Shelf Life: Ikea and the flatpack revolution

Today's bank holiday is the key date in the DIY year. Across Britain (and around the world), millions will be grappling with collapsible coffee tables and self-assembly sofas. How did it happen? Helen Brown heads to Sweden, spiritual home of the flatpack, to find the answer

"It all began with a table," the 76-year old Lundgren tells me proudly, as we stand before the Lovet leaf model in the Ikea museum, which stands in the company's home town of Almhult, Sweden. It's a quaint period piece, with its dark wooden grains spliced at the centre of an oval surface, and legs tapering Fifties-style towards the floor, where its original bundle of corrugated cardboard lies tied up with string.

These are a few of Lundgren's favourite things, although the table was not one of his designs. Ikea was founded in 1943 as a catalogue shop, he explains. The young Ingvar Kamprad took his own initials, added those of Elmtaryd and Agunnaryd (the farm and village where he grew up) and set out to sell pens, wallets, picture frames, table runners, watches, jewellery and nylon stockings at a reduced price.

The man who is now thought (by some) to be as rich as Bill Gates stacked his stock in the tiny shed through which we enter the museum (which is housed in the typically cut-price surroundings of a hotel basement, opposite the firm's flagship store and worldwide HQ).

"When Ikea moved into the furniture market," explains the avuncular Lundgren, "storage space became an issue. When I looked at how we might keep a large number of these tables at our low price, I thought: 'Why not take off the legs?'" A prosaic and typically Swedish solution to a basic commercial problem.

It's been a triumphant half-century for the flatpack: an era of rapid social mobility, in which the average family has been able to pop out in the hatchback of a bank holiday morning and create themselves an all-new living space of new wood and clean, bright fabrics before the closing credits scroll up on the EastEnders omnibus.

Innovative, interactive design has become affordable, but also depressingly disposable. If you can overhaul your interiors with no special skills for the price of a couple of nights out on the town, then you can also chuck it all into the landfill next year when you fancy a change. And now they're even making "flatpack" houses too. Where will it all end?

My coffee table cost £8 in an Ikea sale about 18 months ago. I don't like it, but my boyfriend convinced me that "at that price, it'll do until we find something else". We took it home, screwed on its little legs and there it squats: low and fat, chipped at the corners, just daring us to chuck it out while it's still perfectly serviceable.

Lundgren joined Ikea with a background in graphic design, and is responsible for the company's familiar block-letter logo, which appears in the colours of the Swedish flag in 221 stores across 32 countries. Grinning, he shows me Kamprad's own, rosette-style attempt at a logo, saying that Kamprad was "never really an images man". For decades his boss would write the text of the catalogues while Lundgren took charge of the visuals.

As we stroll through the museum, with living rooms made up to represent each decade of Ikea's advancement, it becomes clear how timeless the young, bright Scandinavian style really is. True, we live in eclectic times, in which retro pieces and attitudes mix freely with cutting-edge design. But much of the furniture I see here, from the tartrazine oranges and white fake-leather swivel chairs of the Sixties through to the black plastic dining set of the Eighties (based on 19th-century style), could be imagined on sale in any Ikea today. Lundgren nods. "We have in our living room two sofas I bought in Ikea in 1960," he says. "They look like furniture from this season's collection. They have new textiles on them, though."

Lundgren himself designed many of the brand's most basic and iconic products. He stresses their durable simplicity, and points out models that have found their way into museums around the world. I even muster a new respect for my own accursed coffee table when Lundgren tells me how he got the idea for its hollow-veneer form from a Swedish door manufacturer. "See?" he says, raising one with a casual hand. "So light, but so solid."

Moving into the Seventies section, Lundgren tells me about the introduction of the pine with which the company is most associated. "From the beginning, this shelving was made for garages. But one of our co-workers took it into his living room and made a very good, modern idea. Just slot together, see? We took that co-worker's philosophy on board."

"Co-worker" is a phrase I hear hundreds of times during my trip to Ikeaville, with its staff of 700, including 55 product designers. The company cult doesn't allow the word "employee". Everyone in store, from managers to checkout assistants, also sports the same branded romper suit. Everyone is encouraged to keep the costs low. British staff fly out to Copenhagen with Easyjet, and take the same second-class train journey as Kamprad across the border to Almhult.

"This whole town is Ikea-related," says my Italian guide, Giorgio, as we slide on the ice from the museum toward the main compound. Finding your way around this campus can be as frustrating as navigating around an Ikea store. None of the buildings are labelled, and co-workers smoking and shivering outside back doors can't always give accurate directions.

Finally, we arrive at the company's communications department, where a very serious chap called Magnus tells me all about engineering the products for easy home-assembly, and also how he goes about creating the instruction pamphlets, which are drawn cartoon-style, rather than using text. He likes the drawings to be friendly, "to have a little soul. This also means we can use the same pamphlets across the world," he says. "'I see, I copy' is the most basic form of learning, after all."

Not every culture responds as readily as others to the DIY concept. Ikea will open its first store in Tokyo this year, and is prepared to find some Japanese customers initially wary of the manual labour. Bosses have found that the on-site assembly service is much more popular in Asian markets (where the company does 3 per cent of its business) than in Europe and North America.

Magnus says that Ikea sometimes invites shoppers to flatpacking focus groups, where it observes them attempting to put the goods together. "We've seen everything," he says. "You really learn something about the way people think. It's not always the man who assembles the product, but there is normally one member of the couple who assumes control early and does the work."

The average Ikea customer is a woman, in her later thirties to early forties, who visits an Ikea store six times a year. This being the case, I ask Magnus why the Morph-like cartoon character depicted in his instructions is a man. He laughs for the first time. "We did try making a female character," he chuckles, "but she came out too much like Marge Simpson."

Until I reach the beyond-enormous warehouse, flatpacking remains just a clever consumer concept. But here I see the commercial reality on an overwhelming scale. It's as much about Ikea's convenience as the £8 coffee table they sell to people like me. Millions of those familiar brown boxes are piled up like a nightmare scene from The X-Files. One of 50 fork-lifts whizzes past, its metal arms stacked high. The warehouse manager, Peter, talks through the statistics: this warehouse has a 180,000 cubic-metre capacity, with 13,000 metres of indoor railroad and 1,500 metres of conveyor belts. A staff of 220 ships out 3,000 cubic metres of products every day.

This is where the volume makes sense. There is no way Ikea could shift so many products were the items already built, and the company did £10.2bn of business last year by keeping stock levels high and showroom space at a minimum.

Peter leads us up a twisting metal staircase to view the mechanised stacking machines running in near-darkness. It's here that the pallet mentality becomes clear. All products are designed to fit the European standard wooden stacking tools - that's why most of your Ikea furniture has the same 1.2m-by-0.8m dimensions. Its dizzying. I need air. As he shows us to the door via his office, I ask Peter what the phrase on his mug means.

"It means: 'If you had my job, you'd be crazy, too.'" Reassuring, for all those of us driven mad by our "easy-assembly" shelving units this Easter.