves around contemporary design, low prices and an enthusiasm that few institutions can muster. For its legions of fans, Ikea has become a trusted safe zone that people can enter and immediately be part of a like-minded cost/design/environmentally sensitive global tribe.
But the Swedish furnishing giant has many detractors. It has been called a "Marmite" brand (you either love it or hate it.) The style commentator Stephen Bayley talks scathingly of, "Ikea's idealism for good design for everyone and the brute," and of the, "corrupting ugliness of its presence wherever it goes." Yet while plenty of people also moan about self-assembly issues, can we live without it? Is it possible to furnish a family home stylishly and swiftly without crossing that ubiquitous blue and yellow threshold? Armed with a budget of Dh15,000 - the typical professional allowance - and a brief to simply but comfortably furnish a two-bedroom apartment, home for a family of four, we headed first to Ikea and then turned to the UAE's other furnishing solutions to find out.
Take even a cursory glance through the Ikea catalogue and it's impossible not to be heartened by its brightly coloured and immaculately accessorised room sets. Acutely aware that it is the mother ship for the budget homemaker, Ikea even shows a layout documenting a complete living room for under Dh1,100. But that would be far too easy. It would also be far too white. And not very beautiful.
Ikea shoppers tend to fall into two camps; middle-income aspirational bargain-hunters and the "smart rich" - those who leave the core furniture items but shop for textiles and tableware in the store's Market Place. At Festival City early on a Thursday morning, the place is teeming with both factions: "I'm here to find a bed," says the Australian expatriate Susie Maskall, a mother of four. "We've been making do with a sofa bed in the guest room but with several friends and family due to visit, I need an upgrade." How does she think I'll fare with a Dh15,000 budget and a two-bedroom apartment to furnish? "Well, it's not as cheap as you might think. I've also been looking at plenty of sofas at the Dh4,000 range so with just one item that's over a quarter of the budget gone."
She's right too. The stylish and best-selling Stockholm 3.5-seater is a solid yet extremely comfortable piece that belies its Dh4,000 price tag but is still too expensive. I then take a look at the three-seater Lillberg, which at Dh995 is budget-friendly yet its looks match the price tag; cheap and student digs-y. Just when I'm getting dispirited among the plush leather L-shapes all around the Dh5,000 mark, I spy Ektorp, a sturdy, simply shaped sofa with removable, washable covers. At Dh1,495 for a white-covered version it would be rude not to snap it up.
Having made a major purchase, a couple of Solsta Olarp armchairs in their natural cover won't last for ever but at just under Dh400 for the pair, there's no room for complaint. Finishing off with a Solsta Palbo footstool, our family's seating is complete for under Dh2000. Next, for the cabinetry that is a source of both pleasure (it is fantastic storage) and pain (assembly is modern-day torture) for Ikea customers. The Billy shelving unit, designed by Gillis Lundgren, has been going strong 30 years, with 41 million pieces sold worldwide - a true design classic for the common people. I opt for two Billy bookcases and enhance their stark appearance with a couple of cabinet lights. Billy's counterpart system, Lack, can often be a source of eye-rolling frustration for the Ikea shopper - flying out of the stores within days of a new consignment. Today, however, the retail gods are smiling and I grab a TV cabinet, a couple of occasional tables and a long, floating Lack shelf. A coffee table needs little more gravitas than the Lack offering perhaps, so it is to the more substantial Ramvik I turn.
Since our family is on a tight budget, we can presume much of our culinary entertainment will be home-based, so a roomy dining table and comfortable chairs are a priority. The perfect solution comes in the form of Bjursta, a solid and simply designed extendable veneer table that seats eight. Teaming it with six smartly upholstered Henriksdal chairs with washable covers, I'm delighted; not least with the price - at a touch under Dh3,000 for the lot, I'm convinced it can't be bettered.
With comfortable living and dining solutions complete, I head to the bedroom section. Everything looks extremely budget-friendly - until I realise that none of the price tags includes a mattress. For the master bedroom, the Malm collection, all clean, streamlined pieces in light oak veneer, is ideal. A basic bed frame together with a headboard with concealed shelving combines style and function for Dh1,295. A spring mattress and slatted bed base costs another Dh1,445. Together, the master bed is one of the apartment's biggest purchases but can you really put a price on a good night's sleep? For storage, Malm's six-drawer upright chest with built in mirror also serves as a dressing table and another roomy horizontal six-drawer chest gives extra surfaces as well as storage. Luckily for our budget, the apartment has built-in wardrobes, so we are avoiding a major expense there.
For the final room, a children's place to sleep and play, it is to the bunk-bed section I turn. Surprisingly, Ikea Dubai's solutions are limited; the pine version I deem far too flimsy for clambering children; therefore, the Tromso bunk bed, a somewhat austere design in powder-coated steel, will do the job and, at Dh1,185 complete with two foam mattresses, the price is spot on. Children also need storage, plenty of it - a need the Trofast system has been fulfilling for more than a generation. I opt for a couple of the three-step storage combos with seven roomy containers each and a large Lack bookcase.
At this point the bill for the basic furniture is just under Dh13,000 so I head to the Market Hall to accessorise with rugs, mirrors and lights, which will give the apartment a more personal touch - and also to enquire about delivery. It turns out that for sales totalling over Dh2,500 delivery is free and so is assembly - even for those pesky bookcases. The whole project has taken just under four hours, delivery will be within a week and the total bill? Dh14,940. Sorted.
Day One Without Ikea, where to begin on a budget furnishing expedition? Perhaps at Index Living Mall; it's the Far East's largest retailer and recently opened in Dubai Mall. I immediately head to the sofa section, deciding that major expenses take priority. After a 15-minute search, however, it's not looking good. With prices hovering around the Dh4,000 level and anything cheaper being of questionable quality, material and design, I move on to beds where again, the clean lines of good design are few and far between. Best of the bunch is a plain wooden bed frame for Dh760 with the cheapest mattress starting at Dh1,499. I am keen to buy a cheery-looking children's set, however, with one high loft-style bed with a further bed and built-in desk beneath. It's Dh2,428, but finding out that each mattress will cost Dh999, it's a hefty purchase. I decide to think about it and leave; without a major buy, I'm at a bit of a loss.
Although I'm keen to try Dubai's thriving used furniture market by trawling websites and noticeboards, I decide to bed-hunt one more time (this tenacity is spurred on by a friend in Hong Kong who attempted to cut costs by buying second-hand beds and ended up infesting the whole family with bedbugs.) This time, I head to Mall of the Emirates and am again underwhelmed at the high prices and poor design masquerading as "affordable quality". In Home Centre, though, I'm taken by a solid, well-designed single bed in a walnut finish, for Dh1,120 including the mattress. I decide to get two; it won't give children much room to play but time - and money - are of the essence. Delivery is free, within three days. There's also a taupe cotton three-seater sofa for Dh1,750. With the right cushions it would be fine but I'll not commit yet.
That afternoon, I search Dubizzle for sofas, chairs and shelving. "Don't bother looking at anything more than a couple of days old," I'm warned by a Dubizzle veteran, "the good stuff moves at the speed of light." The first attempt at a black leather sofa and table is a fail, "just sold", says the vendor cheerily. It's the same story with the cream fabric three-seater. Ho hum. There are plenty of tables, chairs and shelving in my price range but - guess what - they're all from Ikea.
I'll admit I'm getting slightly desperate - but not desperate enough to trail up to Sharjah to a villa clearance that's just appeared on Dubizzle. Good design on a budget is taking on a bit of a folklore quality as I speak to friends who boast of their finds: from a slightly damaged Italian designer sofa with 70 per cent discount, to a magnificently carved 40-year-old Rajasthani book case - almost three metres tall - for Dh1,000, procured from a lifelong expat retiring to a cottage in Provence. Leaving technology and retail aside for a while, I head to the real nerve centre for trading in used furniture - the noticeboards at Spinneys, Choithram and Park N Shop.
An hour later and I'm up in Al Sufouh on the trail of a dining table, a coffee table and bookcases. The vendor needs to downsize since the family is moving to an apartment in Hong Kong (I warn them about the bedbugs.) The coffee table and bookcases are from The One and the dining table from The Warehouse; I can buy the lot for Dh3,000 and they also offer to throw in a plant, a couple of bedside tables (bought on their last posting to Asia) and a gorgeous tribal rug that's perfect for the living room. On a whim and encouraged by the more upmarket provenance of my purchases, I swing by The One and pick out six grey Paolo upholstered dining chairs in dark grey at Dh395 each as a treat.
Inspired by the New York magazine writer Grant Stoddard's quest to furnish a Manhattan apartment entirely by scavenging the city's streets, I drive to Jumeirah One to have a good look around the rarefied neighbourhood's skips, remembering that Joanna, a friend now living in Kuwait, once found two mini "thrones" turfed out of a local palace and reupholstered them in Designers Guild fabric. They looked fabulous. Not quite such good luck for me except that I do spy a small wrought iron café-style table that's rusty but, once sanded down and repainted, will be perfect for a balcony or terrace.
Later that day, I arrange a man-with-a-van from the scores waiting for custom in Al Quoz, who agrees to the pick-up in Al Sufouh for Dh100. Then I stop by Home Centre to order the grey sofa and a couple of night stands, and head back to Index Living Mall to finish my shopping. The result is dispiriting. The bill comes to Dh15,172; slightly over budget and with no rugs, lamps and insufficient storage in the master bedroom and children's space. It's taken days to achieve what took only hours at Ikea and, while the second option may have a more eclectic feel - I'm slightly dissatisfied. I know, thanks to a certain Swedish company, life on a budget really doesn't need to be this hard. Still, if you have a little more flexibility with time and a few extra dirhams, dipping into more than one of the shopping options may allow more in the way of personal expression, without having too great an impact on your chosen budget.