IKEA’s new museum in Älmhult


The giant home-furnishings’ chain IKEA has opened its own museum, in what was the company’s very first store, in the Swedish town of Älmhult. But does it present a look at how this global phenomenon has developed and operates, bringing reasonably priced Swedish design to everyone, or is it little more than camouflaged marketing?


Words by Liz Farrelly
All Images: Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2016

The small town of Älmhult, located in Småland, a region of southern Sweden known for furniture making and thriftiness, is the birthplace of the world’s largest furniture company, IKEA, and home to its new museum. Posters at the railway station (undergoing modernisation) proclaim the museum’s opening but no address and, confusingly, road signs point in several directions to ‘IKEA’, proof this is a company town.

Follow a stream of smart-casual commuters (travelling from as far away as Malmö) up a pedestrian walkway and across the tracks and you’ll find the business-end of IKEA. When the press arrives for a preview of the 7,000 sq m museum, this unprepossessing campus is having a make-over; mature trees are being inserted and bulldozers clear away rubble.

IKEA Catalogue cover image from 1973.IKEA Catalogue cover image from 1973.

The museum’s manager, Carina Kloek-Malmsten, welcomes us to what was the first IKEA store in the world and is now the museum: ‘Älmhult is the heart of the IKEA world. It’s where we have the roots of our culture and values. After more than seven decades there are plenty of stories, and we think it’s time to share them with the public. The format, or concept — a museum — gives us the opportunity to show and explain who we are in a different way than in our retail environment.’

This show-and-tell has been neatly divided into three permanent exhibitions: Our Roots, Our Story and Your Story. And temporary exhibitions are in planning for ‘the glorious future, as we all say here’, enthuses Kloek-Malmsten.

First IKEA store in Älmhult, Sweden in 1958.First IKEA store in Älmhult, Sweden in 1958.

A new museum requires a substantial investment of both time and money, and might seem an unlikely move for a company that plays down its commercial ranking by emphasising egalitarian aims and corporate thriftiness.

The official line is that ‘savings’ are passed to the consumer in the form of low prices. But IKEA has very deep pockets to go with its very long reach, operating on a scale beyond the vagaries of macroeconomics. Most recent financials for 2015 saw sales increase by 11.2 per cent to €31.9bn.

First IKEA store in Älmhult, Sweden in 1958.First IKEA store in Älmhult, Sweden in 1958.

From the stores to the website inspirational on-brand slogans abound and the new museum is no exception: ‘To create a better everyday life for the many people’ greets you as you enter, endorsed by the signature and portrait of IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad. Playing on its people-focused approach, the portrait is made up of a multitude of tiny photos presumably of IKEA staff (a device it has used in an advertising campaign). It’s an embodiment of its core values of ‘togetherness’ and ‘teamwork’ — as mentioned, in large letters in the museum.

The first IKEA store now as the museum, 2016. The stairs and the walk along the facade is called Smålandsgången.The first IKEA store now as the museum, 2016. The stairs and the walk along the facade is called Smålandsgången.

This opening sets the tone, with the corporate ‘message’ very much to the fore, as this is not a simple historical museum — it has other roles to play. Explaining IKEA attitude to an increasingly diverse workforce coming on stream in countries where Swedish democracy (however diminished) seems very far off, is one aim of the museum. Beyond attracting the paying public, this corporate function helps explain the considerable investment bound up in the new museum. Kloek-Malmsten simplifies any confusion: ‘IKEA Museum is the story of IKEA’ (just don’t expect many secrets to be revealed).

IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad with ÖGLA chair, SAMPO chair, IDUN chair, TORE drawer unit, from years gone byIKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad with ÖGLA chair, SAMPO chair, IDUN chair, TORE drawer unit, from years gone by

This said, taking into account that all private funding of cultural institutions serves particular interests, the growing popularity of corporate museums is less troublesome. Jana Scholze (previously curator of contemporary furniture and product design at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, now running the Curating Contemporary Design MA at Kingston University), suggests that there’s also a positive effect to a company engaging with its own history: artefacts and archives are collected and cared for. But she adds: ‘The challenge [for a corporate museum is] to critically engage with aspects of its history that are not defined by success and achievement.’

Detail of the introduction to the main exhibitionDetail of the introduction to the main exhibition

Another alumnus of the V&A, Gareth Williams, now professor of design at Middlesex University, describes the ‘seismic IKEA effect’, declaring ‘IKEA’s affordable furniture with high-design values changed popular taste in home-making, [which] forced the big Italian manufacturers, like Cappellini, to add archetypal products to their range…’. Along with finding out more about the evolution of the company, Williams suggests that discovering how IKEA works, in terms of scale, production, materials and regional differences, ‘would be fascinating’.

Indeed it would, but while Kloek-Malmsten adds that ‘the IKEA Story’ also includes ‘some of our mistakes, which we have learned from’, beyond a few anecdotes there is scant examination or explanation of the implications of doing business on such a scale.

Ordinary IKEA objects, from pipes to vanity kits, from the Forties and FiftiesOrdinary IKEA objects, from pipes to vanity kits, from the Forties and Fifties

Which is not to say the people won’t come. ‘It will be a success. Almost all Swedes have some sort of relation with IKEA… [it] is proudly regarded as a national symbol,’ says Swedish design historian, Sara Kristoffersson. But she adds: ‘There is much to tell, but the question is whether IKEA should tell the story?’ She goes on to assert that the museum does not present a new level of transparency, being little more than a ‘cut-and-paste’ from internal manuals. This museum she says is ‘very much in line with [IKEA’s] way of using narratives… it keeps the mythology and the story of the brand alive.’

Kitchen with an electric hob, stainless-steel sink, laminated worktops and easy-care linoleum flooring. The extensive production of modern equipment during the Forties changed household workKitchen with an electric hob, stainless-steel sink, laminated worktops and easy-care linoleum flooring. The extensive production of modern equipment during the Forties changed household work

While led and realised by the in-house IKEA Museum creative team, the museum is the product of collaboration with one of, if not the world’s biggest, museum content design practices, Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA), along with Swedish design consultancy Form Us With Love, Swedish architect Uulas Arkitekter, and UK architecture practice WilkinsonEyre, which together renovated and restored the 1958 store’s distinctive colonnaded facade. Now rendered as a stylised graphic device the facade represents the museum on all its merchandise.

KOLDING sofa, the MTP storage system and DANSKE dining chair in laquered oak were some of the matching furniture available in the IKEA range in the SixtiesKOLDING sofa, the MTP storage system and DANSKE dining chair in laquered oak were some of the matching furniture available in the IKEA range in the Sixties

Project director at RAA, Philip Hughes, describes the creative process as ‘lots of content workshops, developing the structure with the client. In Our Story, the client suggested decades as an organising principle and we worked with them to bring out their themes and stories in the design.’ The creative team talks about the museum as being ‘on the way’ — a work in progress. Rather than present overly complex galleries on first opening, layers of information, contextual and digital, can be added in the future, much like how IKEA refine products — launch, sell for a season, tweak, relaunch. In a range that extends to some 9,500 products, 2,000 items are ‘renewed and refreshed’ each year by the 20-strong, in-house design team and some 200 external designers.

In the Eighties the KLIPPAN sofa in black leather and ILLO chair were sold at IKEAIn the Eighties the KLIPPAN sofa in black leather and ILLO chair were sold at IKEA

Some of these tweaked items make an appearance in a timeline of products (with prices) and store openings (globalisation in action) installed on a pegboard display around the museum’s walls. With particleboard used for partitions and surfaces, the materials seem to suggest flexibility and that visitors are being offered privileged access to an IKEA story that is still being told. Overhead, a conveyor swishes images of iconic products briskly along, hinting at mechanised manufacturing. And of course, it wouldn’t be IKEA without room settings.

Staff clothing from the Fifties. Skirt and jacket in grey wool. Co-workers also carried a binder with an IKEA catalogue and order formStaff clothing from the Fifties. Skirt and jacket in grey wool. Co-workers also carried a binder with an IKEA catalogue and order form

These ersatz domestic idylls are labelled with quotes from past catalogues, but divorced from the informational context of the sales catalogue the copy sounds didactic: ‘Reclaim Together’ is the headline that originally sold a kitchen in a USA catalogue, but reused in a caption that suggests activities outside the house, yoga classes included, are damaging family life sounds preachy, even moralistic. Throughout the museum, the tone fluctuates, as if the interpretation hasn’t found its own voice yet, while strong commercial messages from IKEA’s marketing materials shout loudly. The underlying message of these displays is that stylistically, at least, IKEA moves with the times: from ‘relaxing’, ‘comfy’, mid-century armchairs of Polish oak, supplied ‘at a reasonable price’, to ‘Pine — day in, day out’, touted as ‘robust, but without excess… that no one is too young or too old for’. Meanwhile, the designer decade (remember the Eighties?) is represented in a recreated advert that playfully challenges the viewer: is the matt black and chrome loft-style interior in New York? No it’s Älmhult!

With many of the museum displays quoting an already mediated version of IKEA, an uncanny sense of déjà vu pervades the place. As a counterbalance, the interactive elements are playful rather than instructive. A photo studio (real this time) invites visitors to pose in a catalogue covershoot of next year’s kitchen. Electronic flashguns pop and an oversized Polaroid, complete with masthead and coverlines, plops out of a slot in a cabinet, and the visitor is initiated into IKEA’s world, playing the role of model-consumer.

Put yourself on the cover of this year’s IKEA catalogue!Put yourself on the cover of this year’s IKEA catalogue!

The museum’s own website mentions an archive and collection of 20,000 items, but fewer objects are on show than might satisfy die-hard fans. Going behind the scenes more fundamentally would tell us much about IKEA’s process, which is what the nascent discipline of visitor studies identifies as the holy grail for museum aficionados. Then again, perhaps this museum isn’t aimed at them. In general, though, the activity of IKEA is missing from the museum, whether on a global scale — visualisations of distribution and manufacturing could be very impressive — or finding out how IKEA’s designers ensure that every piece fits, packs flat, and comes with all the right bits for assembly, would be truly instructive. Instead, lip service is played, with the inclusion of an Allen key in a vitrine.

The museum begins with a display of objects from founder Kamprad’s early years (personal stuff, mail-order items), underlining the cult of personality surrounding IKEA’s founder, as well as the company’s connection to its locale. The ‘route’ ends with a cinema-sized screen projecting a wordless, but culturally specific, message from the management.

This emotive movie depicts birth/death, love/marriage and a soap-opera perfect family in a comfortably rural home. The trained eye might pick out product placement of IKEA classics but the corporate message is cloying and blunt.

 IKEA catalogue covers through the ages IKEA catalogue covers through the ages

This ending validates Kristoffersson’s assertion that the museum is ‘camouflaged marketing’ by a corporation ‘writing its own history’. And while lucky workers, invited to be imbued with IKEA’s moral code, might appreciate ‘the linear narrative with a logical connection and intelligible explanation of IKEA’s successful concept’ as Kristoffersson describes it, a major element is missing. The retail experience, in its contemporary form, might be considered IKEA’s unique contribution to consumer culture.

Set foot inside an IKEA store, anywhere across the world, and you are in effect transported to Sweden, complete with meatballs, crèche and egalitarian homewares for added authenticity. The experience of visiting IKEA is paramount to the brand’s appeal, and while the museum aims to be unlike a store, that differentiation may be its biggest problem, precisely because IKEA is so successful at blurring the lines between commerce and leisure — more a family day out than a nip to the shops. IKEA stores fit the definition of the ‘third space’ which, ironically, museums the world over are yearning to be.

Museums and visitors have come a long way since the furore caused by the Eighties’ Saatchi & Saatchi’s advertising campaign, ‘V&A: An ace caff, with quite a nice museum attached’, which suggested there was more to do in hallowed halls than pursue scholarly interests. Debate about what museums are for has raged since (though perhaps not as a result), particularly among students of the burgeoning discipline of museum studies.

Sure, confit duck and truffles are great, but can anything truly beat meatballs fried in butter? IKEA decided the answer was ‘No’ back in 1979 and started serving meatballs for all they were worth. Kids gave them the thumbs up, lots of grown-ups too. And that’s the way they’ve rolled ever sinceSure, confit duck and truffles are great, but can anything truly beat meatballs fried in butter? IKEA decided the answer was ‘No’ back in 1979 and started serving meatballs for all they were worth. Kids gave them the thumbs up, lots of grown-ups too. And that’s the way they’ve rolled ever since

Museums’ remit has clearly expanded way beyond the ‘treasure house’ to include conservation, education and entertainment; now it is acknowledged and well documented that shopping, eating and socialising promote repeat visits. When I visited the IKEA Museum, the shop and cafe weren’t open yet — two of the most important ingredients of what these days constitutes a successful museum visit were missing — so I can’t comment.

While it is legitimate for IKEA to use its museum to educate 200,000 employees about Swedish corporate values and its own ethos, especially as the company expands across continents, trying to deliver its message to wider audiences, which expect a mix of informality, curiosity and excitement, with the same offer might prove difficult. There’s no jaw-dropping entertainment to be had here. It’s also not the complete story.

Rather than mention changes in production and consumption, the context to IKEA’s narrative of success fetishises the individual and their homeland by foregrounding the entrepreneurial achievement of Kamprad, struggling against the odds, in the rugged poverty of Småland, which translates as gritty, thrifty determination. That simplification plays down Sweden’s post-war Social Democratic government’s policy of building a million new homes, which needed furnishing.

The Allen key is a democratic little invention that has been in IKEA packages since 1967. It doesn’t care if you’re all thumbs or a master carpenter. All it asks of you is a little hand power and a few minutes of your time. The pay-off is your very own, self-assembled piece of IKEA furniture at a selfassembled priceThe Allen key is a democratic little invention that has been in IKEA packages since 1967. It doesn’t care if you’re all thumbs or a master carpenter. All it asks of you is a little hand power and a few minutes of your time. The pay-off is your very own, self-assembled piece of IKEA furniture at a selfassembled price

That the company has benefitted from shifts in global patterns of manufacture and consumption is evident in the museum’s timeline of shops opening outside Sweden (from Norway in 1963 to Morocco last year), but the tone is more celebratory than explanatory. Also, stories about logistics, sourcing, distribution, trend forecasting and talent spotting, in effect, the ways and means IKEA delivers affordable design ahead of the curve, are not told, which is all the more frustrating as Älmhult is the birthplace of this and is still home to many of these processes.

Perhaps more layers of content will be added to the museum as it evolves, along with a diversity of approaches and voices. Expanding access to IKEA’s growing archive by students and researchers could help fill the temporary exhibition space. As Kristoffersson concludes: ‘Research into IKEA is limited… more serious research [not financed by the company] would also be an advantage for IKEA.’





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