Illustration by Aysha Chaudhary
Writing about design takes me to all manner of places on the pretext of researching how stuff gets made, how buildings get built and who dreams it all up in the first place. I find it fascinating, but the design world is a small one and sometimes it can be hard to see where the cutting edge of creativity intersects with the real world. As in fashion, there is a haute-couture level of designer names, but unlike fashion, it is generally a very slow trickle down to the high street. There is one brand, however, where design is king, and which has a massive effect on everyday life: IKEA. It has changed the way people think about their homes and interiors in an unprecedented way for decades, while raking it in: last year, IKEA had a turnover of €23.1 billion, employed around 130,000 people and filled vast shop floors with its products at 321 stores worldwide.
With its emphasis on design that, beyond style and functionality, achieves dramatic reductions in manufacturing and retail costs, IKEA has single-handedly introduced contemporary design into millions of European homes that would otherwise have left the doilies on the dresser and crocheted their way into old age. It has, therefore, been a long-held ambition of mine to visit the IKEA HQ and see what goes on behind the meticulously created room sets.
IKEA is not a company to make a big fanfare with product launches, and it is slightly suspicious of the press. As a result, it took some time to organise a visit. The eventual story I settled on with its press office was the launch of a sofa inspired by British sitting habits. A first for the company, whose approach has always been global or bust, it charmingly posited the notion that in different parts of the world, people park themselves with different levels of aplomb. If Sweden is the norm, and the Swedes sit “on” their furniture, upright and correct, in Britain (and America) the tendency is apparently to sit “in” it – leaning, lying, curling up and bedding down.
The home of IKEA is Älmhult, Småland, where CEO and founder Ingvar Kamprad grew up (and where he still visits frequently, despite now living tax-free in Switzerland). Småland translates directly as “small lands”, and its people have a national reputation for a thrifty and resourceful way of life. It is this that Kamprad credits for teaching him business savvy at an early age: he sold his first box of matches at a shockingly high mark-up at the age of six. Now, of course, it also translates into IKEAland – the business premises form a sizeable campus to which around 4,000 IKEA workers commute daily.
In IKEAland, a medium-size IKEA superstore sits at the heart of a site that also houses an IKEA hotel and restaurant, the IKEA museum (complete with a painting of an IKEA store on the moon), numerous IKEA office buildings, the design studio and the marketing department, where they shoot the doorstop catalogues. Just down IKEA street is the first, headquarter branch of the IKANO bank, as well as a vast recreation centre for workers featuring an IKEA pub pointedly called AFTERWORK (which probably serves the cheapest beer in the whole of Scandinavia), a multifunctional IKEA sports stadium, a crèche, steam rooms, a gym and a shop where staff can buy IKEA-branded baseball caps and socks, should employees wish to demonstrate their loyalty further. Kamprad, ever the businessman, is not above selling to his own staff.
One of the more fascinating parts of the campus is the testing lab, where around 7,000 safety and durability tests are performed every year. It is a veritable gymnasium of robotic wooden bottoms, pumping up and down and wiggling around in every conceivable way on sofas, chairs and sofabeds fresh from prototyping. I was shown around by Anders Jarlsson, deputy test lab manager, who explained that it’s not just the seats that get pummelled. “Customers will also always be sitting on the arm and the back of a sofa,” he explained patiently. “We have to always be on the watch for how people use the products.” Blocks of weights are hoisted and dropped repeatedly onto pieces of furniture, while other gadgets repeatedly tip chairs back and forth hundreds of thousands of times to see how they wear. A climate-controlled chamber means the test lab engineers can check how different temperatures and seasonal changes might affect the products.
Jarlsson is a very tall, very solid Swede, but far from being overrun by Scandinavians, the campus is stridently diverse in its workforce and has been recognised by external bodies such as Disability Action and the Princes Trust for its diversity policies. (On the other hand, the darker side of IKEAland’s rainbow nation was detailed by former executive Johan Stenebo in his 2009 expose The Truth About IKEA, after a fight with one of Kamprad’s sons. He claimed that foreigners were referred to as “niggers” and faced little chance of promotion when working alongside Swedes.)
The IKEA employees I met were astonishingly loyal to their company. Jarlsson has worked there for 40 years, and in a company with a turnover rate of just 9 per cent, his story is not unusual. It was also common to find three generations working side by side, in a way that was reminiscent of a bygone era when entire towns and communities were built around a single company. When I asked why, most employees said the same thing: “We are very free here.”
Even when Stenebo was spilling his bitter guts out, he still conceded that IKEA had been a great place to work. And there was a clear admiration for Kamprad among the staff I met. While now in his 70s and no longer CEO, he is still on the board and very much a presence in the business, keeping abreast of the movements of everyone from the truckers to the finance chiefs. (Stenebo reported that Kamprad received regular updates on employees’ personal lives from informants within the IKEA campus.)
Next to the physical testing facility is the department where IKEA assesses the effectiveness of its legendary self-assembly instructions. True to Kamprad’s philosophy that simple is best, innocent passers-by from the local town are drafted into a room and given a variety of furniture to assemble; instructions are amended and developed accordingly. However, given that 50 per cent of Älmhult’s residents work for IKEA, as a means of testing it seems a bit biased – surely in Älmhult they learn flatpack furniture assembly before they’re crawling.
The new three-seater sofa for the slouchy Brits is called Tidafors and it was designed by Ola Wihlborg, alongside product developer Jens Bengtsson. So as not to risk cultural stereotyping or alienating non-British deep sitters, by the time I reached Älmhult the official line had changed to Bengtsson’s: “We work hard to understand our customers’ needs on a global perspective, down to the smallest detail. We run a lot of research and we found that we had a hole in the range.” Bengtsson asserts that the living room is the most important place in most people’s houses and apartments. “Your sofa defines you to your friends,” he explained. As does, for IKEA’s faithful followers, the distinctive lack of clutter, right down to the perfectly placed tea lights on your tray table.
In the design industry, creating a product for IKEA is a big deal. This is not surprising, given the astonishing number of people who could potentially take one’s design home and use it every day. In 2010, IKEA stores around the world had 626 million visitors; 197 million copies were printed of the catalogue. Most people own something from IKEA. On arrival at Philippe Starck’s new (16th) house ahead of an interview, I was pleased to see that even that haute-couture designer-of-everything had decked his pad out primarily in IKEA. It is a reach that virtually no other retail institution in Europe can offer. It is also, famously, an enormous challenge to design within the strict cost constraints imposed by the company.
“Sometimes we set the price before we develop the product,” Bengtsson explains. “We work to decrease the price the whole time we are developing it, while also keeping the quality high.” There have been whispers that this drive to the bottom comes at the expense of IKEA’s purported values of sustainability and environmentally friendly design. Indeed, Kamprad’s first move away from Sweden came in the 1960s, when he started to manufacture his furniture in Soviet-bloc Poland, smuggling in the technology to do so. As Malcolm Gladwell has noted, Kamprad’s trip to Poland has been treated as a kind of heroic pilgrimage in the official IKEA history. “But what he did in 1961 [was] cozy up to a police state,” Gladwell explains, “break the law” in the pursuit of profit. More recently, IKEA’s sourcing of wood from China has raised questions about whether it can really all have a sustainable provenance.
But while IKEA may err every now and then, clever Kamprad builds such moments into the company culture as a virtue, maintaining, “The fear of making mistakes is at the root of all bureaucracy and the enemy of all evolution.” It is a philosophy that will always enable quick action and reaction when the critics come knocking. But somehow IKEA has largely escaped the tide of hate from the anti-globalisation brigade so far. Even Stenebo’s accusations of meanness, and others’ of tax avoidance, don’t make much of a dent. As the Economist notes, IKEA “ingeniously exploits the quirks of different jurisdictions to create a charity [the IKANO Group] that is not only the world’s richest foundation, but is at the moment also one of its least generous.” The defense seems to be that Kamprad has enabled a lot of people to enjoy the benefits of contemporary design as they sit in greater comfort in their homes. We will therefore allow him to make and spend his profits how he likes, while we obediently file through his 4.5-kilometre one-way shopping “experience” like lab rats – all in the name of a new, efficiently and stylishly designed lifestyle to arrange when we get home. §