As Ikea celebrates its 25th anniversary in Britain, we go on a pilgrimage to its strange HQ in a small Swedish town.
In the drawer of my hotel room in Älmhult, there is a copy of the Gideon New Testament and the 2013 Ikea catalogue. That is because I am staying in the Ikea Hotel, in a small town in Småland, southern Sweden – “the beating heart” of the world’s largest furniture company. The twin publications are the first sign that this is no ordinary town, but the centre of a cult: Northern Europe’s very own Pyongyang, where the Allen key has replaced the nuclear bomb, and Ingvar Kamprad, Ikea’s founder, is the locals’ Kim Il-Sung.
Just 8,000 people live in Älmhult and half of them are Ikea “co-workers”, as its employees like to be known. As well as the first ever Ikea store, there is also the Ikea test lab; Europe’s largest studio – where all of the catalogues are photographed; an Ikea bank; Ikea of Sweden, a separate unit that designs all of the bunk beds, picture frames and bookcases that have made the company such a money-making machine; and Ikea Aktivitetshuset, where co-workers can come to unwind at an Ikea spa or at the Ikea bar. There is also an Ikea Museum and an Ikea Corporate Cultural Centre.
And this – a place co-workers around the world come on a pilgrimage to be inspired – is where the full oddity of the Ikea sect hits you. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is piped out of the speakers and pictures of Kamprad float on the walls, each with one of his little slogans: “Humbleness and willpower”, “Striving to meet reality”, “Constant desire for renewal”. There is a 4ft-high pyramid that emits strange sounds and is meant to sum up the Ikea belief in “togetherness” – if you rub all the sides simultaneously, it makes harmonious music. If you prod it a lacklustre way, the pyramid groans in pain.
I’ve come, groans and all, to Älmhult to discover more about Ikea, which this month is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its arrival in Britain. A quarter of a century from the first outlet on a retail park in Warrington, just off the M6, it has arguably changed the inside of British homes more than Thatcher’s Right to Buy or the arrival of the plasma screen television.
Anders Danielsson was one of the Ikea executives who opened the Warrington store and remembers how Britain fell for Scandinavian designs: “We were on a wave and we were on a mission together with the consumer. They had already decided to change to modernity. We facilitated it – that change from Old England to Cool Britannia.” Some stores even had riots when they opened, so great was the demand for its products.
“Chuck out the chintz” was one of Ikea’s early slogans. It summed up the company’s philosophy: young couples, living together and going to university in far greater numbers than the generation before, no longer needed to rely on handed-down heavy, dark furniture or second-hand crockery. They could pretend they lived in a European loft conversion even if they lived in a bedsit in Ashton-under-Lyne. Many of its best- selling products are what the company call “breathtaking items” – so cheap you can’t afford not to buy them: airtight jars for 75p, a pair of curtains for £5, a bedroom mirror for £1.50.
Eleanor John, head of collections at London’s Geffrye Museum, which chronicles the changing interiors of Britain, says: “Sir Terence Conran’s Habitat paved the way, but Ikea penetrated into people’s homes far deeper and in a far more commercial way. It made contemporary design affordable for everyone.”
And Älmhult, in the 1940s, is where this movement started. A cold corner of Småland, where the wind whips through the birch trees and the skies are low, it is the birthplace of Kamprad. Like all good cult leaders, his childhood is mythologised. Juni Wannberg, a beaming acolyte who runs the Ikea Museum, tells me that Kamprad started selling matches for a profit at the age of five. “At the age of five?” I query. “Oh, yes, he was always looking to make a profit,” she says. He then progressed to selling razor blades, fountain pens and cigarette lighters and, eventually, furniture. His teenage membership of the New Swedish Movement during the war, which supported Nazi Germany, fails to merit a mention in the museum. Kamprad later said it was the “greatest mistake of my life”.
His genius was to back two developments. One was the car – he realised that the rise of Volvo and Saab would mean families could drive to large out-of-town shops, rather than the high street. The other was the flatpack.
Sunday afternoons battling with Allen keys have punctuated my fatherhood years: cots, shelves and storage units have all been built with equal amounts of swearing and blisters. But self-assembly for the people of Småland is a virtuous rite of passage. As Wannberg says, the agricultural labourers of Småland were used to hard work and “eager to help out”.
Flatpacks remain at the heart of Ikea. The company reckons up to 70 per cent of the cost of anything it makes is transport, and trucking air inside the lorry is a criminal waste. This is why so many of its non-flatpack items, such as chairs, glasses and flowerpots, are stackable.
In his manifesto entitled The Testament of a Furniture Dealer, Kamprad says cost-consciousness has to stretch to “penny-pinching”. Now aged 86 and worth an estimated £2 billion, he travels economy, drives a 20-year-old Volvo and bases one of Ikea’s controlling firms in Luxembourg to save on taxes – another cost to be cut.
Cost determines design, too. Henrik Preutz, one of the company’s 10 in-house designers, says: “It’s the first thing we are given – the price.” He will be told that a set of six plastic children’s plates, say, has to cost 90p. “The price determines everything, because at that price I know no hands can touch it. The production, the packing – it just has to pop out.”
Preutz is a fresh-faced 36-year old who still gets a giddy thrill from seeing his designs in people’s homes. They stretch from a basic 50p curtain rod bracket to the Arvika £450 swivel armchair. He may be an unknown compared with Conran or Philippe Starck, but his products are likely to be in millions more homes. I have one of his £3 Stabil splash covers for a frying pan.
Like nearly everyone I meet in Älmhult, Preutz beams when I ask whether he likes the town. “I love it!” He laughs when I say he sounds as if he’s been brainwashed. But this odd little place, with its Willys supermarket, birch forest and collection of Ikea companies, has produced a business of enormous scale. In the last eight weeks alone, it has sold 503,441 Billy bookcases, and last year it distributed 212 million catalogues, double the number of bibles sold or given out in an individual year. An astonishing 2.5 billion little wooden dowels, used to hold furniture together, left Ikea stores in 2011 and made it into people’s homes around the world.
To many of us, Ikea is a source of cheap side tables, strangely named lamps, Swedish meatballs and marital rows. To the residents of Älmhult it is more than this – it is the centre of a global movement “to create a better everyday life for the many people”. As cults go, it’s fairly benign.
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