There it is, that blue-and-yellow smorgasbord of particle board furniture, post-modern bedroom sets and an endless bounty of Swedish fish. It’s amazing and convenient, or cheap and annoying, but regardless, you’ve probably owned an IKEA couch or watched a movie on one at some point in your life. Supposedly, IKEA products are designed for “easy assembly.” But those of us who have spent hour upon hour trying to decipher a diagram of vague, wordless instructions, lining up half-perforated holes and securing them with screws—only to discover there are too many screws, or too few, and that the holes were not quite lined up well enough in the first place—well, we know better.

For people like us, there’s Eric Rhea. A thin, muscular man in his forties, Rhea works out and lifts weights several times a week. Still, he is not a particularly big guy. He doesn’t look like he hauls countless ready-to-assemble flat packs of heavy particleboard, wood and metal day after day after day. But that’s exactly what Eric Rhea does.

His business, IDA Flatpack Furniture Services—originally IKEA Delivery Alternative before Rhea heard from the store’s legal department—is dedicated almost exclusively to delivering and assembling IKEA furniture. (Rhea also makes the occasional trip to West Elm or Crate and Barrel, for variety’s sake.)

Eric Rhea
Eric Rhea

IKEA offers delivery starting at $99, but does not provide assembly services; those are outsourced, in a way. When asked for a comment, the company pointed to its website, where an item in a Frequently Asked Questions section offers a sort of veiled assembly warning for the uninitiated: “IKEA products are generally easy to assemble and require no special tools. If you prefer, most IKEA stores can refer you to a reputable, reasonably priced assembly company that can come to your home to assemble and install our products.” Rhea operates one of those businesses, and he has been recommended to IKEA shoppers. But mostly, Rhea does business the old-fashioned way—by word-of-mouth (though websites like Yelp have become increasingly important).

I first heard of Rhea from an ex-boyfriend, Alex, who needed furniture for his new third-floor walkup. For slightly more than the standard delivery fee charged by IKEA and many moving companies, Rhea picked Alex and his flat-pack purchases up in front of the Red Hook store, drove to Alex’s new apartment in Brooklyn Heights, helped carry the items up the narrow staircase, and built the furniture in an afternoon. Alex was impressed, not only with Rhea’s fluency in IKEA Swedish—the man knows the Swedish name of every item in the store’s catalogue—but also with Rhea’s knowledge of the different colors and finishes of each product. He commented on Alex’s choice of the black-brown Malm bed rather than the medium-brown. He even advised Alex on where to place his furniture in his apartment. By the time Rhea left that afternoon, Alex had a place to sleep and sit and put his coffee, and he was very glad to have stumbled upon Rhea’s advertisement. Judging from Rhea’s busy schedule and his Yelp reviews, so are a lot of other people.

I met Rhea on Canal Street at nine sharp one Thursday morning earlier this summer. After jumping into the passenger side of his van, we drove to IKEA to pick up furniture for a client so I could watch the master in action.

Rhea speaks in full paragraphs. As we drove through the Holland Tunnel, he told me about his background—he grew up in Detroit and moved to New York after college—and the demands of the job (strained muscles, sore muscles, pulled muscles). Although he was a bit guarded about revealing his business model and income, he seemed gratified to have an audience. Rhea and I pulled up to the Paramus, N.J. store just as it was opening. The smell of cinnamon buns was almost overpowering; it was still too early for Swedish meatballs.

I had been to IKEA stores plenty of times before, but never with such a strong sense of purpose. When I moved into my first apartment after college and was trying to acquire the trappings of adult life (shower curtain liners, for instance), my roommates and I would frequently take the B61 bus from Greenpoint to Red Hook to spend a day ogling living room setups, clever uses of closet space and the modern lines of Scandinavian design, all the while making regrettable purchases that were often the exact opposite of grown-up.

One time, I left the Red Hook IKEA holding a large stuffed elephant. On other trips, I procured a box of Christmas ornaments (I’m Jewish), a money tree that lasted a suspiciously long time without water, faux-leather cardboard boxes that took an hour to assemble, lingonberry jam, silicone ice cube trays shaped like swizzle sticks and hearts, hundreds of votive candles and more oversized blue IKEA bags than I care to count. Eventually, I had to ban myself from IKEA. My trip with Rhea was the first time I’d been back in four years.

I explained my IKEA shopping problem to Rhea. He assured me that I am not alone.

“I have people who are afraid to go to the store,” he told me. “That’s another area of my client base. People who are like, ‘I know if I go there I will walk out of there with an extra $100 of stuff.’”

Even Rhea isn’t immune to the allure of the affordable, somewhat necessary objects that seem to call out to you from the store’s never-ending aisles—like the sleek sets of wooden kitchen spoons for 49 cents, or the tiny stuffed creatures that peek out at you from a sea of plushness.

“I spent the first year going to IKEA for other people,” Rhea said,” and every time I was there I would buy something for myself.”

The fact that people end up buying unexpected things while they are in IKEA is no accident. The store layout basically amounts to a one-way maze that winds through showrooms and marketplaces with thousands upon thousands of products. By the time a customer gets to the storeroom at the end, carts are often full of impulse buys.

But Rhea has learned to avoid the maze, and the temptation. “I go in the exit,” he says proudly.

Like many people, Rhea had his first IKEA encounter in college, when his living situation was temporary and his furniture disposable, with about a year-long shelf life. When Rhea and a roommate moved into an off-campus apartment at Howard University, Rhea’s mother offered to help furnish the new apartment. She shopped at what was then a new Swedish furniture store.

Rhea remembers that couch his mom bought.

“It was the cheapest couch but it was great—I had it for years,” he said. After graduating from college, Rhea worked in the music business for ten years, followed by a stint in corporate partnerships and recruitment for a career rankings website.

One Saturday afternoon in 2003, he overheard a woman ahead of him in the IKEA checkout line asking about delivery options. She had bought an item for $105, but it was going to cost $115 to deliver it to her Upper West Side apartment, and there was no same-day service. The flat pack boxes were too big to take back on the store’s shuttle. Rhea offered to drive her home since he lived nearby.

“As we were driving home, she said someone should start a service with same-day delivery, where it doesn’t cost more to deliver an item than to buy it,” Rhea remembers. The woman thought Rhea was just the guy to start such a service.

“Three weeks went by and I realized I could do it on the weekends and make some extra money,” he told me. Rhea started by advertising his services on Craigslist, and he got many jobs through referrals. Three years later, he decided to make it a full-time business. Now, he has three vans and two employees, and plans to hire a third.

When Rhea started IDA Flatpack, he would drive customers to IKEA and wait outside—often for a very long time—until they finished making their purchases, then drive them and their boxes home and assemble their furniture. That package is still an option, but Rhea realized that it was faster if he did the shopping himself, and for a lot of people, not having to set foot in an IKEA is a luxury worth paying for.

“Once I started offering that service, the requests just tripled overnight,” Rhea told me.

Rhea has many repeat customers whom he has helped through different life stages. After couples move in together, Rhea often ends up assembling cribs, then children’s beds, and eventually adult-sized beds. Often, word spreads among neighbors of this jack-of-all-trades furniture mover and assembler. For instance, Rhea has assembled flat packs for several apartments in one building on Eastern Parkway, and at the residents’ beach houses on the Jersey Shore.

To watch Rhea maneuver through IKEA is to watch someone who has perfected an art. He moves with speed, grace, confidence and decisiveness, the latter of which is a scarce commodity in IKEA-land. It’s obvious that the guy is a pro. Rhea seemed to know the inside of the store better than I know the inside of my own closet. Many IKEA employees greeted him by name as we walked through the still-empty aisles.

A snapshot of Rhea’s routine. (Video by Noah Rosenberg)

I asked Rhea about his knowledge of individual product names, which are an homage to a hodgepodge of Scandinavian words and towns. “I practically speak Swedish, but only when it comes to IKEA names and food served at IKEA,” he joked.

We were fast. Even with a bathroom stop, a wait for a larger piece that wasn’t on the floor, and a product return that Eric had to make for another client, we were in IKEA for just 29 minutes, which for me—and I’m guessing for most people—was a record. It reminded me of Supermarket Sweep, that old game show on which people were timed as they sprinted through grocery aisles, grabbing cans of Ragu and bags of frozen peas as if their lives depended on it. But for Rhea, it was just a normal, well-timed morning at the office.

“I’m going to take that box back,” he said at one point, gesturing to a hole the size of a quarter in the cardboard packaging of one of his selections. “There’s a hole in the box, which sometimes means trouble later on.”

“Zip code?” an IKEA employee asked at the return counter.

“I’m not in there?” Rhea asked incredulously, pointing to the computer and handing over his IKEA Family discount card. “You’ve gotten me like 150 times.”

After loading the van, we drove to meet the only customer of the day. Rhea had previously assembled furniture for Arun Singh’s bachelor pad in Battery Park City. Singh had recently gotten engaged, and he and his fiancé had just moved to a luxury building in Jersey City with new appliances, actual closet space and the sort of sweeping views of New York Harbor that get advertised in promotional material—maybe even at an IKEA.

As for so many New Yorkers, parking is often the most difficult part of Rhea’s day. He typically spends longer looking for a spot than he does putting together furniture. When we pulled into a garage in Jersey City adjacent to the new high-rise building, we found that there were no spaces on any of the levels. Driving around the neighborhood yielded similar results. Eventually, after almost an hour, Rhea efficiently crammed the van into a parking space and we walked to the building.

Jen Ettmayer, Singh’s fiancé, buzzed around the apartment, unpacking dishes and putting away shoes while Rhea spread out cardboard (“Always build on cardboard” is a famous Rhea-ism) and assembled a Hemmes T.V. stand, a Vejmom side table, a Vittsjö shelving unit, an Expedit bookshelf and a Malm six-drawer dresser.

By the time that Rhea finished, the apartment was almost fully furnished. The IKEA furniture matched the existing furniture—some from IKEA, some not—and the contemporary design perfectly suited the modern vibe of the building.

We left Jersey City around 6 p.m., avoiding the rush hour traffic heading in the opposite direction. As Rhea drove, I tried to peer through apartment windows, wondering where all that furniture came from, and who, after all, had taken the time to assemble it. I caught glimpses inside Soho lofts and ground-floor units in old West Village buildings, and there, along a bedroom wall or slicing across a living room, they’d catch my eye one after the other: the unmistakable silhouette of a Billy bookcase or an Ektorp sofa, completely transformed and utterly unrecognizable from its flat-packed past.

*  *  *

Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke is a graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has written for The New York Observer, Newsday, amNY and The Villager, among other publications.

Luke Rafferty is studying photojournalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He worked with Narratively as an intern this past summer, and hopes to work with the publication in the future.