Meatballs, flatpacks and plenty of novelty: A visit to Ikea’s HQ

More than just a cut-price furniture store, the Swedish company likes to see itself at the forefront of an urban design revolution

Ikea was founded in 1943 by the famously frugal Ingvar Kamprad and Ikea stands for Ingvar, Kamprad, Elmtaryd, Agunnaryd (the latter names being Kamprad’s farm and hometown)

Ikea was founded in 1943 by the famously frugal Ingvar Kamprad and Ikea stands for Ingvar, Kamprad, Elmtaryd, Agunnaryd (the latter names being Kamprad’s farm and hometown)

Sat, Jun 21, 2014, 01:00

At Ikea’s “Corporate Culture Centre” building at their headquarters in Älmhult, Sweden, the floor is stencilled with words – “Customer”, “e-commerce”, “innovation”, “platforms”, “concept”, “perspective”, “team”, “a better place to work” and “democratic design”.

Fashionably bearded and bespectacled men with big shoulder-mounted cameras are filming and interviewing journalists as they dismount from buses (“Couldn’t Ikea make those cameras smaller,” jokes one English journalist.) Other casually dressed Ikea personnel – not in the familiar yellow and blue uniforms – give us name badges and gently usher us down the corridor. We are all moving in one direction, much like consumers at an Ikea store.

We pass well-apportioned offices and meeting rooms until we come out into a space filled with white dining tables. At the centre of the room is a buffet, at one end there is a projector screen and at the other there is a series of wooden steps on which artfully displayed, casually dressed employees are seated. Colourful flags hang from the ceilings. A DJ is playing upbeat pop music from record decks at the side of the steps.

Most of us have just been transported by bus from Copenhagen across the Øresund Bridge through wooded Swedish landscape dotted with barns and farm houses and featuring sporadic deer, golfers and birds of prey. Älmhult is in the middle of nowhere and young designers who want to work for Ikea must come here. The journalists load their plates with food and sit around the dining tables. There are, of course meat balls.

Some media folk have been here since the night before, staying at the nearby Ikea hotel. “What’s that like?” I ask. A woman from a high-end UK design magazine looks around to check if anyone is listening. “A bit like a Travelodge,” she whispers. “But with Ikea furniture.”

Ikea is more than just a cut-price furniture store. It is at the forefront of an urban design revolution. Everyone I know has at least one Ikea item in their home. Before Ikea came to Ireland, people drove to Glasgow with hired vans. A colleague is jealous I’m here. She says she sometimes goes to Ikea just to hang out among its cool, clean furnishings.

Ikea was founded in 1943 by Ingvar Kamprad and Ikea stands for Ingvar, Kamprad, Elmtaryd, Agunnaryd (the latter names being Kamprad’s farm and hometown). He is famously frugal, known to fly economy class and to haggle with shopkeepers. He is also a tax-exiled, multimillionaire who lives in Switzerland so he has a lot to be frugal with. Oh, and he was, in his youth, a member of the Swedish Nazi party. Kamprad retired from the board last month and is planning to return to Sweden, though he has kept an advisory role with the company and his sayings and stories are still reverently recited by Ikea staff when pressed. Company succession is hotly debated (Kamprad has three sons but it’s not clear if any of them will take over).

Today is Democratic Design Day 2014 though they’re being a little vague about what all this means. It’s clearly a sneak peak at future designs and developments, but it’s also, I suspect, a show of creativity and strength after the departure of the founder.

Or it could be the launch of a new Ikea political movement if the Utopian rhetoric is anything to go by. “Most things still remain to be done, a glorious future!” reads the banner at the end of the room (well that’s what the translation says). That said, there’s long been a sense that Ikea is exporting Scandinavian-style social democracy embedded in its chipboard.

“Hey everybody,” says new chief executive Peter Agnefjall (sportscoat, open-neck shirt), talking like a youth leader at a summer camp. Ikea’s mission, he says, is to “[Create] a better everyday life for the ordinary people.”

Ikea management use phrases which are as carefully designed as the company’s Billy shelves and kitchen counters. “At Ikea we design the price tag first of all,” he says. Then he refers to their current plan, “Growing Ikea together 2020”, and their new agenda to be “people and planet positive” which aims for maximum growth with a side-order of sustainability.

Jesper Brodin, range and supply manager, tells us about the company’s commitment to self-improvement. Then he shows us how to put together a prototype stool as we count. “You’re counting too fast!” he complains as the journalists pace through the numbers mischievously.

Head designer Marcus Engman, dressed nautically in a striped T-shirt, slacks and white sneakers, takes to the stage and gives us another soundbite. In fact, he repeats it a few times: “Remember Ikea isn’t just about making things,” he says, “it’s about making things better.”

Then he demonstrates how comfortable the new, stylishly compact Knopparp couch is. He points out most people live in small apartments. He sits in it. It’s what they in Ikea call “a BTI” he tells us. “Do you know what a BTI is? It’s a ‘breath-taking item’.”

There are certain Ikea obsessions that recur. Ikea doesn’t like “shipping air”. In 1951, an employee invented flatpacking when he removed the legs from a table to fit it into his car, and the company has been obsessed with making their designs more transportable ever since. They show us a short film and repeatedly stress the five pillars of “democratic design”: function, form, quality, sustainability and low price. I half-expect we’ll be asked to chant them.

We are then brought over to Ikea 1, a big partitioned warehouse-like building that is the site of the first Ikea store, built in 1958 (prior to this, Ikea was a mail-order business), and where they’re planning to put a new Ikea museum.

There Engman guides us through the new Ikea collections and prototypes and introduces us to designers.

It’s a big blast of novelty. There’s a storage unit shaped like a duck on which children can sit (I ask whether there are plans for an adult-sized one), a jigsaw puzzle for both adults and children simultaneously with differently sized pieces (the designer stresses importance of intergenerational play in an era when parents might be separated), a bedside lamp with built-in smart phone charger (these are from the Smart Home range), cheap-to-buy art prints designed by 12 international street artists (“Art should be for everyone,” says Engeman), a whole array of new things made from “natural materials”, and a range based on the work of the late Swedish graphic designer Olle Eskell with a book about his work (Eskell’s widow, Ruthel, sits by the range in stylish dark glasses).

I am already feeling the dizzy consumer paralysis that always hits me during trips to Ikea in Ballymun. Leoni Hoskins, deputy range and design manger, talks us through some forthcoming products.

These include the aforementioned Knopparp couch, a range of Busunge child-friendly furniture with rounded edges and a revamped version of the Expedit shelves beloved by vinyl collectors, renamed Kallax. She anticipates the latter might be controversial. A planned redesign of the iconic Billy bookcase is causing ructions among purists.

Ikea nomenclature follows a system – beds, wardrobes and furniture, for example, are Norwegian place names; bathroom items are named after Scandinavian lakes. “It’s part of our unique identity,” says Hoskins, who is Australian, “that people can’t say our names sometimes.”

In an adjoining room, Steve Howard, Ikea’s English chief sustainability officer, explains how Ikea is using renewable resources, cutting down on packaging, producing its own energy with windmills (“We’re in the energy business!”) and regularly inspecting suppliers to ensure there are no ethical abuses. It’s even selling solar panels and electric bikes. He shows us a slide featuring Ikea’s four strategic aims: “Growing Ikea. People. Sustainability. Lower Costs.”

“Surely some of those thing are in conflict?” I ask. (I know. I’m a total buzzkill). Steve is glad I asked the question.

He explains how most of their anticipated growth is in places where people are coming out of poverty and that neither waste nor overworking people was ever really good for productivity. Sustainability, he insists, is the future and it wouldn’t make good business sense to ignore it.

It sounds persuasive and we all consider it as our bus heads back over the Øresund Bridge. Ikea has always positioned itself as one of the good guys but it’s a huge company and its record isn’t entirely spotless. Over the years, it has avoided tax, used East German political prisoners as workers (in the 1980s), removed images of women from Saudi Arabian catalogues (in 2012), had employees embroiled in Russian bribery scandals, been accused of destroying ancient forests in Russia and challenged on oppressive working conditions in its US manufacturing plant in Danville.

As large international companies go, it’s not the worst. But “Ikea: we’re not the worst!” isn’t as snappy a tagline as “making things better”.

I don’t think they’re cynics. They clearly see a confluence between their products and human progress. After 70 years, they’re still intent on spreading both Scandinavian design and Scandinavian values around the world. If it’s cheap enough, they argue, we’ll buy both.

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