Text by Hans Seeberg
If you fancy some bedside reading at the hotel in Älmhult, Sweden, you’ve got a choice of two things: there’s the Bible, or there’s the Ikea catalogue. Of the many differences to note between these two great tomes, one is that more copies of the Ikea catalogue are printed every year – 212 million in the last year, compared to fewer than 50 million Bibles. Which perhaps makes sense given that, according to one poll, more people in Sweden trust Ikea than trust the church (a whopping 80 per cent versus 46 per cent).
Ikea is a modern religion of sorts, one which has changed the way the world sees domestic life. Älmhult is where it all started in 1943, yet at first glance it doesn’t look like the home of the world’s biggest furniture company, which turned over €27 billion (NOK220 billion) in 2012 and helps furnish the homes of 776 million customers a year.
A town of 15,000, 140km north of Malmö, it’s almost defiantly anonymous. There’s barely a landmark among the uniform rectangularity of it all, save for an unobtrusive statue of Carl Linnaeus, the 18th-century botanist who changed the way we classify plants and living species. The tidy main street, away from the Ikea-dominated outskirts, is eerily quiet and a Google search of “Things to do in Älmhult” yields precisely nothing.
What there is here is a lot of Ikea, including the store on the outskirts that last year replaced the world’s first, which opened in Älmhult’s town centre in 1958. There’s the Ikea Together corporate culture centre, the Ikano Bank (founded by Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad), the Ikea TestLab and the Ikea Aktivitetshuset, where you can unwind at the Ikea bar or the Ikea spa. Europe’s largest photo studio is here, but it’s never seen a fashion model – the 8,800m2 space is a giant showroom where they photograph the images that fill the iconic catalogue. The town’s 15 Ikea companies employ around 4,000 people, and many of the other local businesses rely on Ikea-related custom.
I’m here on a two-day tour of Älmhult and I’m staying at – yes, you guessed it – the Ikea hotel, at Ikeagatan 1. The boxy building is somewhere between an identikit budget hotel and semi-ironic boutique, with its clear Verdana signs, dorm-style corridors, strong primary colours and 1970s-style plastic keycards. The views are across a car park to Willy’s supermarket, next to where the original Ikea store used to be. The receptionist tells me that, along with the business customers who come to the town, there are also the “flat-pack tourists” on Ikea pilgrimages. “There seem to be a lot from Germany and Holland, who just want to see where Ikea started,” she says. “I’m not sure why.”
Älmhult doesn’t seem a likely spot for a fun-packed holiday, but in some ways it is exactly what Ikea Town should look like. This is a company whose 87-year-old founder, Ingvar Kamprad, was once turned away from a Businessman of the Year gala because he arrived on the bus (he was due to win the main award). On normal days, Kamprad drives a Volvo, gets his hair cut for NOK54 and eats his favourite dish, Ikea meatballs. When he was still in charge, he reportedly encouraged “co-workers” (employees, in Ikea-speak) to use both sides of every piece of paper and even to replace minibar purchases at grocery stores.
Kamprad is no longer involved in Ikea operations and the company’s official HQ is in Delft, the Netherlands, where the Ikea trademark and concept are owned by Inter Ikea Systems (the corporate structure is complicated). But he’s still the company’s figurehead and recent reports say he’s planning to move back to a farm near Älmhult this year, after 30 years in Switzerland.
When I ask the hotel receptionist what to do in town, she seems somewhat bemused. Luckily, I have a date with bubbly Ikea press officer Selin Hult at Ikea Tillsammans (or Ikea Together), the company’s corporate centre and unofficial museum. It looks a bit like the Ikea Hotel and a lot of the buildings in Älmhult – square and unremarkable.
The first thing you see on entering is a replica of the shed where Ikea was born, which hints at the way the company mythologises its past. Kamprad grew up on a farm in the nearby village of Agunnaryd and started aged just five selling matches to neighbours. Over the years he progressed to flower seeds, pencils and greeting cards, before his father gave him some money in 1943, when Kamprad was 17, for doing well at school. Kamprad used it to register his fledgling mail-order business, setting up shop in the farm shed and naming his company after his initials, plus the farm (Elmtaryd) and the village (Agunnaryd).
Success came fast: in 1945, Kamprad placed his first adverts in local newspapers and three years later he decided to introduce furniture to his range. But it was three events in the 1950s that really shaped the company the world knows today. First was the decision to print the first ever Ikea catalogue in 1951.
Second was the accidental invention of flat-pack furniture in 1956, when an Ikea worker suggested dismantling the legs of a table so it would fit in the boot of a car. The third came in 1958, with the opening of the world’s first ever Ikea store: 6,700m2 of affordable home furnishings in the centre of Älmhult. The store remained open until October 2012, when it became too small to house the company’s range of more than 10,000 products. Today, Ikea has 343 stores in 41 countries, with 139,000 staff.
The museum takes visitors on a decade-by-decade tour via Ikea living rooms, from the buttoned-up austerity of their 1950s range through to the breezy style of the present day. Along the way you learn about items that have entered the modern lexicon, like the BILLY bookcase, which has sold 47 million units since it was introduced in 1979. On one wall, the covers of every Ikea catalogue since its inception are proudly displayed; on another, a huge map of the world shows the locations of every Ikea store on Earth, next to a painting of an Ikea store on the moon. This is not a company short on ambition.
The museum’s displays also hint at Ikea’s all-consuming philosophy, which began long before most companies started filling their offices with inspirational corporate slogans. On the walls there are extracts from Kamprad’s 1976 book, A Testament of a Furniture Dealer, a book that underpins Ikea’s nine core principles, and which at certain points reads as if L Ron Hubbard and Confucius had co-written a bible for selling furniture. Its missionary zeal can be intense – of Ikea’s “sacred concept”, Kamprad wrote, “[It is] our duty to expand... Those who cannot or will not join us are to be pitied... What we want to do, we can do and will do, together. A glorious future!” The book is filled with little aphorisms, like “The word impossible has been deleted from our dictionary and must remain so!”
After looking round the Ikea Together centre, Hult announces that she is going to show me something special to the Ikea story – so we get in her Ikea-branded car and head out of Älmhult for about five minutes until we pull up in a lay-by near a farm. “This is it,” she says, though I’m not at all sure what she’s referring to. “The stone wall.”
There is indeed a pretty if unremarkable stone wall set in the grass. I’m nonplussed – but this particular stone wall, Hult tells me, sums up the Ikea philosophy of togetherness. She begins by telling me that this area has lots of stones in the soil, making it difficult to grow crops. “So the people who owned the land started picking up all these stones and working together to make these stone walls, which were used as borders between the farms… The message here is doing it together, and being resourceful. Sometimes when we do team-building days, people learn how to build stone walls together, because it’s very difficult. It’s beautiful and looks simple – but it’s not!”
And if staring at walls sounds a bit loony, try telling any of the happy Ikea workers in Älmhult, which to this day is the only place in the world where every aspect of the production process takes place.
Once back in town, Hult takes me to the TestLab, probably the most fascinating part of the Älmhult Ikea machine (see The TestLab Manager) and finally the Ikea store itself, which looks pretty much like the Ikea store in Singapore, Shanghai or Croydon (see The Store Manager). Not once do we meet an unhappy “co-worker”, or anyone who doubts the Ikea philosophy. Says Hult: “Sometimes if you’re struggling at work, you can go back to the nine principles [sample principle: ‘Simplicity is a virtue’]. The answer you’re looking for is usually there.”
But if the cult of Ikea is alive and well in the company itself, what of those who work outside it?
In a pizza restaurant 200m from the hotel, owner Hamid Ramizi says he moved to Älmhult in 2007 because of the company’s presence and wouldn’t have enough customers without it. “There are » always people coming here to work for Ikea,” he says, surveying the slightly tired establishment that owes much to the 1970s. Does he like Ikea products? “Look around you,” he shrugs. “The work surface on the bar, the wood on the walls, the clocks, the glasses, the chairs – all Ikea.”
It’s hard to find much complaint in Älmhult, which seems largely in thrall to the company. Ikea has had its controversies over the years – the most serious accusations were that its East German production facilities used forced labour in the 1980s and that Kamprad was involved in the pro-Nazi New Swedish Movement from 1942-45. Recently, there were mutterings that a €2.5 million (NOK19.6 million) donation to improve schools in the area could lead to Ikea shaping the curriculum.
Yet, compared to many mega-companies, their reputation is relatively squeaky clean. Of the Nazi connections, Kamprad called it “the biggest mistake of my life”. The company has pledged to donate SEK1 billion (NOK900 million) a year to charities through the Stichting INGKA Foundation, and last year it invested €1.5 billion (NOK11.8 billion) in solar and renewable energy, with the aim of being self-sufficient by 2020.
More importantly perhaps, it’s hard to complain too much about a company that has made reasonable quality home furnishings affordable to just about everyone – and which does such great hotdogs. Gutierrez Skogland, 45, an Älmhult resident of 15 years, stops to chat on her way home from the Ikea store. “I’d say 80 per cent of people in Älmhult like Ikea,” she says. “Some people say it’s cheap and the standard isn’t good, but it’s no worse than any other store. It’s good value, they sell lots of different things and you can eat there too. What’s not to like?”
Even Eva’s 16-year-old son Andreas is a fan. “Ikea is just part of our culture in Sweden,” he shrugs. “Me and my friends often go there to chill out, buy a hot dog, have an ice cream.”
Apparently a fifth of people don’t trust or don’t like Ikea. In two days in Älmhult, we can’t find any of them. Ikea’s spiritual home, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a town of believers – and you’d have to say that, as cults go, the cult of flat-pack furniture isn’t such a bad one.