Three decades after Ikea first arrived in the UK, urging its population to chuck out their chintz, there are now few homes left without a birch veneered side table, a blue plastic laundry bag, or a shaky shelving system. Ingvar Kamprad, the Swedish company’s founder who has died at the age of 91, leaves behind not only a planet covered in blonde-wood bookcases and allen key-assembled chairs, but also one with a completely different attitude to furniture and shopping.
When the first customers were welcomed into a sprawling blue warehouse in Warrington in 1987, handed a stubby pencil and left to roam its assembled worlds, it was a retail experience like no other. Ikea’s winning formula was to lead you through curated rooms – thereby suggesting other things you might not have realised you wanted (and probably didn’t) – before allowing you into a “behind the scenes” warehouse of cardboard boxes piled high. This cleverly fused domestic stagecraft with the feel of a discount, no-frills cash-and-carry, leaving shoppers in no doubt that they were getting a bargain.
Overnight, furniture was transformed from being a thing of weighty heirlooms to be passed on to grandchildren, to something more fleeting and disposable. The decision to buy a new sofa was no longer momentous, but something that you might change in a few years, or update with a different coloured cover.
In terms of design, it’s generally simple, functional, cheery stuff – a winning combination that, as the interior of practically every UK home attests, is hard to resist. The Ikea model also reflects the society it serves: a house is now rarely a home for life, but a temporary base, until a rent increase or shift in circumstances forces you to move on without hauling all your furniture with you. Not that you would necessarily want to, given the inevitable creaks and dents some of Ikea’s products develop after a few years of use.
Like a high-street fashion store, Ikea has been able to change with the seasons and evolve its lines according to tastes. Warrington’s opening display from 1987 had many favourites (a pair of Klippan sofas frame a couple of Lack coffee tables on a white tufted rug) but they are sporting dazzling 80s styles: the sofas are decked out in a jazzy costume that combines tribal patterns with a raver’s rainbow palette of pink, orange, purple and lime green.
The 1990s saw the collection whitewashed with a wave of blonde wood and neutral tones, while in the 2000s Ikea branched out, featuring more collaborations with named designers, in a bid to appeal to an increasingly savvy audience. Last year’s PS collection – “for the fiercely independent” – contained a folding sofa that can hang on a wall, a pillow that becomes a quilt, and a self-watering pot that helps keep unattended plants alive for two weeks.
Recycled materials also loomed large – a crucial aspect for a company that already consumes 1% of all timber on the planet and has been accused of fuelling our throwaway culture. Ikea’s motto – “To create a better everyday life for the many people” – is inscribed on the wall of its home in Älmhult, Småland, and Kamprad is one of the few who can claim to have democratised design.
Many before him pledged to bring high design to the masses, but few managed it. The doyen of mid-century modernism, Charles Eames, declared his job was to get “the best to the greatest number of people for the least”, yet his simple plastic dining chair sells today for £350. Restaurateur and lifestyle tycoon Terence Conran wanted to place contemporary design within the reach of everyone, but his eponymous shops now represent the pinnacle of overpriced luxury homewares.
Ikea tells the opposite story, with its cheap and cheerful products gaining such an iconic aura that others have flocked to copy them. When a high-end Spanish fashion house designs a homage to your 40p plastic shopping bag and tries to flog it for £1,600, and your DIY self-assembly principles inspire an whole genre of “Ikea hackers”, you’ve probably done something right.
The Top 10 Ikea products of all time
10. Lack coffee table
It’s hard to argue with a £7 table, but I’ve never been fond of the appropriately named Lack. Perhaps it’s the chubby proportions, with its legs the same width as the top, which give it an awkward, lumbering appearance. Or maybe its the glossy veneered surface that’s always chipped or dented at the corners. Or the way the legs manage to work their way loose. If you have to get one, it’s best disguised with a tangle of trailing pot plants or hidden under piles of books.
9. Malm bed
It is estimated that 10% of Europe’s population was conceived in an Ikea bed, and the chances is are it was in a Malm, the company’s best-selling bed frame. A few sheets of birch veneered particle board is a pretty depressing form for the cradle of civilisation to take, and nothing screams My First Bed more than that big pointless headboard.
8. Klippan sofa
The staple of every student house, the Klippan sofa was first designed in 1979 and has changed little since – but it is kept up to date with a range of “exclusive” fabric covers each year (often found in the sales bin at the end of the warehouse). Rarely to be seen without wrinkled upholstery, or one of its annoying plastic tubes popping out of the gap between the seat and the arm, it’s the bottom of the bargain basement of seating, short of curling up on the floor.
7. Ribba frame
When the kind of art you buy costs less than having it framed, there’s nothing more handy than one of the off-the-peg Ribba frames. It was one of Ikea’s best basics until recently, when the company decided to stop using glass, putting cheap sheets of bowed acrylic in its place.
6. Färgrik mug
The everyday workhorse of coffee mugs, there is nary an office kitchen in the land without a few chipped Färgriks lurking in the cupboard. Its little one-finger handle is a bit annoying, but at least the tapering form and smaller base means it doesn’t take up so much room on your cluttered desk.
5. Poäng chair
A design that bears a substantial debt to Finnish designer Alvar Aalto, the Poäng celebrated its 40th birthday last year and has sold over 30 million units worldwide. Its laminated plywood frame and cantilevered form gives it a comfortable bounce, but it has always had an orthopaedic air, looking like the kind of thing found arranged in a circle in a retirement home.
4. Frosta stool
One of Ikea’s simplest and best designs, embodying Scandi simplicity – perhaps because it’s copied straight from another of Aalto’s design classics. He designed a remarkably similar plywood stool with bent legs in 1933, which continues to be manufactured by Artek – and retails for more than 10 times the price of the Ikea knock-off.
3. Billy bookcase
Churned out of the Gyllensvaans Mobler factory in Kattilstorp, a tiny village in southern Sweden, at a rate of one every three seconds, the Billy bookcase has become the most ubiquitous Ikea product in the world, counting over 60 million – nearly one for every 100 people. As a straightforward rack of adjustable shelves, its main virtue is anonymity, dissolving into the background behind your books.
2. Frakta bag
Dubbed “the most hardworking bag in the world,” the woven plastic Frakta is the the king of carrier bags, whether you’re using it to haul your flat-pack furniture home, or throwing it over your head as a hasty cagoule. Such is the blue bag’s iconic status, it has spawned a £1,600 version by Balenciaga, made in “wrinkled, glazed leather”, and an enthusiastic following of “hackers” who have used the bags to make everything from baseball caps to flip-flops.
1. Allemansrätten meatballs
One of the main reasons to go to Ikea, the company’s iconic meatballs make every relationship-testing trip to the furniture warehouse worth it in the end. With a momentous name that means “every man’s right” in Swedish, and a list of ingredients on the packet that includes unspecified “meat (84%)”, they are hard to beat with mashed potatoes and a dollop of lingonberry jam. (Those on a budget can enjoy even cheaper unspecified meat in the form of the 60p hotdog.)