All the Fun of Flatpack Furniture

6th October 2017

Jennifer Lipman explores 30 glorious years of self-assembly, Scandinavian style…

Do you favour the Billy bookcase or the Malm shelving unit? The Pruta plastic containers or the Vardagen glass jars? Chances are those names will not only be familiar, but you’ll have strong opinions about them.

Britain’s first Ikea store opened its blue and yellow doors 30 years ago this month, in Warrington. Since then, most of us will have spent at least one rainy afternoon wandering around one of the company’s maze-like showrooms, browsing chairs, sofas and beds in Ikea’s trademark primary coloured, uniform style, possibly bribing our companions with the promise of Swedish meatballs.

Many of us have old catalogues piled up, or tear out pages to pin up for inspiration; we while away hours gazing at Ikea’s carefully curated kitchen set-ups, wishing we could replicate them. Whether we’re in family homes or rental flats, we’re likely have at least a few of Ikea’s neutral but oh-so-functional gizmos: the wieldy ziplock bags, the durable toys, or the thin picture shelf that adorns many a wall.

Long before Borgen and The Bridge made us fall in love with everything Scandi, Ikea was taking over here; there are 21 stores in the UK and Ireland now, with another on the way. Founded in Sweden in 1943 by an industrious teenager, Ikea soon spread across Denmark, Switzerland and Germany before setting up here. Although it began selling smaller items such as pens and jewellery, explains Sara Kristoffersson, author of the book Design by Ikea, the business swiftly became associated with bringing low-priced furniture and design to large numbers, helped by its management cultivating a mythology around its Swedish outlook.

“Ikea has this super-distinct national identity, but this hasn’t existed from the beginning,” says Kristoffersson. “It was from the early 1990s that they created this homogenous Swedish identity that was applied all over the world, so every store that opened looked the same.”

For many customers, that’s part of the appeal; go into Ikea off the North Circular or in the Netherlands and you know exactly what you’re getting. We may wax lyrical about supporting small traders, but when it comes to furniture we’ve shown ourselves to be intensely relaxed about mass production. In an era of online shopping, Ikea is one old school brand seemingly immune to upset, with annual UK sales worth £1.72 billion, equating to an 8.9% market share.

Unlike many global names, and despite sporadic scandals around tax or airbrushing women out of a Middle East catalogue, Ikea is relatively well-liked in Britain even among the chattering classes – second only to Lego in a recent ranking of reputable companies. For all that we moan about getting lost in the lighting section, we keep going back. “People refer to Ikea as a Teflon company,” observes Kristoffersson. “Criticism tends to just disappear”. As she admits, the company’s “positive friendly attitude” makes it hard not to like it.

Over its 30 years here, Ikea’s impact has been enormous, both in terms of how we decorate our houses and how we perceive furniture, and in perpetuating a popular design aesthetic that applauds straight lines, shiny materials, and a clean, almost sterile feel.

It’s also seen us embrace the flat pack revolution. Britain’s DIY skills may leave something to be desired – one recent survey found that a fifth of us are mystified by instructions, and many, many people will have spent hours constructing a table, only to wonder at the end whether they were supposed to have been left with an extra bolt and three little dowels – but we are now very used to buying furniture this way.

Yet this has come at a cost, not least to independent furniture manufacturers. Why invest in a one-of-a-kind when you can pay peanuts and still get a very nice chest of drawers? “It has decimated the handcrafted furniture industry,” argues Ben Highmore, Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. “Any cabinet maker’s bill would look ridiculous compared to Ikea”.

That’s perhaps an exaggeration – not every independent has been pushed out of business – and Beverley Barnett, an interior designer in Radlett, points out that “people sometimes want a bit more choice” – but those people tend to sit at the higher end of the market.

Mass-produced furniture wasn’t new in 1987, of course. In the Victorian era, furniture would have been hand-made, probably by a small trader, but even then manufacturers were knocking out identikit fittings; a working class family wouldn’t have had the cash for a bespoke product. “There were always forms of mass marketisation but Ikea took it to the next level” says Highmore.

Nor did Ikea introduce an entirely new design style; by 1987, Britons were already familiar with the Scandinavian aesthetic. “This was very much what the government was pushing at the end of the war – utility furniture and the idea that good design was functional,” says Highmore.

Even flat pack wasn’t revolutionary; Habitat had been selling quick assembly “KD” furniture (knocked-down) since the 1960s. “It was very similar to Ikea… there would be an Allen key in the box but you needed a screwdriver,” explains Highmore. What changed with Ikea, he says, was quality – thanks to computer-aided design, the different components are phenomenally accurate. “Habitat’s KD furniture tended to wobble, Ikea’s doesn’t tend to.”

Habitat now sits on the slightly more expensive end of the market, while Ikea has become associated with interior decoration without breaking the bank. Asking members of a home improvement forum, the main comments are around price and durability. “Cheap and cheerful,” says one. “Does the job but won’t last forever,” adds another.

The other advantage is the size of Ikea’s product list; you can buy almost everything in any colour or material. “For someone on a tight budget it’s a very good idea,” says Barnett, although she cautions that it has to be put together well “otherwise it’s a complete disaster”. But, of course, as she says, it can be a false economy. “You’ve got the factor of how long it’s going to last, if you’re just furnishing a flat for a few years it’s one thing, but if you wanted something to last it’s another… Ikea is cheap but sometimes not so much when you have to put it together. You can have a carpenter build something bespoke and it’s not necessarily more expensive.”

Critics also argue that the low price point has encouraged a throwaway society, whereby we no longer invest in something – because when we get bored, we’ll just buy a new armchair. “One of the things Ikea sells most is storage and the reason is because we buy so much stuff – and a lot of the stuff we buy is probably from Ikea,” suggests Highmore.

Again, he traces this rampant consumerism back further than Ikea, suggesting that when Habitat was set up, the aim was for furniture to have the same energy as fashion, meaning that it needed to be as expendable as clothing. “It was a real shift from the idea that you have things you pass down to future generations.”

Even if Ikea did not spawn this trend, it has benefited from it. Indeed, last year, Ikea’s head of sustainability, Steve Howard, admitted as much, claiming “we have probably hit peak stuff”, although, naturally, he didn’t go so far as to tell customers to stay away. “One has to remember that IKEA is a commercial company,” notes Kristoffersson. “They sell with the help of words like democracy but it’s of course about business and sales curves.”

This disposable society is not only bad for our bank balances, but it also has environmental consequences. In a time of scarce resources, the Ikea model can seem old fashioned. And, as Highmore suggests, it may mean we lose a certain thickness of culture, our possessions lacking the stories of previous generations. “No one goes to Ikea and buys things thinking ‘my grandchildren’s grandchildren will be using this’…”

Yet despite these negatives, 30 years on from its UK launch the company retains a hold on our wallets and our imaginations, and there’s no sign of this changing. We may complain about extra parts, we may swear we’re never braving the bank holiday queues again – but somewhere along the line we’ll probably wonder: wouldn’t a Billy bookcase look good in that corner of the living room?

Find Your Local