The IKEA Dream
Volume 33, September 2012
With its rigorous mantra of ‘hating waste’, IKEA is a story of a one-man business turned world’s largest furniture retailer attracting 734 million store visits and generating a turnover of 26 billion euros last year. From furniture maker, the company is now turning neighborhood maker, taking over a role traditionally provided by the government to produce a compelling option for today’s dire affordable housing shortage. With 75 percent of the world’s population due to live in cities by 2050, and with a financially volatile climate still looming over our horizon, the world needs affordable living. From home furniture to full-out lifestyle and urban management and planning – designed with the price tag first – IKEA’s mission to provide affordable goods to as many people as possible is intertwined with its brand success. And, as we live out that success – as corporations step up to provide alluring options to urgent problems – how do we know if we are living our dream or IKEA’s dream?
“As the new kid in town, we want to fit in with the rest of London. But we’re not just building another ‘development’ – this is about creating a neighborhood,” states the website of Strand East, an upcoming 26-acre development by IKEA’s retail branch LandProp on a post-industrial wasteland at the edge of East London, not far from the 2012 Olympic grounds. The construction of 1,200 homes and apartments (40 percent geared to families), offices, and a hotel, is set to begin in 2013. IKEA’s Strand East is a place: “Where mews-style townhouses sit comfortably alongside creative commercial space. Where beautiful public courtyards open up to piazzas. And waterways weave their way around hotels, restaurants, parks, water taxi piers, and cycle paths.”
Ubiquitous and invisible
If family Sundays at the seaside in the fifties shifted to family Sundays at IKEA, it seems, through Strand East, IKEA is now internalizing the seaside (or the riverside in this case), incorporating it into its business plan and, in a round-about way, offering it back to the family. Perhaps it is the ultimate form of vertical integration, where a brand becomes ubiquitous to the point that it is inhabitable, and – perhaps more powerfully – even invisible as it diversifies into all aspects of living. In the sixties IKEA realized that a more complete retail experience that included a restaurant and the infamous kids’ ballroom would ensure that shoppers would remain distraction-free and enable them to spend more IKEA time (acknowledging that kids can be a waste of patience for parental shoppers). Much more powerful than the shift from shopping as necessity to shopping as family recreation is the retailer’s ubiquitous take-over of an entire neighborhood, turning living into a form of brand shopping. As the border between IKEA and the city dissolves, it is no longer necessary to be in the showroom in order to consume and be influenced by IKEA.
It’s not until you enter the press section of the Strand East website(1) that you see in fine type the word IKEA mentioned. Unlike other branded communities of the past, like Walt Disney’s Celebration, IKEA’s neighborhood is not obviously connected to the IKEA brand, to the point that the association seems to be strategically avoided. As if predicting public resistance and easy criticism, LandProp repeatedly emphasizes independence from the retail branch. Harald Müller, managing director for LandProp states: “While IKEA values such as family safety and smart design will be represented, this project is completely separate from the retail branch – so don’t expect the apartments to come fully furnished with IKEA catalogue items.”(2) LandProp goes so far as to ensure that no IKEA store will appear in or anywhere near the neighborhood.
This was certainly not the case when supermarket giant Tesco, in partnership with the Thames Gateway Development Corporation, submitted plans for a new district center for hundreds of homes and a school in Bromley-by-Bow, East London in 2010. The plans were heavily criticized by CABE, the government’s advisor on architecture, urban design, and public space, who pointed out that “the housing overlooks either the motorway or the superstore, and that Tesco lorries heading for the servicing entrance would cut across the children's route to the primary school.”(3) ‘Tesco Towns’(4) have become slang for areas dominated by a single retailer, and IKEA seems to be trying very hard not to be slotted into this category of overtly brand-centric planning. Its strategy seems to be of the more sophisticated sort – one in which the IKEA brand is pretty much invisible, though ultimately it is still very much in charge. It is succinctly put in the section on ‘Will-power’ in IKEA’s Testament of a Furniture Dealer: “We want to be an army of humble, strong-willed enthusiasts […]”(5) Humility is very much part of a strategy for brand success.
While Tesco Town is criticized for killing small-town fabric, Walt Disney’s Celebration of the nineties aimed to recreate the pre-war American small town, as an antidote to America’s sprawling suburbs. The brand faced criticisms of its own: "Walt Disney was an authoritarian. Yes he was an artist, but he was also a control freak. People tend to see the Disney creativity, they often miss the centralized control that lies behind it."(6) And, in response to Celebration: “In order to create history from scratch, Disney had to carefully plan every aspect of the town, from the draperies and colors of every home in Celebration to the annual rites downtown.”(7) In recreating a town of the past, Walt Disney took on what some saw as an authoritarian role, essentially becoming a “private Disney government” holding power to raise taxes and run the roads and public amenities. Disney was dictating happiness, as if real life needed a script to be written by its ‘Imagineering’ team.
Promise to listen
It is a known fact that brands can be just as authoritarian as governments. But they don’t like to be seen as such, given today’s climate of user-centricity and free choice. Design publication Fast Company spoke to designers at Apple and IKEA, regarding the usefulness of user-led innovation. They discovered that IKEA designers don't use user studies or user insights to create their products because they “tried and it didn't work,"(8) and designers at Apple put it more bluntly, stating, “It's all bullshit and hot air created to sell consulting projects and to give insecure managers a false sense of security.”(9) In design, asking for user input can be a waste of time, and we know how IKEA feels about waste.
In a discussion held by Dutch television program VPRO during the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam in April 2012, project manager of Strand East, Thomas Hattig, when asked about how democratic he is, stated “It’s quite difficult to predict what is happening in what you create. We are very optimistic that we will continue to listen.”(10) The tricky thing about a promise to listen is that it’s incredibly difficult to argue with upfront, and impossible to predict just what kind of consequence it will have in the long term. In all likelihood Strand East won’t be an authoritarian extension of the IKEA brand, but just what this appeal to a participatory process means in real terms is yet unknown. While city planning of the past explicitly believed in spatial determinism – that open plans will make for an open society, for instance – IKEA’s veil of humility and political correctness is difficult to discern.
The new Robin Hood
From branding in the sense of leaving visible markings, or brand-centric planning, perhaps insights into the real significance of branded living can be found in the brand’s ownership structure and organizational governance. Strand East will be an all-rental private neighborhood, fully-owned, run, and overseen by LandProp Holding, the property-development branch of Inter IKEA Group, the company that invests profits from the furnishing retailer. As The Economist points out, “behind IKEA's clean image is a firm that is very Swedish, secretive by instinct and, some say, rigidly hierarchical.”(11) It continues, “Critics grumble that its set-up minimizes tax and disclosure, handsomely rewards the Kamprad family and makes IKEA immune to a takeover.” IKEA’s complicated ownership structure(12) ultimately traces back to Interogo, a Foundation in (tax-friendly) Liechtenstein. It’s tempting to compare the corporate structure with the following missionary claim: “Our contribution to a better everyday life for the many people means that everybody with thin wallets should also be able to enjoy a functional and pleasant home.”(13) When questioned on its tax schemes, IKEA responded by stating that ‘tax efficiency’ was a natural part of the company’s low-cost culture. To IKEA, cutting its corporate tax expenses sits comfortably with claims to improve the lives of the many. Tax is waste that ought to be avoided – for the good of society. It’s as if IKEA has become the new Robin Hood, stealing from over-zealous governments and passing the savings onto the poor.
“We hate waste” is chief executive Mikael Ohlsson’s very frequently quoted mantra. From a refusal to transport air, to the ballroom that makes even kids self-sufficient, to corporate tax efficiency, IKEA’s anti-waste ethic permeates every facet of its corporate culture. IKEA’s Testament of a Furniture Dealer traces this sensibility back to its Swedish roots:
“The people of Småland, the birthplace of the IKEA Concept, a stony province in the south of Sweden with only a thin scattering of soil to make a living from, have a long tradition of ‘making do’. They even have their own special expression for the art of getting by, of managing on small means: they use a phrase derived from the Swedish word for cunning or craftiness, ‘lista’.”
The Testament continues:
“Translated into an IKEA term, this could mean, ‘If I lower the shelf half a metre, I can make do with my old hand-operated pallet truck. It’ll save me having to buy a fork-lift’.”
And further translated into branding strategy, "The idea is that you do half," says marketing manager, Shirley Jones. "We will supply you with the design, the inspiration, the knowledge and the basic tools; your responsibility then is to go home, build it and use it."(14) What is in essence a cost-saving strategy is
presented to the consumer as an opportunity for participation, self-empowerment and control. “Whereas others sell their furniture assembled, IKEA lets customers assemble it themselves,” reads The Testament. Anti-service is sold as service as if we ought to thank IKEA for allowing us to do it ourselves, regardless of how patronizing such an appeal to a participatory process may be.
The underlying ideology of thrift is far from being merely a romantic relic of the Swedish past. In today’s age of austerity, IKEA’s anti-waste ethic might prove itself to be entirely useful in providing alternatives to services traditionally taken on by the government. In an article on Tesco Towns, The Guardian reports: “The irony is that there is little evidence that the superstores themselves want to create entire communities. Instead, policy is pushing them in that direction, with local authorities prepared to grant permission for superstores they may have previously refused, as long as they are accompanied by the sweetener of housing, schools, and sports facilities, which the councils don't have the funds to provide.”(16) Thomas Hattig of Strand East explains: “when there is a shortage in the availability of money, having money is an advantage.”(17) With financial capital as its critical advantage, private actors are stepping up to provide services at a time when governments seem not to be able to afford them.
How might IKEA’s anti-waste, anti-service culture extend to the neighborhood? While there are plans to re-route city buses, garbage collection is taking on a more automated tone. One of the features the planners are boasting is a high-tech underground garbage collection system. Who knows – if the efficiency of IKEA’s waste collection system proves to be as successful as its retail chain, maybe we’ll see governments implement it on broader scales.
“It's about being creative, a little rebellious and doing what you dream about…” says an IKEA ad, that then goes on to show rebellious acts such as “…stackable stools, drawers on wheels, a bed up in the air!” IKEA staged its own act of rebellion at the latest International Furniture Fair in Milan, tagging its interior glossy ads with Banksy-style graffiti in the Milan subway, together with the tagline ‘People make design come to life’. Not only does the appropriation of an alternative or rebellious culture by a corporation nullify the rebellious nature of the act, it ironically becomes an explicit acknowledgement of the lack of rebellion inherent to the brand. Banksy-styled stencil art – commissioned and approved by management – is needed to make the interiors seem authentic and real. It was as if IKEA was acknowledging the very criticism posed by Andrés Jacque and the Office for Political Innovation in their ‘IKEA Disobedients’ manifesto. In search for a society that transcends happy, apolitical consumerism, their manifesto criticizes the safely mainstream domesticity propagated by the IKEA catalogue. In its efforts to appropriate the anti-mainstream, IKEA only reaffirms the very mainstream nature of the brand.
Countless hacking initiatives might give another perspective on how ‘people make design come to life’. Ikeahackers.net is a “community of crazy IKEA fans” featuring cheese graters turned lightshades, desks merged with treadmills, and even recipes on how to make your own Swedish meatballs. As IKEA moves from interior to exterior, from private to public, hacking IKEA becomes all the more significant, and gives hope that perhaps we can genuinely inhabit IKEA’s town.
Perhaps IKEA can be a model or a prediction of how governments could function – a situation in which the citizen does half the work. Known as ‘the IKEA effect’, a paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology by Michael Norton, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely suggests that the process of assembling an IKEA product makes users value it more highly.(15) The Allen key strategy not only cuts costs but also raises the perceived value of the goods. Can ‘the IKEA effect’ be applied to education, and other aspects of city life? Perhaps we’ll see IKEA introducing ingenious ways of pairing effort and satisfaction within a neighborhood.
There is some sort of magic in the IKEA offer, in the incredible density of value they cram into every cubic meter. In 2009 a Hamburg theater staged the opera ‘Das Wunder von Schweden’ (The Miracle from Sweden), a biography of the ‘furniture messiah’ set to Swedish folk tunes.(18) But the real miracle from Sweden would be if IKEA provided a compelling answer to how to tackle the collective when the state is diminishing. Ideologically speaking, if the answer comes from a moral code that we might imagine to be called ‘Waste and Crime’, it wouldn’t be so far off from the answers currently posed by governments and their austerity measures today. We have learned from IKEA that hating waste enables you to live like the rich, and it is also a legitimate reason to avoid paying taxes. But as we populate IKEA towns, bring the catalogues to life, and if we promise to keep our doors open to the public, is there any chance, IKEA, that you will waive our rental fees? Real life could certainly use this dream.
(1) Strand East Website At: strandeast.com (accessed August 1, 2012).
(2) Colleen Kane, ‘IKEA is developing its own London neighbourhood,’ CNBC (December 22, 2011); At: www.cnbc.com/id/45756405
IKEA_is_Developing_its_Own_London_Neighborhood (accessed August 1, 2012).
(3) Anna Minton, ‘This town has been sold to Tesco’ The Guardian (May 5, 2010); At:
www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/may/05/urban-development-tesco-towns (accessed August 1, 2012). See also the design review on the CABE archive.
(4) ‘Walmart Town’ refers to a similar phenomenon in North America, defined by Urban Dictionary as “A town that Walmart came into and made all the other stores go bankrupt.”
(5) Ingvar Kamprad, ‘The Testament of a Furniture Dealer. A Little ΙΚΕΑ Dictionary’ Inter IKEA systems B.V. (1976 – 2007), p. 26; At:
www.emu.dk/erhverv/merkantil_caseeksamen/doc/ikea/english_testament_2007.pdf (accessed August 1, 2012).
(6) Ed Pilkington, ‘How the Disney dream died in Celebration," The Guardian (December 13, 2010); At: www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/13/celebration-death-of-a-dream (accessed August 1, 2012).
(7) Gavriel H. Brown, ‘The Presence of the Past in Celebration, Florida’ Yeshiva University (summer 2012), p.1; At: www.scribd.com/doc/95157065/The-Place-of-the-Past-in-Celebration (accessed August 1, 2012).
(8) Skibsted Ideation, ‘User-Led Innovation Can’t Create Breakthroughs; Just Ask Apple and Ikea’, Fast Company (February 15, 2011); At:
www.fastcodesign.com/1663220/user-led-innovation-cant-create-breakthroughs-just-ask-apple-and-ikea (accessed August 1, 2012).
(10) Video ‘VPRO 'Leve de stad' debat over Making Cities’ VPRO (April 25, 2012); At:
tegenlicht.vpro.nl/nieuws/2012/april/Debatavond-Leve-de-stad-.html (accessed August 1, 2012).
(11) ‘The secret of IKEA's success: Lean operations, shrewd tax planning and tight control’ The Economist (Feb 24, 2011); At:
www.economist.com/node/18229400 (accessed August 1, 2012).
(12) Ibid. See also Inter IKEA Group Organisation diagram at: www.inter.ikea.com/governance/organisation/
(13) Kamprad, “The Testament of a Furniture Dealer,” p. 28.
(14) ‘The gospel according to Ikea’ The Guardian (June 26, 2000); At: www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,336379,00.html (accessed August 1, 2012).
(15) Michael I. Norton, Daniel Mochon, Dan Ariely, ‘The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love’ Journal of Consumer Psychology (2012) p. 453–460; At: www.people.hbs.edu/mnorton/norton%20mochon%20ariely.pdf (accessed August 1, 2012).
(16) Minton, ‘This town has been sold to Tesco.’
(17) Video ‘VPRO 'Leve de stad' debat over Making Cities.’
(18) Watch the trailer here