The Sun Never Sets on IKEA

The Swedish funiture manufaturer has taken over the world, one Allen wrench at a time: Domestic design never looked back

On The Town | Mary Albon | July / August 2010

Sweden—that shining beacon of egalitarianism, gracious living and simple yet elegant style. On the world stage, this Nordic nation presents itself as a peaceful, self-effacing exemplar of social equality, tolerance and democracy, and it works hard to build peace around the globe.

But let’s not forget that Sweden is also a charter member of the club of former imperial powers.  For centuries Sweden dominated Scandinavia, and it conquered almost half the Holy Roman Empire in the Thirty Years’ War. In the 18th century, the Swedish Empire began to shrink; the last time the country waged war was in 1814, and today Stockholm maintains a policy of strict neutrality.

But I think Sweden has simply been biding its time until it could make another go at world domination. At long last its moment seems to have arrived, and today the Swedish Empire is quietly making a comeback, one that is all the more successful because it has gone unnoticed.

Sweden’s secret weapon?  IKEA.

"The IKEA Phenomenon," an excellent exhibition about the history and design philosophy of the home-furnishings behemoth on at Vienna’s Hofmobiliendepot through July 11, provides some insight into Sweden’s neo-imperialistic strategy. The exhibition was organized in cooperation with the International Design Museum Munich with additional support from the Museum for Art and Industry Hamburg and IKEA Österreich (which explains the show’s slightly self-congratulatory tone).

Based on my reconnaissance, I’ve discovered that the foundation for Sweden’s stealthy but benign quest for global supremacy is something called the IKEA Concept. "Rather than selling expensive home furnishings that only a few can buy," IKEA’s corporate website declares, "the IKEA Concept makes it possible to serve the many by providing low-priced products that contribute to helping more people live a better life at home."

The IKEA Concept has its roots in the 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement as well as the Bauhaus philosophy of creating a better world through design. But its Swedish roots also run deep, including a preference for light colors and light-colored woods, and designs that are simple, functional, unpretentious and family-friendly.

But cost saving is the real cornerstone of IKEA’s philosophy. According to the exhibition notes, "from its very inception, IKEA set itself the goal of producing good quality designs on the basis of purely business strategies."  IKEA subverts the great American architect Louis Sullivan’s fundamental principle of good design: for IKEA, form doesn’t follow function, form follows logistics.

IKEA was founded in 1943 by an enterprising 17-year-old Swede, Ingvar Kamprad. Initially, Kamprad sold everyday items like stationery and stockings, but in 1948 he added locally made furniture to his line, and in 1951 he launched the first IKEA mail-order catalogue. In 1956, Kamprad introduced the home-assembly option to save on production, storage and shipping costs, pioneering the Tom Sawyer principle on a mass scale. In 1958, Kamprad opened the first IKEA furniture store.

IKEA has been building momentum for decades. In 1963, the first IKEA store outside Sweden opened in Norway. A decade later, IKEA began expanding beyond Scandinavia; Austria got its first IKEA in 1977. By 1998, IKEA was selling its wares in China, and this year, it opened its first Latin American outpost in the Dominican Republic. Today, there are over 300 IKEA stores in 39 countries, with turnover in 2009 of more than €22.7 billion. According to Forbes Magazine, Ingvar Kamprad, now in his eighties, is the 11th-wealthiest person in the world, with a fortune estimated at U.S. $23 billion in 2010.

The IKEA Concept seems to be working. With its blue-and-yellow logo mimicking the Swedish flag, IKEA has peacefully colonized vast swaths of the globe.  By providing attractive, practical, low-cost home furnishings, IKEA has won the undying allegiance of tens of millions of people all over the world, even though they have to assemble their purchases themselves.

IKEA faces virtually no resistance; indeed, in most instances, the opening of a new store is welcomed by wildly enthusiastic crowds, eager to follow the pre-set path that wends through model bedrooms and kitchens and bathrooms. The IKEA juggernaut cheerfully rolls over everyone without distinction. Historic rivals like Turks and Greeks, French and Germans, Russians and Poles all receive the same IKEA catalogue —indeed, so too do more than 100 million households around the world. (The empire’s only concession to its colonies is that the catalogue is translated into local tongues; each year IKEA produces 56 editions in 27 languages.)

Maybe, it occurred to me, Sweden, with help from IKEA, has a chance to succeed where other peacemakers have failed. Perhaps if more people in the world’s hotspots had access to IKEA, they would simply stay at home enjoying their EKTORP sofas and LIDINGÖ kitchen ensembles instead of fighting with each other. Please, Sweden, let them all drink the lingonberry Kool-Aid.

But there is a dark side even to this benign empire. The IKEA exhibition addresses past accusations against IKEA concerning plagiarism, child labor and environmental damage, and it also raises the troubling idea that "the right of everyone to consume has come to be regarded as a basic element of a democratic society." This belief fosters a throwaway culture, especially given that IKEA products are inexpensive and not particularly durable. When tens of millions of people around the world are buying (and throwing away) the same products, how does that play out in reality?  How many landfills are brimming with worn-out IKEA furnishings?

OK, I confess. I too have bought my share of IKEA furniture, lamps and household items with their goofy-cute Scandinavian names generously sprinkled with umlauts. I’ve wandered through IKEA’s tastefully arranged furniture showrooms, daydreaming about ambitious home redecoration projects. Once I even lugged a flat-packed POÄNG armchair by bus and subway all the way to Brooklyn from the IKEA in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And there is probably a jar of lingonberry jam lurking somewhere in the back of one of my kitchen cabinets.

But I’ve also struggled mightily to assemble some of my IKEA purchases, cursing like a sailor as I wrestled with particleboard panels while simultaneously turning one of those blasted little hexagonal Allen wrenches. Despite deceptively simple illustrated instructions, the IKEA do-it-yourself cult requires superhuman efforts, and success is not guaranteed. I can’t be the only one with an IKEA dresser marred by a hole drilled in the wrong spot on the front of one of the drawers, or with a handful of nuts and bolts left over when only the exact number needed was included in the flat pack.

The IKEA exhibition showcases examples from its PS collection of extravagant experimental designs, as well as a "pimp light show" in which six Austrian design teams jazzed up basic IKEA light fixtures. But how many ordinary IKEA shoppers buy the experimental stuff, or personalize their own purchases? Do most people even have a personal style?  My guess is that few IKEA shoppers do. Part of the appeal of IKEA is that it offers the possibility of an instant style, one that’s clean, simple and attractive. Yet even that is no guarantee that people will be able to recreate the IKEA style in their own homes.

This is borne out by the "typical IKEA living room" and "typical Austrian living room" featured in the exhibition. These displays were created based on statistics for IKEA’s best-selling products worldwide and within Austria. The IKEA room is a good example of "instant style"—crisp, cool and attractive but also impersonal, like a corporate waiting room or the lobby of a boutique hotel. By contrast, the typical Austrian living room looks like it’s lived in and used by real people, but that doesn’t mean it’s appealing. The room is dominated by an overstuffed slate-blue sectional sofa unit and matching mushroom-like armchair, accessorized by a modular media and storage system in blonde wood. Although the furnishings are practical and probably comfortable, they look dowdy and tired. Whereas the typical IKEA living room is light and airy (albeit somewhat sterile), the Austrian living room feels heavy and oppressive. I wanted to flee.

So I’d like to make a final appeal to Sweden, our beneficent secret overlord, to please add another element to its stealthy global embrace. Opening more IKEA stores is not in itself enough to make our home lives better. What we also need is a brigade of tasteful Swedes to teach the rest of us how to decorate our homes with style.


"The IKEA Phenomenon," through July 11, 2010 at the Hofmobiliendepot, Andreasgasse 7, 1070 Vienna

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