Ingvar Kamprad founded IKEA in 1943 and died recently at the age of 91. Last week I was invited to chat on the radio about his life and the impact of IKEA on our lives (you can hear the interview here). I was surprised after the announcement of his death by the number of rather snooty articles about IKEA. Design writer Olly Wainwright cocked his snook in The Guardian at the top 10 sellers; others sniggered about allen keys, arguments over self-assembly, flatpack coffins, and panic attacks in the IKEA maze. Moderately funny, of course, but the general feeling I had was that people thought IKEA was not all that great. Which surprised me because I think IKEA is brilliant.
I remember my first visit to its new London store in 1988. I had just bought my own flat in Greenwich and was in dire need of all kinds of things. To get to the store in Wembley was quite a trek so I hoped it would be worthwhile. It was, in fact, a revelation. Not knowing what to expect, I was amazed to discover so many things that I liked and, more importantly, that I could afford. I sauntered through its room sets with a stupid grin on my face and then fought my way through the busy Market Hall, discovering things I hadn’t realised I needed. Bumper packs of paper napkins? Yes please! Scrunchy bags of tea lights? Why not! A dinky set of sherry glasses? Ja, tack! By the time I’d finished, the back of my poor little Ford Fiesta was stuffed to the brim with various bags plus a folding dining table in modish black-stained beech, a pine plant stand, a green glass lamp and a variety of hooks. And I was as happy as Larry (or perhaps Laurentius, given I was so totally taken with the Swedish vibe).
It’s easy to forget now that in 1988 it all felt so different from what was generally available. There was Habitat, which was youthful and design-conscious but not always cheap, and the basic homewares at stores like John Lewis were boringly traditional. You could pick up cheap stuff in places like Do-It-All or BHS but it looked cheap, too. IKEA was a breath of fresh air. It felt bright and breezy and full of optimism, as sunny as a Timotei shampoo ad. Over the years I have bought oak picture frames, umpteen lamps (some of which I didn’t actually need), various window blinds, numerous vases, dinner plates and jugs, and myriad bits and bobs for the kitchen. (Doesn’t everyone have one of those IKEA metal potstands sitting next to their cooker?) It became my first port of call whenever I needed something basic, well designed and fundamentally appealing.
Part of that appeal was its ability to blend in so well with other things – a funky little side table next to a traditional leather Chesterfield was no problem. Neither was a pine clock on the kitchen wall nor a diaphanous linen curtain at the window for privacy. The chunky water glasses on the dining table were as satisfying as classic Duralex. Much later, having moved to Australia and during a brief career crossroads, I bought a heap of things to dress up the respite house I ran for people with intellectual disabilities. The kids loved the heart-shaped velour cushions that had arms like 1960s gonks, hugging them the moment they arrived. The colourful plastic plates and beakers were perfect for picnics, especially if someone was upset and decided to throw everything around the place.
So why the distain?
I think it’s the ubiquity. Glance through Airbnb online and you notice how many people have furnished their flats and rooms for rent with the same IKEA items, whether they’re in Rome or Rio. Every student household is filled with IKEA. Millennials grew up with IKEA nursery chairs then desks and wardrobes. Some might even have been weaned on IKEA meatballs. IKEA claims one in ten Europeans was conceived in an IKEA bed. Ubiquity breeds contempt. The fact that Ingvar wanted everything they sold to be recogniseably IKEA means people always know exactly where it comes from. It’s a look, whether it’s a waste paper bin or a sofa. To be honest, I think the quality of some items has fallen, like the oak frames now replaced by fake wood. There’s also the matter of old Ingvar’s dubious right-wing political beliefs as a young man which makes people feel a bit iffy about the brand.
For evangelical me, though, I think of IKEA as the company that had same-sex couples in its adverts, that promoted energy-saving LED light bulbs before others did, and that named the designer of every item, no matter how humble the object. It’s classless and classic. And it’s a surely a marvel that I’m still tempted into buying paper-covered wheels of Swedish crispbread every time I visit. So yes, I’m the one whose face lights up at the sight of the huge yellow and blue warehouse on the horizon. If they only made a Cölin chair I’d be in heaven…
Perhaps that means I’ve fallen so much for the sunshine that I can’t see the shadow. But if old Ingvar has followed the prescribed route and made it all the way through to the Pearly Gates, I for one would like to say a big tack så mycket (which is thank you very much in Swedish, not the name of a new line of flatpack chairs).
Are you an Ikea lover or hater?