First things first: If you’re wondering how to pronounce “IKEA,” the Swedes say, “EE-kay-ah” (much like Filipinos), though “EYE-kee-ah” is also correct.
IKEA is an acronym that stands for “Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd” — Ingvar Kamprad is the founder of the Swedish furniture company; Elmtaryd is the location of the family farm where he was born; and Agunnaryd is the nearby village where he was raised.
We visited both places on a recent trip to Sweden with a delegation from IKEA Philippines that included IKEA Southeast Asia market communications manager Jasmin Ferrero-Cruz and external communications specialist Kevin Margallo; the winners of their “Dream Trip to Sweden” Lyndl Decena, Erwin Noscal, Fran Testa and Val Origenes-Abu; members of the media and influencers, and it was an insightful look at the home base of the retail company whose aim is “To create a better everyday life for the many… by offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home-furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.”
IKEA was registered as early as 1943 by then 17-year-old Ingvar Kamprad, who started his business by selling matches and seeds, then pens and eventually furniture.
Agunnaryd is a peaceful, rural area that’s not as idyllic as it looks; farmers had to eke out a living from the rocky terrain, so it became clear to us how the values Kamprad built IKEA on — simplicity, humility, hard work, and thrift — were developed.
But it is the town of Almhult, Sweden — an hour away from Agunnaryd and closer to Copenhagen than Stockholm — where IKEA really began and the company is headquartered today.
You could call Almhult “IKEA Town” or “IKEA Land” and you wouldn’t be far wrong. All the corporate offices are located there, with 6,500 employees, including IKEA of Sweden, where the product range is designed; the Test Lab, where these products are tested for quality and durability; the IKEA Museum, which used to be the first IKEA store Kamprad opened in 1958 (a newer and bigger store is nearby); and the IKEA Hotell, the only one of its kind in the world, built for the first store’s customers who traveled from far away to shop in Almhult. At present, IKEA’s global employees who go to HQ for training, tourists and visitors like us are the main guests.
‘He never stopped working’
At the IKEA of Sweden (IoS) offices we interviewed design manager Johan Ejdemo, who co-heads global design along with Eva Lilja Lowenhielm, and he said that Kamprad’s influence is still strongly felt even after the founder passed away in 2018 at the age of 91.
“He was very present in this building; he never stopped working,” Ejdemo says. “The most valuable lessons (from him) are the closeness, the presence, and the curiosity. “We’re kind of ‘flat’ in IKEA. There's no hierarchy, so Ingvar could turn up behind your back and then he wanted to discuss what you are developing at the time, and he never came with any judgment. So he was more curious, but he could kind of steer the conversation maybe in a certain direction, so you got some hints.”
Ejdemo also learned more about entrepreneurship from Kamprad, “and believing in things and not needing to have all the answers, but if you have a good gut feel, the willingness to invest and explore and try out.”
The pandemic changed their customers’ needs, “and people have been rediscovering their homes a lot,” inspiring IKEA to design and offer work-from-home products.
“Us focusing on small-space living is kind of good because normally, squeezing another function into your home is not so easy,” Ejdemo notes. “So we’re trying to provide solutions for that, and that is still going on because many people still work in kind of a hybrid setup.”
Next year IKEA will launch a collaboration with Marimekko, and from a jacket we glimpsed at IoS and a dress a Filipina IKEA employee was wearing (around 20 Filipinos work in Almhult HQ), it looks like a fun and fashionable collab.
“We are always evolving and collaborating with other brands that sit on the competence that either we lack or where we connect, and with Marimekko it’s more that we connect on the Scandinavian design heritage,” says Ejdemo. “Collaborations are in the DNA of IKEA.”
At the IKEA Museum, which houses Kamprad’s old office (it was being restored at the time so unfortunately we didn’t see it), we learned through interactive exhibits that Democratic Design is IKEA’s way of designing products based on the brand’s five pillars: function, form, quality, sustainability and low prices.
Ejdemo says they’re trying to make IKEA a more sustainable, circular business by 2030: “IKEA has always been forced to be clever with all the resources that we use, and we call ourselves a ‘production-oriented retailer.’ We’re kind of leading the industry in the development of lightweight constructions using less materials.”
They’re focusing more on using recycled and recyclable materials “but the big movements will be more on a system level around circularity, all the way towards being able to create a secondhand market for products, to spare parts, to replacing critical parts. For example, there was a very successful test that we did just recently: because cushions might go a little bit soggy over some years, being able to replace the cushions and cover — you’ve always been able to replace in IKEA furniture to prolong their lifespan a lot.”
The low prices are possible because of innovations like flat parcels and self-assembly. The first flat pack was created when one of Kamprad’s collaborators suggested pulling the legs off a table and putting them under the tabletop. This reduced shipping and storage fees so much that the savings were passed on to the customer.
Another innovation was “board-on-frame” — replacing solid wood with chipboard or hard-fiber sheets on a frame like a sandwich. This saved on wood and weight but felt solid and strong. The concept gave rise to IKEA superstar products like the Lack tables, Billy and Expedit bookcases, Malm beds and Ogla chair.
Speaking of which, the designers gave the furniture names as Kamprad had difficulty with numbers: bookcases had boys’ names, curtains had girls’ names; suites, sofas and chairs had city names; and duvets had bridge names.
At the Test Lab in Almhult, we saw how IKEA tests its product quality versus the rigors of daily use. In different rooms they subject products to different temperatures and climate conditions, see how surfaces react to spills and different cleaning solutions, how long candles burn; there’s even an Odor Lab to test what odors are emitted upon unboxing and whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant.
A machine with an attachment that looks like a person’s behind exerts the same pressure on a chair as a real person would over a lifetime of sitting. The same goes for mattresses, and they even showed us a machine with an artificial finger covered in cloth to imitate skin. This “finger” can touch samples like drawer handles to simulate opening the drawer every day and how its surface is affected. They’ve tested the handle 100,000 times with the “skin” dipped in artificial sweat, hand sanitizer and Scotch Brite. Since 100,000 touches are equivalent to about 15 years of use, you can see how durable and long-lasting IKEA would like its products to be.
The only IKEA hotel in the world
We stayed at IKEA Hotell, which Kamprad built in 1964 so that guests who came from afar to shop in Almhult could have a place to rest and have a good meal. (The restaurant in the hotel and one in the museum serve IKEA’s famed Swedish meatballs, as well as plant-based, veggie and chicken balls.)
IKEA was registered as early as 1943 by then 17-year-old Ingvar Kamprad, who started his business by selling matches and seeds, then pens and eventually furniture. Initially a mail-order company, IKEA’s warehouse was a storage shed in Agunnaryd that employees still visit to this day as a kind of mecca.
Architect Claes Knutson built IKEA’s first store in 1958, and Kamprad liked his work so much he asked him to build a Motell IKEA inspired by American motels. The resulting edifice had 25 rooms, a restaurant and heated swimming pool. The rooms were decorated with IKEA’s light oak furniture, jute-fabric walls and sound-insulating carpet.
Today the pool is gone, the hotel’s common areas look like IKEA showrooms, and 200-plus bedrooms are designed in minimal, modern Scandi style, also with light wood furniture, textured carpets and a pop of color against the white walls in the form of a fuchsia hanger and clothes peg.
It’s a concept that perfectly encapsulates the IKEA aesthetic; I only wish they could roll it out to the rest of the world. But for now, the world’s only IKEA Hotell and Museum are great reasons to visit Almhult, and explore what “IKEA Town” is all about.
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IKEA Philippines is celebrating the first anniversary of the Pasay City store, the largest in the world with 600 employees. From Nov. 21-25, customers will get up to 50% off on select home furnishings, 50% off on Huvudroll Swedish meatballs at the Swedish Food Market, and a free, limited-edition tote bag for IKEA Family Members with P5,000 minimum single receipt in-store.
IKEA Pasay City is located at MOA Square, Mall of Asia Complex Zone, Marina Way, Pasay City, tel. 8888-4532.