IKEA and the Swedish house mafia
Rob Coke, July 2015

In this interview Group Strategy Director, Rob Coke, discusses the popular appeal of IKEA and Swedish design. Originally intended for Stylist magazine, the article was pulled – but we don’t think that words should go to waste, so here they are!

Why is Swedish design so universally appealing?
Scandinavian design in general is loved all over the world because it appeals to both our rational and emotional sides. On one hand, purity of form and care for materials are logical reasons to choose furniture for our homes. It’s a sensible decision because they will look good and age well. But there’s also an exuberance and flair that goes way beyond functionality, allowing us to express something more individual. Homes are our sanctuary from the world, there to be lived in and loved – so even if you favour a minimalist style it shouldn’t be too stark.

This is why Swedish design works. It combines a principled approach to design, materials and craft, with a sense of place and a love of nature. As non-Scandis we’re buying buy into that lifestyle with gusto. In choosing understated furniture that performs well, we’re subconsciously telling the world that what matters to us is being comfortable and happy. It’s not for show, it’s for living.

What IKEA have done fantastically well is democratise this feeling through keen pricing, a strong brand and boundless enthusiasm for growth, but doing that does breed a backlash. If I can furnish my apartment in London, New York or Beijing to look exactly the same (I haven’t got any of these by the way), am I still expressing individuality? That’s why there’s now a big move towards mid-century furniture. IKEA have opened people’s eyes to the merits of Scandinavian design, but we’re perhaps looking for something a bit more unique.

Why do you think the IKEA aesthetic is so popular to Brits and people around the world?
Everything in our culture moves in trends, and every major trend is a reaction to what came before. We can see this in things like interior decor, fashion and food. What happens is that something starts quite sensibly, like a slimmer silhouette for men’s jeans or a restaurant serving you warm bread in an interesting bowl. This thinking then gets absorbed into the mainstream, but the original point is lost in an incremental battle of one-upmanship. Before you know where you are, chunky boys in spray-on jeans are serving you breakfast in a dog bowl. At this point a chap in a relaxed suit, eating dinner off a white plate, looks quite revolutionary.

This happened throughout the 1980s. As shoulder pads (for girls and boys) got progressively wider, food on plates got taller and homes became more opulent. Indirectly influenced by US TV shows, Ralph Lauren and Laura Ashley, the houses we grew up in were overwhelmed by pastel shades, floral prints and chintz. We imagined we were living in Dynasty, but actually it was more like being on the set of The Golden Girls.

When IKEA burst onto the scene, you suddenly had this exciting new aesthetic, with vibrant colours sitting alongside textures that looked like – what is that – wood? Actual wood? It made everything that had gone before it look pompous and ridiculous, and the beauty was that you could start with one item, and build a new look around it with cheap accessories.

There was an otherness about IKEA at that time. It had design principles, and odd-sounding names like Billy, Grundtal and Pax. And most of all it was affordable. So you had this reaction to the showy stuff that had gone before, a more sophisticated and pared back look that would previously only have been available to people who could afford ‘good taste’, to buy Conran, Habitat or Heal’s. It was incredibly democratic and became a badge of honour, a must-have.

What about its popularity nowadays? What is it about the IKEA brand in particular that people are drawn to?
Even though it’s so much a part of our culture now, there’s still a sense of otherness to IKEA. It’s got an odd, unforgettable name and a brightly-coloured logo. That bold colour isn’t just to get your attention either, there’s a sense of fun and playfulness that spreads throughout the product range. The brand celebrates family life, so there’s a blurring of boundaries between adults’ and kids’ spaces in the home – it doesn’t feel like furniture you have to keep for best.

I think the brand is pretty well trusted too. We don’t expect to get ripped off because some of what they sell is so cheap. We’re given the impression that they will genuinely sell it as cheaply as they can afford to.

Finally IKEA is great at bringing the cutting edge of design and technology into the mainstream. Whether that’s with augmented reality brochures that let you visualise a product in your home, or wireless charging points for devices, there’s always a need to move forward, to embrace how we live now.

Do you have any other thoughts about what makes IKEA so profitable and popular?
IKEA are very open about the reasons why they can make furniture so affordable, and it all comes down to the flatpack. Because of this they can transport it more cheaply, and the customer provides their own labour. And for me, that’s the secret to why we love IKEA: because you build it yourself, you feel like you own it more. You put time, effort and a good deal of industrial language into every piece you build, and that gives you a sense of pride that money can’t buy.

This chimes particularly well with us Brits. Perhaps building it plays to the proud engineering heritage of our nation, and our sense of adventure. With the words ‘IKEA’ and ‘flatpack’ virtually interchangeable, the brand has become part of our cultural identity. That’s why a day spent constructing a Malm bedroom suite is a rite of passage only bettered by telling someone you’re a Crystal Maze veteran.