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It’s official: the current IKEA catalogue for the year 2021 will be the last of its kind. Having just celebrated its 70th birthday last summer, the catalogue – at times the highest-circulation publication in the world – is now being discontinued. It feels like the end of an era.

By Thomas Wagner.

Der IKEA Katalog im Wander der Zeit
Photo: © Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2020

The famous German literary critic Hellmuth Karasek once called the Swedish homeware catalogue a “furnished novel”. Almost 20 years ago, the comic Harald Schmidt also dedicated an episode of his late-night show, entitled “le ikea primeur est arrivé”, to dissecting several double-page spreads of interiors with obvious relish. The popular catalogue inspired him to explore the dark side of multicultural patchwork families and – in his usual uninhibited style – to make laconic speculations. Previously delivered each year free of charge, the IKEA catalogue was like a primer on domestic bliss. Its disappearance seems not only to mark the end of the age of Gutenberg but also to sound the death knell of hopes for better interiors fed by Bauhaus, New Frankfurt, Ulm and Max Bill’s “Die Gute Form”. Is it really that bad? It comes as no surprise that digitisation is cited as the reason for the move away from print. This shows how difficult it is to swim against the tide – even for a company whose marketing has always been original.

These days, changes are planned at home

“The IKEA catalogue is associated with countless wonderful memories and emotions, both for our customers and for our staff. It has been one of our best-known and most popular products for 70 years and has inspired billions of people around the world. The decision to close the book on the IKEA catalogue is a consequence of changing media use and consumer behaviour. In the future, we will use new ways to reach its many readers, interact with them and inspire them with our furnishing solutions,” said Konrad Grüss, managing director Inter IKEA Systems B.V., in explanation of the decision. Instead of using a cumbersome catalogue, customers will be expected to find information online. “Feedback from customers and from the IKEA retail markets” showed “that people increasingly plan changes and decide what furniture they need from home – using existing tools along with new and exciting ones,” he added.

Some 3.6 billion people browsed the website in 2020

Deutscher IKEA Katalog 2021
Das Cover des deutscher IKEA-Katalogs von 2021, dem letzten in gedruckter Form. Foto: © Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2020

When Grüss says that every ending marks a new beginning and concludes by announcing: “We would like to inspire all these people with new possibilities, channels and formats”, there can be no doubt that a printed catalogue for a company that aims to appeal to young consumers is quite simply anachronistic in the age of digitisation. The print run had been on a downward trajectory anyway in recent years. IKEA printed 23 million copies in Germany in 2019, but just 8.5 million of the current issue will be produced. The move away from automatically mailing the catalogues also had an impact. If customers have to request a catalogue by completing an online form, they might as well just browse the website. Furthermore, it is impossible to misinterpret the 45% growth in IKEA’s global online sales last year and the fact that 3.6 billion people visited the website IKEA.com in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic is likely to have further accelerated this shift. Of course, the furniture store’s sustainability strategy also plays a role with its target of becoming climate-neutral by 2030.

Most mail-order companies in Germany – such as Wenz, Schöpflin, Quelle, Neckermann and Otto, among others – were born in the Weimar Republic or in the 1930s. Whereas they have either disappeared from the market or switched to online catalogues some time ago, IKEA has always pursued a hybrid concept with the aim of making the act of buying furniture (and plenty more besides) an experience – all the way through to assembling the cupboards, shelves, kitchens and beds at home, which may not always be stress-free but is certainly a memorable experience. It may sound like an exaggeration, but as far as customer loyalty and the production of desires go, the end of the guide to good interiors that was the IKEA catalogue marks the disappearance of the last vestige of the post-war era.

We would like to inspire all these people with new possibilities, channels and formats.

Konrad Grüss, Managing Director Inter IKEA Systems B.V.

Picking up everything you need

IKEA has become an influential institution. There is plenty of evidence for that. Before books were read on smartphones, there was hardly a student flat without “Billy”. And anyone who didn’t finish their visit to the high-bay warehouse with a plate of meatballs wasn’t part of the motley crew (now there are meat-free veggie balls to save the planet). Those who needed a practical, often well-designed piece of furniture aside from heirlooms or pricey designer pieces didn’t have to look far: they could pick up the IKEA catalogue, inspect the item at the “furniture store with a difference” and take what they wanted straight home from the warehouse – provided it fitted in the car.

Deutscher IKEA Katalog 1974
Photo: © Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 1974.
Deutscher IKEA Katalog 1990
Photo: © Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 1990.

With its approach, IKEA brought a breath of fresh air to (stubbornly petit bourgeois) German apartments, especially in the 1970s and 80s. No one marketed the practical, appealingly tasteful Scandinavian lifestyle more skilfully than the company founded by 17-year-old Ingvar Kamprad in 1943, which initially sold ballpoint pens, wallets, picture frames, tablecloths, clocks, jewellery, nylon stockings and postcards. An important part of its success was that the catalogue didn’t merely showcase furniture (and other household items) isolated in product groups, but rather in fully furnished rooms like in home magazines. This strategy proved successful and is followed by the company to this day. The blend of modern Bauhaus rationality, Scandinavian simplicity and a generous dose of hygge came to the aid of anyone who was not particularly into furniture design but didn’t want an old-fashioned interior. Especially as the whole range of furnishings – from the kitchen to the nursery and from the bathroom to the patio – was presented clearly in the catalogue and the products had a no-frills design and an affordable price tag. The company promised and made accessible an easy, contemporary – but also anonymous – way of life that transcended all class boundaries and that was in line with its famous German slogan “Wohnst Du noch oder lebst zu schon?” (“Are you just living, or are you really alive?”).

Order online or embrace the shopping experience

Purchasing behaviour (or the media use of young single people and families) has now changed, as has the marketing strategy which now actively drives change instead of merely accompanying it. In the age of online shopping, Alexa and Amazon, there is little time for flicking through catalogues or mulling things over. And if something does need planning, assistants, algorithms and AI are on hand to help:

Plan with us from the comfort of your sofa. We are happy to help you plan your new furnishings or choose the right style for your home. Make a personal appointment and we will take the time to assist you. It’s easy and free online.

Customers now make use of both options – they either order the whole lot online or embrace the full-on shopping experience with everything including the kitchen sink.

A handbook for a better home

It is hard to say how much the printed catalogue was responsible for IKEA shaping the interior decorating style of so many people and accompanying them throughout their lives, from their first home to their care home. The effect of the model interiors on shaping consumers’ tastes is probably overestimated. They primarily act as incentives to buy in connection with certain fashions. The interactive websites where users can already mouse over products presented in fictitious living rooms, bedrooms, offices and kids’ rooms to see the items’ names and prices confirm this. And – unlike the collage approach of the likes of vitra – IKEA preaches an astonishingly monogamous approach to home furnishings, with or without its catalogue: at home, thou shalt have no other elks before me.

Innenansicht IKEA Katalog
Photo: © Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2020.

Book to pay homage to the IKEA catalogue

IKEA wouldn’t be IKEA if the loss of the catalogue wasn’t rapidly followed by some sort of consolation. So while its discontinuation is assessed in the usual down-to-earth style, the dispensable catalogue will also be glorified nostalgically and emotionally. In a dialectical development, the history of the catalogue – which, on closer inspection, was little more than an advertising brochure in the early years – is to be recorded for posterity. IKEA has announced that it intends to publish a book packed with interior decorating tips and inspiration in autumn 2021, to bid the catalogue farewell.

Discover more about the IKEA Katalogue

To the IKEA Homepage. More images of catalogue covers, information and throwbacks to the history of the catalogue and the company can be discovered at the Ikea Museum.

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