Leading by Design
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 7/10/13

This map about the home furnishings company IKEA focuses on the company’s origins, its design aesthetic and its highly successful approach to retailing and marketing. From the Poäng Chair to IKEA’s enticing showrooms to the Swedish meatballs served up in the restaurants at many locations, the planet’s largest seller of furniture and home accessories offers a unique shopping experience that attracts consumers worldwide.

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Poäng Chair
to  Eames Lounge Chair

IKEA knows design history—and how to use it. Few contemporary home furnishings are as iconic as the Eames Lounge Chair, developed by the husband-and-wife creative team Charles and Ray Eames and released by the Herman Miller furniture company in 1956. Crafted of plywood and leather, the chair is highly esteemed for its comfort, style and, with a price tag topping $3,000, cachet. In the 1970s IKEA introduced a similarly comfortable contemporary chair, the Poäng, by Japanese designer Noboru Nakamura. The Poäng quickly joined the Eames as a modernist favorite but, with a price tag of less than $100, appealed to a much broader market, fulfilling IKEA’s mission “to create a better everyday life for the many.” Ingvar Kamprad, the reclusive founder of IKEA and one of the world’s richest men, has enjoyed his Poäng Chair since 1974. “The material has gotten dirty,” he says, “but technically it’s as good as new.” Perhaps the famously frugal Kamprad, who flies economy class and visits 30 or 40 of his stores around the world each year, often traveling locally by bus, should spend a few kronor to acquire a more recent Poäng model outfitted with washable cotton covers.

Poäng Chair
to  IKEA Catalog

The Poäng Chair and some 12,000 other IKEA staples are featured in the company’s catalog, published in 27 languages every August, distributed in print to an estimated 199 million potential customers worldwide and also available online. The catalog’s hard-copy distribution is believed to exceed that of two long-standing global best-sellers: the Bible and Mao Tse-tung’s “Little Red Book.” (Is topping the collection of Mao’s quotations just a sign of IKEA’s universal appeal? Might it also signal the ascent of bourgeois comforts over communist ideals?) For many viewers the catalog is such an arbiter of good taste that a heated controversy erupted in 2009 when IKEA changed its signature font from Futura, a famed 1920s modernist typeface, to Verdana, designed by Microsoft in the 1990s for use on computer screens. “It’s a sad day,” opined bloggers on the Typophile website, more than 5,000 of whom signed a petition pleading with IKEA to drop Verdana. The company held firm, praising Verdana as readily adaptable to any language, easy on the eyes and cost-efficient—perfectly in sync with IKEA’s products.

Poäng Chair
to  IKEA Showroom

Visitors to IKEA’s 313 stores in 39 countries will encounter the Poäng Chair in smartly arranged model rooms. Shoppers follow a route through a mazelike array of homey vignettes—complete living rooms, kitchens, dining rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms, even entire apartments. Those with a keen sense of Scandinavian geography may perceive the logic behind IKEA’s product names: Bookshelves and upholstered pieces are named for towns and districts in Sweden, bathroom articles for Swedish bodies of water, garden furniture for islands and so on. (Poäng appears to be an anomaly; it means “grade” or “point,” as in a score, and has no connection to the landscape.) At a typical location, the floor below the showroom is a self-serve warehouse where the goods so enticingly displayed upstairs are shelved in convenient flat-pack form, which requires less packaging and makes them easy to transport. The key to this approach is self-assembly—most furniture is put together by the buyer. Customers can even leave some European IKEAs with an entire house: The BoKlok system of prefabricated homes, sold in pieces, is a 21st-century take on the assembly-ready “kit homes” Sears Roebuck sold from its catalogs in the early decades of the 20th century.

IKEA Catalog
to  Swedish Meatballs & Småland

The year 2013 marks the 62nd anniversary of the IKEA catalog—at nearly 400 pages, the self-proclaimed “world’s largest free publication.” This bible of functional, affordable home furnishings is printed on recyclable paper produced without chemical bleaching agents, part of the company’s commitment to promoting environmentally friendly living. IKEA supports responsible forestry, has installed solar panels and skylights in many of its locations and purchases cotton from farmers who practice sustainable agriculture. IKEA sells only low-energy lightbulbs, reasoning that if every customer replaced a 60-watt bulb with a compact fluorescent, the energy savings would equal eliminating the greenhouse gas emissions of 750,000 cars. Shuttle service from surrounding urban areas (by bus or ferry, free or for a small fee) is available at many stores. Customers also encounter IKEA’s green bent in the store restaurants—famous purveyors of meatballs—where many ingredients (even those for some Swedish staples) come from local suppliers and are organically grown.

IKEA Showroom
to  Swedish Meatballs & Småland

Customers who feel like moving into one of IKEA’s beautiful showrooms will also feel at home in the stores’ in-house restaurants, which are pleasantly stylish in a low-key Scandinavian way. Swedish meatballs, gravlax, poached salmon and lingonberry juice hark back to the company’s origins in Sweden in 1943, when 17-year-old Ingvar Kamprad set up shop. The IKEA acronym comprises his initials; the name of his boyhood farm, Elmtaryd; and the parish where he grew up, Agunnaryd. Småland, IKEA’s aptly named children’s play area (the word means “small lands”), is the name of the province where Kamprad was reared. Shoppers who deposit their kids in Småland are issued a beeper that summons them back should their presence be required—and sounds automatically after 45 minutes, just in case parents lose track of time and forget about the little ones. Another welcome convenience for customers, especially those involved in detailed planning: Paper, pencils and tape measures are complimentary at all IKEAs.

Unböring Campaign
to  IKEA Showroom

Armed with market research revealing that in the course of a lifetime the average North American has nine watches, seven cars, five jobs, four homes, three dogs, 2.5 cats, 1.5 spouses and only 1.5 dining-room tables, IKEA set out in 2002 to convince Americans that our attachment to old furniture is irrational. The much touted Unböring ad campaign suggested our lives would be better and more exciting if we discarded our old furnishings and replaced them with the handsome, functional products we see in IKEA showrooms. Most popular was a Clio Award–winning television spot by acclaimed film director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation). In the commercial, a woman carries an old lamp outdoors and leaves it curbside. Encouraged by forlorn music and a driving rainstorm, we are feeling sympathy for the lamp when a water-logged Swede appears out of the night and addresses us. “Many of you feel bad for this lamp,” he says. “That is because you are crazy. It has no feelings, and the new one is much better.” He is right, of course, on all counts.

Eames Lounge Chair
to  IKEA Hackers

Comfortable as it is, the Eames Lounge Chair is also an art object—in 2006 New York’s Museum of Arts and Design mounted an entire successful exhibition on it, The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design. Few proud owners of Eames chairs would ever think of attaching a drinks tray to one of the arms or in any way altering its flawless, expensive lines. Looking at things from another perspective, some of IKEA’s most ardent fans embrace the company’s commitment to practicality by modifying its pieces for particular goals. So-called IKEA hackers “hack, personalize, repurpose IKEA products into the very thing we want,” according to the popular website ikeahackers.net, where you’ll encounter such ingenious creations as a chicken coop fashioned from the store’s Mydal bunk bed and Trofast storage unit, a lamp made from a Skurar hanging planter and a hamster house hewn from an Expedit bookcase.

IKEA Hackers
to  Unböring Campaign

In their mission to creatively and inexpensively repurpose the retailer’s products, IKEA hackers are surely inspired by the “Unböring Manifesto.” Tucked into Wallpaper and other upscale shelter magazines during IKEA’s yearlong Unböring ad campaign (kicked off in September 2002), the booklet claims, “Making something beautiful that costs $2,000 is böring. Making something beautiful that costs $2 is a revolution.” The public, however, does not need to step into a store, open a catalog, click on a website or switch on a television to encounter IKEA’s “affordable design” aesthetic. In other recent ad campaigns, balconies of a Frankfurt, Germany, apartment building were fitted with mock-ups of drawers from IKEA dressers. A 20-by-20-foot packing crate was furnished with IKEA pieces to resemble a studio apartment and set up on the pavement in front of the Brooklyn store. IKEA sofas appeared in Istanbul bus shelters. A monorail in Kobe, Japan, became a moving IKEA sales floor. And a fully furnished mobile IKEA showroom has been pulled through the streets of U.S. cities in a glass-enclosed trailer.