Affordable art for the home used to mean an Athena poster. Famously, there was the image of a handsome male model holding a baby, while teenage boys lusted after the tennis girl, photographed resting a hand on her bare bottom. It was fun and it was cheesy. Millions of us pinned these posters to our bedroom walls.
Athena folded 15 years ago – so where to go now for cheap art to hang above the mantelpiece? One, perhaps unlikely, destination is Ikea. Popular art is more sophisticated these days. There's no cheeky nudity or muscle-bound hunks in their latest series of prints. Rather, they come from original artworks made by five contemporary artists. It's the first time that the Swedish chain-store has worked directly with the artists themselves, having previously done deals through commercial intermediaries.
Ikea's ethos lies in its Scandinavian roots; it has been compared to the Bauhaus movement in Germany thanks to its guiding principles combining style with reduced cost. All five of Ikea's artists are Swedish and are well-known in their home country. Their work has been shown at museums and galleries in Sweden, at Frieze Art Fair in London and at New York's Armoury Show. The prints are a step up from Athena posters – and they're cheap too, starting at £29, including the frame.
"All five artists are very different, which is what we wanted. We asked them to make suggestions and the results were fantastic," says Asa Wibrand, who heads Ikea's product range in Sweden. "We have framed them all differently and they are all in different styles, so there should be something for everyone. Usually our art range is easy to like, but this is the kind of art that you don't usually see in a home furniture shop."
Certainly, the themes and ideas in Ikea's prints are more complex than simply a pin-up poster girl. Living in My Room by Helene Billgren is a drawing of a woman wearing jodhpurs. There's emotional depth to the scene. The woman has her eyes closed, her eyelashes fluttering away. In the distance there's a tiny interior, with a table and chair and an exotic bird in a cage. Surreally, a horse's head leans over a stable door inside the room, weeping. Two horse shoes hang over the stable to symbolise good luck.
"It's about relationships," says Billgren. "Happiness and sadness. She's closing her eyes because she's thinking about what she wants. I usually draw girls or women, in domestic settings or in nature."
It's a pleasing image to look at, if slightly sentimental, and the domestic theme links it well to Ikea. It's simple and feminine and should have broad popular appeal. Six hundred prints will go on sale in Ikea stores around the world.
"It's nice to think that my work will be seen in China," says Billgren. "I thought it was an exciting idea. I didn't feel snobby about it. I was glad, although I wouldn't want all of my work to become Ikea prints. But as a one-off, it is very nice."
Ikea hasn't shied away from darker themes in their artwork. Roger Andersson's print explores fairy tales, more Brothers Grimm than Disney. Rascals is a print of an ominous giant thistle, or ragwort. The plant dwarfs silhouettes of three ragamuffin children, who dangle from it with sticks and poke at its roots; a sense of foreboding hangs in the air. The monochrome print has the look of work by Kara Walker, an American artist who explores race, gender, sexuality and violence within American culture, albeit without that artist's complexity.
Jens Fänge carries weight in the Scandinavian art world. His work is shown in Norway and Finland, as well as London, New York and Beijing. Influenced by Surrealism, his print, titled Mannequin, shows a figure that recurs regularly in his paintings – a man who appears to be half-puppet, half-human, not unlike Pinocchio. He's a sad-looking figure, hunched over in despair, or exhaustion. His arm hangs down limply and a shoe lies discarded, to the side. It's a little eerie and depressing, although still not likely to give children nightmares were it to be hung on their bedroom wall.
The only abstract print comes from Niklas Seglevi. Shine a Town is an explosion of colour in a geometric arrangement within an organic-looking form, a globule of soft curves. It's a print that would brighten up a study, or office, although it might not always be easy on the eye, especially first thing in the morning. The colours and shape are reminiscent of the French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, known for her brilliantly coloured sculptures of rounded female forms.
The most expensive print, at £79, is by Roger Metto. The reason for the price tag could well be its size. Premiär is a garishly coloured, fantasy landscape that measures two metres across and will be sold folded up. Metto was born in northern Sweden, close to the Arctic Circle. "The colours in my work are those of the homes, nature and culture of Lapland," he explains. "People wore them to weddings, and hung them on their walls in home-made carpets. The mountains that fill my pictures are a preoccupation, maybe because there aren't any in Stockholm where I now live. My work for Ikea is a huge thing – the vast reach it will have intrigues me."
Ikea's project is not the first time that well-known artists have gone to the high street, or sold work at mass-market prices. Notable British artists such as Anya Gallaccio and Michael Craig-Martin designed 50p shopping bags for Sainsbury's a few years ago. Gilbert and George release signed posters with a price tag of £10 while a poster of Damien Hirst's skull is available online from Othercriteria.com, for £30. The Serpentine and Whitechapel galleries both sell editions of work by well-known artists such as Cornelia Parker, Bridget Riley and Rodney Graham, with prices starting at less than £100. At Tate's galleries, the best-selling posters are still those featuring works by Matisse and Rothko. A good print needs to be instantly recognisable as work by the commissioned artist; collaborating closely with living artists helps. "We don't tend to set a rigid brief," says Helena Lawrence, who is in charge of merchandise at the Tate. "But we generally ask artists whose work already lends itself to print. So we choose artists who have an affinity with the medium or have some history of printmaking in their repertoire."
Ultimately, Ikea's new prints are not unlike furniture from the store – good enough at first glance, but the lack of quality shows over time. They're a little flat, like a self-assembly dining-room table. Still, it's undeniably a good deal for all involved. The artists reach a global market and shoppers end up with a value-for-money work of art to brighten their homes. And, who knows, these new prints might just be worth a punt. A few years ago, one of those man-and-baby posters from Athena sold at auction for £2,400.
Fine prints: other affordable art to hang around the house
John Lewis prints are divided into sections: Pop Art, Children's Pictures, Animal Pictures, Photographic Pictures, Landscapes and Abstract Art. Prices start from £30, for a print of a giant Marmite jar, while £120 will get you Picasso's "Dove of Peace". As you might expect, there's nothing too risqué on offer here. The pictures are well made and sensible, just like the store.
Habitat has teamed up with The Art Group to offer a large range of artwork. A framed print of an abstract painting by Rothko will cost you £65. Photographs by Robert Freeman, best known for photographing the Beatles, sell for £45. The selection on offer is varied, from photographs of orchids to Pop Art and paintings of New York City.
Tate gallery shops have the best selection of art posters available. There are posters of historical paintings, from the Romantics and Impressionists, right up to limited edition prints by contemporary artists like Chris Ofili or Peter Doig. Print editions coincide with exhibitions and sought-after artists, such as Doig, sell out quickly. Prices begin at £150.
Harrods sell prints by artists as diverse as Salvador Dali, Rolf Harris and Eve Arnold, who made her name photographing Marilyn Monroe. There is a series of limited edition graphics by Bob Dylan. And shoppers can commission original paintings and prints, according to their needs. As one would expect, it's not cheap. A Bob Dylan print is £1,250 and a Picasso lithograph is £12,750. Prints by less well-known artists are available for £199.Reuse content