The sunshine and shadow of a Swedish icon

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.

Flickr CC _e.t.

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?

Categories: Design, OtherTags: , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I’m an Ikea lover. Though I will admit to freaking out halfway through the maze on my first visit, solo, to our new Canberra store. The next time I went mentally prepared and used short cuts where advantageous.

    • Glad to hear it. I confess I had a ‘moment’ once in the maze and had to take a few deep breaths. And like you, I’ve got good at the rat run, missing out the bits I don’t want to dawdle in. So, in some ways, you could say that a visit to IKEA is stimulating for the brain and keeps us young (and primed to buy more)… 🙂

  2. I also love IKEA. Simply as an event, walking round a tidy, organised, disciplined, well-labelled, professional, bright environment, is a pleasant contrast to those dirty, untidy, disorganised stores which proliferate on our High Streets.

    We have a number of IKEA items in our house, and construction of them has been a pleasure.

    So stop being patronising, folk, and start revelling in the bright, cheerful, living world you have available to you.

    • Bright and cheerful, indeed. And yes, I’ve never had problems with self-assembly that people write about, either. I suppose that means we could hire ourselves out as IKEA assemblers if we needed a second career…

  3. Some IKEA pieces are/were exceptionally well designed.

    I, queen of the antique textile, have an IKEA cushion in my sitting room right now.
    And why not,. Good design is good design wherever it came from

  4. I covet the trendy (to me anyway) trousers they wear with all those pockets to store useful things one might need in an emergency. And I admire how IKEA so subtly gets people to do its bidding from the way one wanders through the store with their supplied pencil and paper to mark the items one then collects from the warehouse section downstairs. Have you noticed how visitor numbers seem to swell when it’s raining?
    A visitor to IKEA is seen as a leisure activity. There there are the national flag badges multilingual staff wear.

    The furniture is functional, good value too. And the snooty journalists are just demonstrating the tendency of their number to uniform snootiness on anything “common” like plastic, while too often being in the thrall of the rubbish served to them by officialdom—WMD and Iraq anyone?

    Congratulations, Colin for breaking from the pack to give credit where it is due.

    • Well said, Richard, although I must confess I’ve never noticed the trousers. That idea of total design, with, as you say, the customer doing all the work seems somehow to work brilliantly. Taps into the finding and foraging nature of us all, I suspect. That Swedish vibe is also pretty powerful. Volvo now sews little Swedish flags into their upholstery, despite it being a Chinese-owned brand (or perhaps because of that…).

  5. Like you, Colin, IKEA was transformative for me. I grew up in a traditional home of uninspiring furniture that was always beige or olive. Suddenly Ikea came along and everything changed forever. Cheap and cheerful didn’t have to be ugly. White with splashes of colour suddenly defined my personal aesthetic (and to be honest, still does.) Good old Ingvar deserves credit for bringing design to the masses and for building a brand that became a true culture icon. Enjoyed the interview, by the way. You mentioned Amy Poehler’s quote but ever since my own ‘moments’ with hubs in the store, I always say, “Ikea. Swedish for ‘I’ll kill you.'”

  6. I feel that IKEA’s affordable, well-designed products are woven into the tapestry of many lives the world over. From the student flat, to the first house, to the nursery, to the next-generation dorm room and full circle to the down-sizing condo. Forget the self-referencing critics, IKEA has served us well. Today in multi-cultural wintry Toronto at an IKEA store checkout you will hear conversations in the tongues of a dozen countries. You will see the familiar blue and yellow bags and customer trolleys piled high with the incredible range of items that make a home, reflecting the same hopes and dreams and plans for the future that mine did back in Scotland all these years ago. On a less serious note, where else could I buy the insanely delicious Senap and Dill Sauce for my gravlax? Long live IKEA.

    • Beautifully put. I’m surprised at just how much IKEA I possess, although I really don’t think I live in an IKEA house. Woven into the tapestry of the house – I like that. And now you’ve got me going back to source that sauce (any excuse…)!

  7. Lover of course! Proving the point daily that good design should be an accessible pleasure for all and not a privilege for the entitled few. Best buys: pepper grinders, clothes pegs, whole kitchens!

    • Exactly! I really love the fact that even the lowliest plastic watering can states who designed it. We came very close to having an IKEA kitchen but ended up with something else from a local company: everyone who sees it says, “Love your IKEA kitchen” so it seems I’m totally in thrall to the look!

  8. I love a mix, and as long as an object is chosen for its own value, then it’s fine. Our first grown-up sofa was a stunning bright red nubuck beauty which was the main feature of our living space and I absolutely loved it. We’d still have it now if it had withstood all the wear and tear. But yes, I have also stayed in places where everything is IKEA and then it becomes bland. I guess I just don’t do ‘matching’

    • That’s the good thing about IKEA, that it can slip so easily into so many different surroundings and be dressed up or down to suit. Love the idea of a bright red sofa – especially as some people say to me that IKEA can be so colourless and beige. Really?

  9. I’m an IKEA lover – except for the times I think about all that disposable furniture cluttering up landfill. To make up for that, I’ve kept some of my IKEA purchases for a lifetime. Take that, consumers! I did a quick audit of my IKEA stuff and was surprised at how much I own. Although I have IKEA dining table/chairs, it’s the 100% cotton fabrics and bedlinen I love – so much cheaper (and interesting) than Sheridan etc. And the $3 watering cans. Oh, and those wondrous kitchen brushes with suction cups on the tip of the handle.

    • Like you, I’m rather surprised by how much of it I have. But I think if one buys carefully, there’s no reason for it to be just quick-fix stuff that we intend throwing out when something better comes along. Maybe that says something generational. And yes, a kitchen brush that gives visual and practical pleasure isn’t to be sniffed at!

  10. When looking for an Airbnb in Berlin five years ago, I was really surprised at the number of people who were keen to point out that their furniture was NOT from IKEA. There definitely was a stigma attached. They seemed to favour Italian furniture. I love IKEA furniture (because doesn’t everyone secretly want to be Swedish?!) but the store itself exhausts me! I particularly love the Poang chair. Everyone needs at least one Poang in their life!

    • Glad to report that I do indeed possess a Poang. Interesting to hear about Berlin but I can understand – sometimes I see holiday flats that have been furnished not only entirely in IKEA but also in the very cheapest things from IKEA (the spindliest beds, the most basic folding chair, etc). I always think the key to good IKEA use is blending it with other things. (And yes to the Swedish vibe – I adored the lovely little design quirks of my old Saab, and I always wished I had flaxen hair… )

  11. You would be in heaven! In fact, I think it high time you did design a chair!
    Ambivalent would be the word for me. In the past there were quite a few visits to IKEA, but now it feels lacking in quality(!).
    But we still have the ubiquitous bookshelf which is gorgeous.
    You are quite right, he was a complete game changer and it was revolutionary at the time.
    Well done for mentioning him.

    • Just call me Sven… Yes, you’re right, the quality has dropped. One of the things that always struck me was the use of solid wood, which I love, and which has now often that dreaded particle-board, which is even worse for the environment. He was a gamechanger, as you say, and I wonder who will do it next and infiltrate our homes with such furnishing cleverness. But maybe it also speaks of a particular moment when we were all desperate for something just like it.

  12. Probably won’t surprise you to know that the only IKEA items I have are bookshelves – five of them. Good solid things that do the trick and have the additional upper shelf. Having a partner however who goes twice a week to Kempton means that’s it from IKEA for me. I do remember almost dying with the weight of some of those flat packs though. My experience of the stores was that I could seriously run amok but didn’t and became confused instead and rather irritable. I like the sound of the trousers!

    • I assume Kempton is an antiques market, but now I’m thinking that some 1980s Ikea stuff probably turns up at a retro stall. I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t got at least one IKEA bookcase. Multiply by western world population and… quite a lot.

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