It’s 30 years since Ikea opened its first store in the UK. It’s had a huge im­pact on our homes – and us, says Nell Frizzell

The Observer Magazine - - DESIGN -

I have mea­sured out my life in cof­fee spoons and mat­tresses, bath mats and book­cases, cush­ions and dou­ble du­vets. These touch­stones of my life may seem spo­radic – the cook­ing pot I went off to univer­sity with, the first towel I bought (rather than stole from my mother), the ruck­sack I wore dur­ing my preg­nancy, the chang­ing ta­ble that will, I hope, one day serve as my child’s desk – but they all unite un­der a sin­gle Swedish phi­los­o­phy: “To cre­ate a bet­ter ev­ery­day life for the many peo­ple.”

I didn’t know about this phi­los­o­phy un­til I stood, bathed in the gen­tle air of meat­balls, in the foyer of the Ikea Mu­seum in Älmhult, Små­land and read it off a gi­ant white wall be­side a por­trait of the Ikea founder, Ing­var Kam­prad. The mu­seum, which opened in 2016 on the site of Ikea’s first ever store, tells the story not only of Swedish life via its com­mon house­hold ob­jects (not to men­tion the more ar­rest­ing ones such as “bog ore” and “sausage horn”), but gives a glimpse into the life of Kam­prad, his staff, those early fur­ni­ture ex­per­i­ments (denim di­van, any­one?) and the un­likely rise to global pro­por­tions of this small, back­wood busi­ness.

If you haven’t heard of Älmhult, this may be be­cause it is, es­sen­tially, a small Swedish town in the mid­dle of the woods, so far south it’s ac­tu­ally closer to Copen­hagen than Stock­holm, with fewer than 20,000 res­i­dents. Imag­ine a vil­lage in the Home Coun­ties, but with more cin­na­mon buns and where every­one is dressed in H&M.

How­ever, it was here, in 1943, that the young en­trepreneur, Kam­prad, founded his busi­ness, mov­ing on from sell­ing cheap matches to neigh­bours to us­ing the lo­cal milk­man to dis­trib­ute small house­hold items across Swe­den at a dis­counted rate. In 1953 there fol­lowed his first fur­ni­ture show­room, in 1956 his first flat-pack fur­ni­ture and in 1958 his first Ikea store.

It would take un­til 1987 for Ikea to reach the UK, open­ing its blue and yel­low doors for the first time in War­ring­ton. Why War­ring­ton? Why not? If you have a busi­ness based on the found­ing prin­ci­ples of form, func­tion, qual­ity, sus­tain­abil­ity and low price, set­ting up in a north­ern man­u­fac­tur­ing town with plenty of room and a good rate of home own­er­ship doesn’t seem a crazy idea.

Thirty years later, it is hard to imag­ine any stu­dent bed­room, any cou­ple’s first flat, home of­fice or granny an­nexe un­touched by the sharp lines of a Billy book­case, Poäng chair, Klip­pan sofa, Lack ta­ble or Ribba pic­ture frame. You might not love them, you might not even re­mem­ber them, but you own them nonethe­less. Just as the font

Ikea is based on the found­ing prin­ci­ples of form, func­tion, qual­ity and low price

Ikea is cur­rently pre­par­ing to open its first store in In­dia

in a good book is the very one you don’t no­tice, so the ubiq­uity of Ikea in our homes has ren­dered the Kal­lax unit, the Far­grik mug and Fado lamp near-in­vis­i­ble.

Dur­ing my trip to Älmhult, and af­ter fill­ing up on a cheese and crisp­bread brunch at Icom – the Ikea com­mu­ni­ca­tions depart­ment – one of Ikea’s long­est-serv­ing staff mem­bers (a Dan­ish woman in an im­mac­u­late white shirt) let me into the com­pany’s lit­tle in­side joke about those “funny” Scan­di­na­vian names. It goes that while the so­fas are given Swedish place names and the beds are named af­ter towns in Nor­way, the Dan­ish place names are re­served es­pe­cially for toi­let brushes.

These days, Ikea can some­times feel like an em­blem of the north­ern Euro­pean, so­cially demo­cratic fu­ture we could have won: a prin­ci­pal part­ner of the Liv­ing Wage Foun­da­tion with a strict 50/50 gen­der split tar­get for man­age­ment teams across the globe. Ikea also serves un­der founder Kam­prad’s phi­los­o­phy that waste is a “mor­tal sin”. As we sat in a small, white room sur­rounded by LED lights and floor­ing made from re­cy­cled wood, Nanette Weis­dal, the com­pany’s sus­tain­abil­ity leader, ex­plained to me that their code of con­duct strives to achieve ever higher rates of re­cy­cling, re­use and re­pair, and to source sus­tain­able ma­te­ri­als, labour and prod­ucts across the world.

Af­ter­wards I strolled across the carpark from the Ikea Mu­seum can­teen to the Ikea ho­tel un­der a light Swedish driz­zle and won­dered what comes next for the com­pany and for me, a cus­tomer.

To­day, as the com­pany pre­pares to open its first store in In­dia, I scroll through baby bounc­ers and nurs­ing chairs. As they de­ploy more than 16,000 flat-pack refugee shel­ters to cri­sis lo­ca­tions from Nepal to Bagh­dad to Di­jbouti, I won­der what sort of world my child, rolling about in his Charmtroll sleep­ing bag, will in­herit. And as we pre­pare to be cut adrift from the safety, pro­tec­tion and cul­ture of the EU, will we look north to our Scan­di­na­vian cousins, or turn in­ward in a fit of na­tion­al­ism?

Ei­ther way, one thing is for sure: home will never be the same again.

Home front: (clock­wise from left) founder Ing­var Kam­prad in 1963; a chil­dren’s bed­room in the Dublin store; the open­ing of Ikea’s first store in Älmhult in 1958; the War­ring­ton branch; the bestselling Poäng arm­chair; an in­store sit­ting room from War­ring­ton in 1987; and a se­lec­tion of cat­a­logues

Bright ideas: (clock­wise from top left) the An­ti­foni work lamp; a kitchen setup from 1987; cat­a­logues; and the Klip­pan sofa

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