7 min read

Ikea, the “impossible furniture house from Sweden”, celebrates its 80th birthday. No one else has so cleverly made modern living promises come true and revolutionised the way people furnish their homes in an uncomplicated way. As far as design is concerned, the balance is rather mixed.

Comment by Thomas Wagner

80 years IKEA © Inter IKEA Systems B.V.

Ikea, too, was staid for a long time. Only gradually did it bring a breath of fresh air into the furniture business. When the wall unit in this country still celebrated German oak, the crockery in the buffet was stacked in Gelsenkirchen baroque, the youth room consisted of walnut-veneered chipboard and do-it-yourself was a foreign word, Ikea was on the spot and took advantage of the revolutionary momentum of social change. It offered an uninhibited Scandinavian furnishing style, in short, a life without furnished bourgeois stuffiness. Those who knew they had a shared flat and wine crate shelves behind them were looking for alternatives – and found them in the “impossible furniture house from Sweden”. The perfected concept of inexpensive and straightforward furniture fitted like a glove. In the spirit of Bauhaus, de Stil and Werkbund, Ikea made one or two modernist dreams come true on a massive scale in a climate of stable prosperity.

It All Started on a Farm

On 28 July 1943, 17-year-old Ingvar Kamprad registered a trademark in Sweden to sell small everyday items such as pens, picture frames, matches and nylon stockings. He delivered his goods from his parents’ farm by bicycle. The name IKEA is composed of the first letters of the name of its founder Ingvar Kamprad, his parents’ farm Elmtaryd, and Agunnaryd, the village to which the farm belonged. The company has since grown to become one of the largest furniture retailers in the world, with more than 460 shops in 62 countries. The first Ikea furniture store in Germany opened on 17 October 1974 in Eching near Munich. Germany is still the largest market for Ikea, ahead of the USA, France and Great Britain.

Ingvar Kamprad © Inter IKEA Systems B.V.

Pine Wood Look and Style Mixes

In the beginning, the furniture mainly had a light pine look and promised lightness. Even if Ikea furniture today does follow its own ideal (which also has to do with the names of the products) – the Swedish furniture chain was not a pioneer in design. One reason: Ikea is primarily a trading company, not a design company. In his book “The Truth about IKEA”, published in German in 2010, the former Ikea manager Johan Stenebo described how precisely the style groups (Country, Scandinavian, Modern and Young Swede) together with the price level formed a product matrix that was thought out down to the last detail. According to Stenebo, the main idea is “that customers can mix and match from all product ranges within a certain style group and thus, for example, get a homogeneous Country or Young Swede home.

Half the Price of the Boulevard

As far as product design is concerned, Ikea has shown how easily the (clever) copy can triumph in the market over the (expensive) original design (which customers are mostly unaware of). The formula for success: IKEA = imitation of good design + practical + cheap + immediately available. Stenebo confirms the method: “Half as expensive as on the high street, but just as pretty. Does it really work like that? Yes, during the 70s and 80s the company unabashedly stole the design for many of its bestsellers. It is no exaggeration to say that this ‘stolen property’ was to some extent what made IKEA what it is today, so remarkable must have been the sales of these bestsellers. Many storage series, armchairs and lamps were definitely copies with a slight IKEA touch.”

As the legal disputes with Moormann and e15 prove, Ikea has not always got away with this despite a “pack of lawyers from Inter IKEA in Brussels” (Stenebo). In the case of e15 (“Malm” vs. “Mo”), there were claims on the part of Ikea of so-called “parallel creations”, in which two identical shapes were created by chance almost simultaneously and without any knowledge of the other.

Smart Cult Marketing

Ikea has always been clever marketing. In this country, it includes such fitting slogans as “Are you still living or are you already living? The slogan perfectly embodies the brand’s claim to sell more than just furniture. The funny exoticism of many furniture names, the IKEA catalogue (the printed good living conscience and at times the highest-circulation print product in the world was discontinued in 2021), Köttbullar and Billy Shelf have also played their part in creating a cult brand. Not to forget the voluminous blue shopping bags, with which complete flat moves could be mastered and in which everything imaginable could be stowed.

The decisive factor was that the entire shopping experience was as thoroughly different from the stiff-upper-lip atmosphere in a traditional furniture store as the oak wall unit weighing heavily on the taste buds was from the friendly light pine shelves. In general: here, design, as average as it was, was consistently seen as something that could be consumed cheaply and quickly, signalled neither luxury nor status and took the user experience seriously. Ikea furniture always breathed the egalitarian spirit of modernity, without the tendency to want to educate in matters of taste. Even the (often criticised) need for self-assembly led to a close bond with the furniture and placed the users at the centre. The chain from choosing to transporting and unpacking to assembling and setting up was in any case unbeatably well thought out – candles, glasses and coasters included.

IKEA catalogue 1974 – the first IKEA catalogue distributed in Germany
© Inter IKEA Systems B.V.

Beyond the Inheritance

In another way, Ikea’s success is a late triumph of modernity: if modernity, with its concept of liberation from the burden of the past through the ever-new, had not only fuelled consumption and capitalism, but also made the final break with the inherited, Ikea (not alone, but for the masses) gave the break a positive and non-elitist image. It was made credible that it was an avant-garde for everyone. And so the practical and easy furnishings, propagated in the 1920s, equipped the new young people from the 1970s onwards with the mobility that increasingly required a general mobilisation of the previously sedentary. Anyone who needed an attractive, practical piece of furniture beyond inherited period furniture or expensive designer pieces and didn’t want to appear old-fashioned didn’t have to look far: He picked up what he had seen in the “somewhat different furniture store” and immediately packed himself into the car. What was promised and made easily accessible across all class boundaries was a lifestyle that was uninhibitedly contemporary but, in keeping with the spirit of the times, also largely devoid of history.

The Anniversary Programme

In its anniversary programme, the company celebrates itself – and attempts the balancing act between nostalgia and freshness. Here, too, marketing takes precedence over design. The “Nytillverkad Collection” (Nytillverkad = Newly Produced) is the name of the new interpretation of a series of Ikea classics launched for the 80th anniversary. (More Nytillverkad products are to follow every three months.) Officially, they are travelling back to the future, paying clever homage to the trend towards vintage furniture and explaining that “people are increasingly looking for unique yet timeless designs that add character and style to the home”. So the roots they are returning to are dipped into fresh pots of colour: “Over the past 80 years,” says Fredrika Inger, Managing Director of IKEA of Sweden, “we have designed a lot of furniture that has entered so many people’s homes – and now it was time to revisit the past. For Nytillverkad, we have redesigned our classics to fit today and to match the style of current and future generations”.

The Sofa from the Envelope

Even at 80, Ikea is not thinking of resting on its laurels. Ikea’s independent design research lab “Space10” recently played out how the kit concept can be further developed with “Couch in an Envelope”: In collaboration with Swiss studio Panter&Tourron and with the help of AI, a flat-packed, modular and lightweight piece of furniture was conceived that reinterprets what constitutes a sofa. The concept, they say, is geared to the demands of modern life, from saving space to being circular. Using AI as a creative collaborator (which it doesn’t really need) to question a design archetype like the sofa, after all, points in the opposite direction to the nostalgic anniversary collection. Or, in the Ikea advertising language of 1985: “Discover the possibilities”.

More on ndion

More articles on the topic of design and brands.

Share this page on social media:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email