Oh, IKEA. For some, the name itself conjures up images of off-kilter bookshelves and teetering tables. For others, the modern-on-a-budget wares are necessary to adequately furnish a home. But though IKEA has become an international brand and a consummate capitalist success story, its roots in Scandinavian progressivism — both aesthetic and social — remind us that there's more to the company than meets the eye.
The IKEA look echoes twentieth-century Scandinavian design in general (Image 2): blond woods, light neutral colors with the occasional bright pop color, lightweight, portable, oftentimes stackable, and, above all, affordable. These qualities stem in part from a cultural movement to make good design available to all people, as well as social policies aimed at fostering healthy, happy family homes.
Sweden wasn't always the posterchild for progressivism. In the early twentieth century, Stockholm, alongside Helsinki, had the lowest standard-of-living in Europe, with cramped, dark apartments where people slept four to a bed. Birth rates were low, alcoholism was high. After 1932, when the Social Democrats were elected to power, the government began subsidizing new, healthier housing (big windows for light and air circulation, balconies), and actively promoted contemporary, affordable furniture suited to a relaxed family home — urging newlyweds to avoid the fashion of paying a lot for traditional-looking furniture that was too formal to be used by young families.
In this new environment, IKEA began mass-producing inexpensive, modern-looking furniture (Image 3). Ingvar Kamprad formed IKEA in 1943 at the age of 17. He had been turning a profit selling low-priced matches to his neighbors in rural Sweden since he was five (makes me reconsider sending my daughter to summer camp — get to work, little girl!). Adding the first initials of his family's farm (Elmtaryd) and his village (Agunnaryd) to his own initials, Kamprad began selling items like pens and nylon stockings at reduced prices, first in door-to-door sales calls, and then by mail-order, to keep up with high demand. In 1948, IKEA began producing furniture, and the first catalog was published in 1951 (Image 1). In 1956, Kamprad hired four Danish designers to form an in-house design team, including Erik Wörts, who had previously helped develop the first flat-packed, DIY assembly-required furniture suites. And thus, IKEA as we know it was born (Image 4-7)!
IKEA's fortunes soared in the 1960s, when the Swedish government adopted a program to build one million new apartments in ten years. All those new homes spurred demand for inexpensive furniture in the modern Scandinavian aesthetic — thousands lined up for the opening of a new Stockholm store in 1965 — check out the 1965 IKEA Catalog in this post. The company's local success in Scandinavia allowed them to begin expanding internationally. There are now around 315 IKEA stores in 36 countries — their signature blue and yellow exteriors a reminder of the company's roots in progressive Swedish values (Image 8), even as their yearly global revenues approach $30 billion.
• I am indebted to Maria Perers, a scholar and curator, whom I have seen lecture many times on this subject.
• The IKEA website has a fun timeline if you want to see more.
• Want to get even deeper into the story? This book by Elen Lewis explores the origins of the brand, and its incredible success.
• Want to hear the other side of the story? Check out this Apartment Therapy post on Ellen Ruppel Shell's article on the unsustainability of IKEA in The Atlantic.
• In Stockholm this summer? Visit the Liljevalchs Konsthall for an exhibition about IKEA.
(Images: 1 The cover of the first IKEA catalog, from 1951: image from a lovely piece on the IKEA museum in Älmhult, Sweden, by Caroline Taret at Marie Claire Maison; 2 On the left, an image from Carl and Karin Larsson's home in Sweden, decorated around 1900, which became a model for 20th-century Scandinavian design, compared with an IKEA catalog from the 1990s on the right: Images by Maria Perers; 3 IKEA chairs from the 1940s at the IKEA museum, from Marie Claire Maison; 4 The Lövet table (1955), IKEA's first flat-packed piece of furniture, from Marie Claire Maison; 5 IKEA ad for the Trofé collection (1969): Image from the Swedish IKEA website; 6 IKEA's Skopa collection (1974): Image by A. Lorenzo for Die Neue Sammlung, a design museum in Munich; 7 Image from the 1984 IKEA catalog with Klippan sofas (first designed in 1979), image from Swedish IKEA; 8 IKEA catalog from the 1990s on the left, Larsson home from 1900 on the right, from Maria Perers)
Anna Hoffman received her Master's Degree in the History of Decorative Arts from Bard, and is now an instructor of Design History at Parsons.