Ikea: Manipulative corporate behemoth or saviour of British interiors?

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One to thrash out in the queue as you throw in those extra tea-lights, perhaps. Kate Burt assesses a quarter century of Ikea

The comic illustrators Modern Toss sell a really good greetings card. The heading, printed above an image of a domestic scene populated by two stick people, reads: 'Weekend': underneath, it has one stick person saying, "Let's go to Ikea". The other stick figure replies, simply: "Fuck Ikea".

For anyone who's ever furnished a new house, or even a bedroom in a rented flatshare, they are words you may well have muttered yourself. Especially if said furnishing has involved repeat visits to the blue-and- yellow Swedish vortex.

When I moved into my own house – and added an entire Ikea kitchen into the heady mix of Ribba picture frames, Pokal bistro-style glasses and yet another bag of tea-lights to add to the dusty stockpile I forgot I still had languishing in a drawer, five years after buying them – it prompted eight visits to the Croydon branch in a two-month period (one, just to buy a missing cable, only available at Ikea) and very nearly sapped all enthusiasm for life.

The tantalising room sets, the strangely enjoyable Kafka-esque store layout with its floor-painted arrows winding you past enticing room set after room set filled with irresistibly clean, Scandinavian designs that – at only 97p, £5.49 or even a pricey £21.01 each – are just too good not to buy (it's so easy to dismiss the irritation of ubiquity in this intoxicating atmosphere – and forget that at least 50 per cent of people you know will also own at least one of your purchases), the excitement of leaving with a car-boot full of instant homeliness… All these pleasures are tarnished when you make too many Ikea trips. Or when you get to the checkout to discover that all those 'small' impulse purchases have somehow boosted your bill to £283. Or when you arrive home, back from whichever far-out-of-town store you've trekked from, and spent an hour grappling with a flat-packed shelving unit – only to realise you have put one of the first panels in upside down, or lost one of the precious only-from-Ikea shaped fixings.

Like some of the people we love the most, Ikea can be as infuriating as it is joyful. And yet we go back. In our hordes. And have been doing so for 25 years this month in the UK – as Ikea's first-ever British branch opened in Warrington in October 1987; there are now 17 more branches, in which 42 million of us, last year, spent £1.15bn. When, in 2005, a new branch opened in Edmonton, there was even a dangerous crush due to the sheer volume of customers lured by special offers. We can't get enough of Ikea. But why?

Talib Choudhry, Content Director at the creative agency Pencil, a design journalist and former deputy editor of Elle Decoration, is a firm Ikea fan. "I don't believe in design snobbery," he says. "I've worked on design magazines – but I still have an Ikea bed, side table and one of their trolleys in my kitchen. I think most of us, when we rent or buy somewhere new, go to Ikea. And gradually we buy new things, but certain pieces will always remain.

"It's been a key part of democratising design, of bringing good design to the masses. If the purpose of good design is to marry form and function, then they do that time and time again. They are also quite brave: look at the furniture halls in most department stores – they are a sea of beige and bland. Yet Ikea has been doing colourful for years.

"I was looking at armchairs priced around £5,000 the other day, which seemed totally out of kilter with the times we're living in now. I'm a big believer in supporting British design and manufacturing – but unfortunately not everyone can afford to do it. Even watching Nigella's new TV show; she has a pretty penny, but in her kitchen there is some glamorous Ikea shelving; she's embraced it as beautiful."

As Ikea itself puts it, it has become "a major retail experience", with more than 131,000 staff in 41 countries; last year, worldwide, 655 million people visited an Ikea store somewhere, racking up sales of €24.7bn (£204bn), an increase on 2010 of 6.9 per cent. In the midst of a global economic crisis. And 208 million copies of the catalogue were printed in 30 languages. As The New Yorker highlighted last year, that makes it "only slightly less popular than Harry Potter".

How did it get to be such a retail behemoth – and from such humble beginnings? According to Ikea legend, its founder, Ingvar Kamprad – now 86, and still working – began selling matches to his neighbours in Sweden, in the 1930s, when he was still a boy. By the time Kamprad started Ikea, in 1943, naming it with his initials, plus the first letters of Elmtaryd, the name of the farm on which he was born, and the local village, Agunnaryd, he was still only 17. (Almhult is in the province of Smaland, a word familiar to any parents who've used the free Ikea crèche, another very Scandi idea, one sadly not to have caught on in many other shops.)

Financial support from Kamprad's father helped fund his door-to-door operation, selling pens, wallets and stockings. By 1951, furniture had become the company's sole focus – and by 1958, its first full retail premises had opened, and become Scandinavia's largest-ever furniture display, selling its wares in the now famous flat-pack form. That single development was one of many Ikea-innovated canny moves, and successfully boosted profits by lowering the cost of transportation, labour, storage space and cutting the risk of goods being damaged in transit.

And that wasn't the only canny move. We have long been used to supermarkets pumping out the smell of freshly baked bread to encourage us to buy more, and shops putting tempting little items at the checkout… but the Ikea layout, as well as its out-of-town, buy-it-now-or-forget-it locations, arguably take retail manipulation to a more menacing level.

Several of Alan Penn's students and colleagues have studied how shop layouts affect profit. The professor, from UCL's Bartlett School of Architecture, gave a lecture last year called, 'Who enjoys shopping at Ikea?', in which he discussed some of his department's research to deconstruct the design science behind the Ikea floor plan. "Intelligibility – how maze-like or understandable the layout is – is really important in the urban world and in building interiors," he explains, "because it gives you autonomy: if you don't know where you are, how can you decide where you want to go?" He continues: "Removal of intelligibility, which is one of the things that architects can – and do, I'm afraid – do regularly, is a bit like giving somebody a lobotomy: it removes your ability to act with intention." This, he suggests, is the Ikea way. Which goes a long way to explaining how two-thirds of your trolley gets filled with things that weren't on your shopping list (as well as all those damn, dust-gathering tea-lights).

But is it really any worse than other big-store tactics? Ikea, naturally, insists not. "It's the same as in any shop," insists Gemma Arranz, Ikea's communications and interior design manager, who is responsible for the UK's store layouts. "There is a reason certain items are at the end of the shop [in any store]. In Ikea, there is a long, natural way to walk the store … for customers who want that – but we also understand that there are some customers who know Ikea quite well and so for them we have signs showing short-cuts." If you can rouse yourself from the arrow-led catatonia long enough to look for them. And even seasoned customers struggle to leave without buying things they never intended to take home. Thef discombobulating layout, vast floor-space (Ikea Croydon is Britain's largest branch and measures 36,800m sq) and, of course, the prices, are the key attack prongs (though Arranz rejects Alan Penn's intelligibility theory).

The other marketing prong is repetition and – Arranz conveys – a determined focus on universal appeal. "What I can explain is how we work: every time you go from one area to another you receive inspiration," she says of the relentless room sets in the showroom area of the shop (effectively a fluffer for the dangerous Marketplace that glitters excitingly beyond the showroom). "There is the family style [room], the single person one – we show different options. We don't show only one sofa after the other; we show them in different situations… it establishes a relationship with your consumers." And their wallets…

Ikea's memorable approach to advertising has also very successfully boosted brand awareness. Some of the television campaigns almost qualify as cult viewing: 'Chuck Out Your Chintz' was aired in 1996, and had British women hurling what would now, no doubt, be considered hip, vintage furniture out of their windows into a giant blue-and-yellow skip. 'Stop Being So English', in 2000, was equally bold, going all-out for continuing the assault against staid British tastes, depicting a couple who are "much happier now" and "not so stiff" since embracing Scandinavian design and becoming "Ikea people". The current campaign, 'Bright Shiny Colours', in which a woman clad in a white catsuit dances her way through the Ikea catalogue's colourful pages, becoming visibly more ecstatic with each turn is, according to Arranz, a response against the current financial mess we're in: "There's a gloomy situation and economic uncertainty," she says. "And winter is coming." And, of course, things are always sunny in Ikealand.

The other killer Ikea sell, it cannot be denied, is the products themselves, of which there are a staggering 9,500, with a system of Scandinavian names – from men's names (chairs and desks) to Swedish islands (garden furniture), Danish place names (carpets) and animals (children's furniture). "While the reasons for Ikea's success have been pretty wide ranging," says Design Museum curator, Alex Newson, "their ability to provide low-cost, affordable products is essential. Affordability is not enough on its own, however, and Ikea has been smart in how it combines elements of classic Scandinavian design with modern mass-production techniques. A perfect example of this is Ikea's Frosta stool, a low-cost version of Alvar Aalto's iconic stool. Alto's version is still made by the Finnish company Artek, who use the original manufacturing techniques to produce a beautifully crafted and elegant product. Ikea's version utilises modern mass-manufacturing, different construction techniques, cheaper timber and is supplied flat-pack. All of which results in a product, that while not quite as elegant and refined as the Aalto original, retails for less than a tenth of the price."

Newson also cites Ikea's constantly evolving range. "While certain classics remain the same, new products respond to changing tastes and styles and are competitively priced enough to enable us to change our furniture as we would our clothes or haircut." And that all these products can be bought under one room, "provides us with the opportunity to buy every part of a new aspirational lifestyle."

He admits, "Ikea is not without its detractors and could be accused of turning furniture into another type of temporary consumable – a system at odds with the planet's diminishing resources. However, I prefer to see Ikea as a company that has helped to democratise home furnishings by making cheap, exciting and stylish products available to more people than ever before."

The sustainability criticisms, Ikea is keen to see off: earlier this year, it was condemned by the Global Forest Coalition for the logging practices of one of its subsidiaries, Swedwood – which was accused of sourcing its wood from old-growth, high-conservation-value forests in northern Russia. Ikea rebuffs this claim: "All wood used for Ikea products must meet our minimum requirements, which include not using wood that has been illegally harvested". The spokesperson goes on to say that Swedwood is annually inspected by an independent third party.

Ikea has further bolstered its green image by partnering with the Woodland Trust in Britain in its 'A Foot of Forest' campaign, which has so far helped to plant 309 acres of woodland across the country. It is working on energy consumption, too – the UK stores use renewable energy to heat and light them and, by 2016, it will only sell more energy-efficient LED lighting.

There have been other smudges on the clean, serene Scandinavian dream, too. In a book published last year, written by Swedish journalist Elisabeth Asbrink, there was proof of the long-muttered rumours that Ingvar Kamprad had, in the 1940s, been an active member of the Fascist Svensk Socialistisk Samling party. Kamprad has since said of the revelations that his involvement was youthful "stupidity", and the "greatest mistake" of his life. An Ikea spokesperson at the time also confirmed that while Kamprad had already admitted youthful dalliances with Fascism, "there are no Nazi-sympathising thoughts in Ingvar's head whatsoever".

There were also stories – this year – that Ikea had used East German political prisoners and Cuban prisoners to make its products in the 1970s and 1980s respectively. Ikea responded at the time by saying it had launched its own inquiry into the allegations, and a spokeswoman said Ikea "condemned the use of political prisoners" in its production "in the strongest possible terms".

That Kamprad is alleged to dabble in a bit of tax avoidance is a story that lingers; the Swedish newspaper, Veckans Affarer, particularly, claims that despite Ikea now officially being owned by the tax-exempt, Ingka Foundation, a Dutch not-for-profit organisation founded by Kamprad, it remains his company – which would allegedly allow him to avoid certain fees. The foundation, which "has two purposes – to reinvest in the Ikea group and to fund charity", is said to be worth more than the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, usually cited as the world's largest charitable organisation. But, say critics, it is not clear where all the funds are going. An Ikea spokesperson states that the organisation funds its charitable arm, Stichting Ikea Foundation, which "works towards positive and long-term change in disadvantaged communities", with particular focus on children. And, interestingly, in last year's Forbes magazine rich list, Kamprad had dropped from number 11 to number 162, down $17bn (£10.5bn) to $6bn (£3.7bn).

More recently, the catalogue came under fire when the Saudi Arabian edition was found to have airbrushed out all the women from its photographs. Ikea said it regretted the move. "Excluding women from the Saudi Arabian version of the catalogue is in conflict with Ikea group values," a spokeswoman said at the time.

But none of this appears to have dampened Britain's Ikea love. Talib Choudhry goes so far as to say that Ikea has been the most influential factor in the look of British domestic interiors in the past 25 years. "I think itf has been the pre-eminent design aesthetic; Scandi chic is, these days, what most people aspire to – you only have to open any contemporary design magazine to see a loft in Copenhagen, a house in Stockholm…" It is amazing, he believes, that the mass market – in shopping at Ikea – has so enthusiastically embraced this sort of "clean, pared-back, thoughtful design".

Indeed, its yellow-and-blue tentacles are stretching further into our lives – Gateshead already has the UK's first Ikea-designed houses, while planning for the brand's debut village, including business space, restaurants, shops and 1,200 new homes, is already underway for east London. A chain of budget hotels is also on the horizon.

Some may deride these plans – and the flat-pack housing jokes have already done the rounds. But the Design Museum's Alex Newson isn't a detractor – and is dismissive of a snobbish view: "The former Conservative MP Alan Clark once remarked that the problem with the then Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, was 'that he had to buy his own furniture'. This rather snobbish and elitist comment neatly sums up how previous generations used to regard quality furniture and homeware – as something that one inherited rather than bought. This concept now seems rather alien to us. And while we may not yet be at the stage where we upgrade our furniture as regularly as we do our mobile phone, frequent and significant changes to our furnishing are not uncommon… Retailers and manufacturers such as Ikea have made us rethink our relationship to furniture and homeware, viewing it as a lifestyle choice as much as a functional part of the home."

Just go easy on the tea-lights.

In-store activities to commemorate Ikea's 25th anniversary are taking place across the UK; ikea.co.uk

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