Silly question; who doesn’t?!
I hadn’t realised until moving up to Manchester that one of my new local IKEA stores in Warrington, Cheshire, was actually the first to open in the UK, back in October 1987.
Growing up in South London my first experience of the big Swedish blue-and-yellow store was when the Croydon outpost opened in the early 90s on the site of the old ‘B’ power station, retaining the distinctive twin chimneys as a local landmark that can be seen from far and wide. Ever since my first trip round the store I’ve been drawn to the brand’s utilitarian affordable designs, and functional Scandinavian aesthetic.
There are now 20 IKEA stores in the UK, with the brand commanding 355 outlets in 29 countries globally and, late last year I was lucky enough to be invited to visit the birthplace of the brand – Älmhult, Sweden – to discover more about their approach to democratic design, sustainability and trends.
Of course, I immediately jumped at the chance!
Älmhult is where IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad grew up, and where the original store opened in 1958. That first store is now home to the IKEA Museum, and the building hasn’t changed structurally at all. Across the road from it you’ll find the IKEA Hotell (yes, really), with rooms decked out in the brand’s characteristic stripped-back functional aesthetic, alongside a vast collection of buildings that house the brand’s design and prototype development teams, testing facilities and photography studios.
The combined facilities employ roughly 3,000 people and have essentially transformed this quiet little swedish town into IKEA-land; in other words, a design lover’s Disneyworld!
Did you know that the name IKEA combines the initials of IKEA founder, Ingvar Kamprad (IK) with the first letters from the names of the farm and village where he grew up: Elmtaryd and Agunnaryd (EA)? The brand’s logo has hardly changed during the company’s history and the current version – unveiled in 1983 – remains a consistent symbol of the business.
There’s a common misconception that since IKEA products are widely affordable and sold flat-packed, that they must be in some way poorly sourced, poorly manufactured and be —for want of a better word— cheap. That premise really couldn’t be further away from reality.
All IKEA products follow the principles of democratic design, offering the right mix of form, function, quality and sustainability all at a low – affordable – cost to the consumer.
During our visit we learnt that every product goes through, on average, a 3-year development process from initial brief and sketch concept to prototype, testing and production. Not a single product reaches the shop floor without having been through this entire process, with many repeatedly sent back to the drawing board – or abandoned – because they have fallen down on just one single pillar of the brand’s five guiding principles.
The testing processes at IKEA are pretty hardcore. We were given a guided tour around the IKEA test lab and witnessed technicians testing the breaking point of mattresses by repeatedly going over then with a wooden roller, a child’s lunchbox repeatedly opened and closed by a little robot arm up to a million times, and bathrooms set-up to test the effect of humidity in different climates around the world. The test lab we visited in Älmhult conducts around 17,000 test orders per year, but that is a drop in the ocean compared to the 65,000 yearly tests run at the brand’s Shanghai test lab!
It’s safe to say that form and function are widely acknowledged as being two of the known guiding principles at the heart of the IKEA brand, but I was most interested to discover the brand’s commitment to sustainability and the consideration of their impact on the world at large. Did you know that IKEA as a brand specify 1% of the world’s wood and cotton supply? It may not sound like it, but that is a huge figure for just one company to be commanding and means that they have an equally large responsibility to be leading the way on sustainable practises.
People and planet positive.
Sustainability at IKEA means ensuring environmental, economic and social well-being for today and tomorrow, by meeting the needs of people and society without compromising future generations, living within the limits of the planet, and promoting a strong, healthy, inclusive society where people can prosper and fulfil their potential. IKEA call this: people and planet positivity.
From responsible sourcing across their supply chain to ensure all their raw materials come from sustainable and trustworthy sources to supporting all of their suppliers to become more resource and energy efficient, IKEA are committed to driving economic opportunities that empower people around the world to better provide for themselves and their families.
But just how do you make sustainable living easy, attractive and affordable for as many people as possible?
IKEA have been working with households across the UK and Ireland in a unique three-year social experiment called live lagom, giving customers and co-workers the chance to test IKEA products that help them to save energy and water, reduce waste and live more healthily. Recommendations and observations from these studies are already being implemented in store; for example IKEA now only sell led lightbulbs, which use up to 85% less energy than old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, thus removing the option for customers to opt for a less sustainable product.
And you might not realise it but IKEA’s efficient taps and showers use up to 40% less water than conventional models, meaning that every IKEA kitchen or bathroom installed reduces water consumption and positively impacts both the environment and a family’s annual energy spend!
Something else that was truly fascinating to discover during our visit was the care and attention they pay to cultural awareness across their global communications, and the need to consider the vast differences in typical living environments and social customs.
In fact, all 48 countries in which IKEA operate receive their own unique product catalogue with subtle tweaks that reflect the needs and demands of the location. For example, the Chinese edition of the 2018 catalogue ensures the soft toy pencil is facing the correct way so as not to be distasteful, and includes a soft toy bunny to reflect the Year of the Rabbit.
All of these culturally specific tweaks are achieved as a result of IKEA’s innovative development of 3D rendering technology, which allows them to add, shift or remove products from an image with relative ease. On-site photography studios allow IKEA to shoot styled room-sets as soon as new collections come into stock, but it was surprising to discover that not every room-set in the catalogue is shot this way. Many are, in fact, digitally produced, although you would be hard-pressed to pick out which ones.. and believe me, we tried!
It would be impossible to share with you all the insight we gained during our trip to Älmhult in just one post, and if you’ve made it this far then thanks so much for reading! The experience was truly eye-opening and certainly made me reassess my own personal take on the brand, which had already been pretty favourable to begin with.
Stay tuned as I’ll be sharing one of IKEA’s new collaborative projects in the next post, highlighting the work the brand does in supporting small-scale social enterprises around the world, and providing livelihoods for people who would otherwise have little access to employment and support..
Were you aware of IKEA’s approach to Democratic Design, or heard the term “people and planet positivity” before?
I’d love to hear about your own personal experiences of the brand..
I was hosted in Älmhult, sweden by IKEA, but all thoughts, experiences and opinions are, as always, my own. All photography © Kate Baxter.