FLAT PACK TO THE FUTURE
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
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