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© Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2016

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Assembling Ikea

Visiting Älmhult, Sweden, where the world’s largest furniture retailer was born

Driving northeast along Route 23 toward the Smålandian city of Växjö, wind turbines and golf courses give way to horse farms and dense stands of oak, pine, and silver birch. Sluggish logging trucks bring traffic to a crawl as you travel deeper into the lake-studded woodlands of southern Sweden. Aside from a smattering of service stations and falu red-painted farmhouses, signs of civilization become increasingly sparse.

The road to Ikea, and to a new Ikea-sponsored design museum, is dotted with moose crossing signs.

Yet the place names posted along the highway are somehow familiar, reassuring: Hörby, Liatorp, Ringsjön, Klippan. It’s like you’ve been here before. And then, just after crossing over the Kronoberg County line about 30 miles south of Växjö, the forest fades away and you see it.

It’s impossible to miss: a sweeping expanse of parking lot, an off-ramp shopping center, a big-box beacon done up in blue and yellow. You’ve arrived at the mothership.

This is Älmhult—take the next exit for Ikea Town.

Ikea store exteriors + Älmhult, Sweden.
© Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2016; Matt Hickman

Ingvar Kamprad, the world’s most parsimonious billionaire, grew up not too far from Älmhult, just north of Lake Möckeln at Elmtaryd, a farm located in the small village of Agunnaryd. That’s how Ikea got its name: Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd.

As a child, the now-90-year-old Kamprad was a hustler of the highest order. While his towheaded peers were busy milking cows and frolicking in the woods, Kamprad was selling matches to neighboring farms at the tender age of five.

Kamprad soon graduated from matches to bulk goods purchased in Stockholm, which he hawked to his classmates and, more importantly, his classmates’ parents. Many of his neighbors lived a hardscrabble existence, but as history has it, the people of Småland were too big-hearted and too bargain-hungry to say no to a 10-year-old peddling random goods—"pens, wallets, picture frames, table runners, watches, jewelry and nylon stockings," per Ikea—on their doorstep.

In 1943, at the age of 17, Kamprad was ready to take his knack at resale to the next level. Using a small sum of money given to him by his father as a reward for keeping up good marks at school—funds ostensibly to be used to further his education—the young entrepreneur founded his own company revolving around the Smålandian virtue of frugality.

"It’s in the nature of Smaland to be thrifty," Kamprad once said. The Swedish businessman, worth more than $40 billion, is known for preferring to get haircuts in developing nations and pocket salt and pepper packets at his own restaurants.

Over the next decade, Kamprad’s business grew slowly but steadily. By 1945, he had expanded Ikea from a door-to-door to a mail-order operation, taking out adverts in local papers and co-opting the village milk van to make deliveries. In 1948, Ikea began selling inexpensive, locally produced wood furniture alongside stationery and assorted sundries. Three years later, in 1951, Kamprad published the first Ikea catalog, a much-coveted annual publication that, some 65 years later, is up there with the Bible in global reach. Released in the summer of 2015, the 2016 catalog was printed in 71 different versions in 34 different languages—for a grand total of 213 million copies—and distributed in 49 countries.

With the catalog proving to be a success amongst his fellow Swedes, Kamprad opened a physical showroom in the nearby town of Älmhult in 1953. There, potential customers could view, touch, and test-drive Ikea furniture in person before committing to a purchase. Three years later, Ikea, driven largely by competition, began its game-changing foray into flat-pack design. By 1958, the Ikea showroom had grown into a 72,000-square-foot standalone retail store, a sleek edifice designed by Swedish architect Claes Knutson in the International style.

In sleepy little Älmhult, a home furnishings empire had been born. Sixty years later, I traveled there to see what the global success of Ikea has meant for its birthplace.

From left: First IKEA store in Älmhult, Sweden; Ingvar Kamprad office, 1963-64; BOHEM fåtölj/armchair. Design: Gillis Lundgren 1956; First IKEA store in Älmhult, Sweden.
© Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2016

Älmhult, a town that bills itself as a "rural idyll with an international atmosphere," is a bit Twin Peaks, a bit Scientology Celebrity Centre, and a bit Bentonville—Walmart’s Arkansas hometown—with a distinctly Scandinavian twist.

An Ikea Life

Marcus Engman’s Ikea story started in the 1970s, when he arrived in Älmhult at age nine.

His father, Lars Engman, relocated his family to the village from Stockholm to work for the retailer as a designer. At the time, Ikea was still primarily a Scandinavia-only phenomenon, with the exception of stores in Switzerland and Germany. Not long after the Engman family’s arrival, in 1979, Ikea released one of Lars Engman’s most iconic designs: the beloved—and perennially best-selling—Klippan sofa.

While his father was changing the course of furniture design, Marcus Engman lived the life of a small-town teenager—with an extra dose of Ikea. Over the summers, he worked at the store, collecting and pushing trolleys.

"There are some of my old friends who still work at Ikea, a few of them are still in Älmhult and many of them are spread around the world in different roles and countries," Engman says. "Most of my friends ended up in other creative industries making movies and music."

At 19, Engman left Älmhult for Stockholm, only to return a couple years later for a full-time position with Ikea. For 12 years, he served in a variety of positions for the company, including head of supply and marketing manager. It was in Älmhult that Engman met his wife and welcomed his first child.

In his early thirties, Engman abandoned his ascension at Ikea for "other places, other jobs, and so on." During this time, he founded his own consultancy. After more than a decade away, a siren’s call emanating from rural southern Sweden drew Engman back. Engman now works from the Älmhult campus, commuting from the coastal village of Domsten.

International growth has been the biggest change to hit Älmhult since his teen years.

"In many ways Älmhult today is Sweden’s most global village," he says. "And I can see that Älmhult isn't only growing, but developing into a better place to work and live, which is thanks to a municipality that's curious and engaged for the future as well as a business life that's making it possible to both live and work in Älmhult."

With more than half of its roughly 9,000 residents working in some capacity for Ikea, in Älmhult and nearby (the rest of the company’s 4,600 Älmhult-based employees commute from across the region), it’s a company town, but not in the traditional, Pullman-esque sense, as it existed long before Ingvar Kamprad came along. My own trip—to attend the third annual Democratic Design Day, a media event at which Ikea unveils new product lines and collaborations—was sponsored by Ikea’s U.S. retail arm, but the town is not solely focused on Ikea, a fact that may sadden diehard fans who arrive expecting a place more like Billund, the Lego Group’s base in Denmark.

In fact, the statue located prominently in Älmhult’s Stortorget, or central town square, is of an unrelated native son, the botanist Carl Linnaeus. Born in 1707, a full two centuries before Ingvar Kamprad hawked his first pair of hosiery, Linnaeus is known as the "father of modern taxonomy," as he laid the foundation for the elaborate species-naming system, binomial nomenclature, still in use today. The town’s website characterizes Kamprad and Linnaeus as "two people with ideas that left their mark on the entire globe."

Devoid of tourist buses and the colors blue and yellow, the streets surrounding Stortorget in downtown Älmhult are quiet and tidy. Bike parking is ample, as is standard in this part of the world. Norra Esplanaden, downtown’s main retail strip, is a hodgepodge of quaint historic structures, low-lying 1970s-era socialist apartment blocks, and a few contemporary structures. Architecturally, this is a town of squares. Businesses on Norra Esplanaden include banks, florists, salons, and a smattering of small boutiques—nothing out of the ordinary or overtly touristy. There’s also an outpost of the ubiquitous Danish grocery store chain Netto, and an abandoned gas station or two.

At the opposite end of Älmhult, bisected by a major east-west highway, the sprawling Ikea campus is home to several key operations, including the Ikea Test Lab; the catalog-producing Ikea Communications, home to the largest photo studio in northern Europe; Ikano Bank, a Kamprad family-owned consumer bank with operations across Europe; and the retailer’s product design and development hub, Ikea of Sweden. (Inter Ikea Systems B.V., the entity that owns the Ikea trademark and oversees the overall brand concept, is based in Delft, the Netherlands, and is owned by a Luxembourg-based holding company. The Economist has a breakdown of the complicated corporate structure of the multinational, which is technically operated as a not-for-profit Dutch charity).

Also located within the complex is Aktivitetshuset, a community rec center of sorts for Ikea employees—known as "co-workers"—and their families to partake in "spare time and health activities." Outfitted with spa facilities, squash courts, pottery and music rooms, and a climbing wall (sorry, no communal ball pit), Aktivitesthuset, which first opened in 1991 and moved to its current spot in 2001, largely predates the ping pong tables, meditation rooms, and other millennial-friendly downtime distractions that are now de rigueur in corporate workplaces. What’s more, retired Ikea co-workers can also access Aktivitetshuset as members of Vuxenklubben ("Adult Club") for rousing rounds of bingo and boules.

On the fringes of Ikea’s spiritual-but-not-legal headquarters, flanked by the original Ikea store location and a churchyard—a jarring juxtaposition if there ever was one—is Ikea Hotell.

Undergoing an expansion that will render the 1960s-era property the largest hotel in Småland with a total of 500 beds, the hotel is a pared-down affair that’s more akin to a dormitory than anything else. With compact single rooms that resemble staterooms on the lower decks of a cruise liner and a brand-adherent emphasis on efficiency and economy without "the frills and gimmicks," guests will not find theme suites or much in the way of luxe amenities at Ikea Hotell. This is an establishment that seemingly caters more to visiting Ikea co-workers than to wild-eyed pilgrims looking to pay their respects to the place where Poäng was born.

Work on the expanded hotel/co-worker crash pad is due for completion in September and, from the sounds of it, it will emerge not just significantly larger, but also with a greater emphasis on out-of-towner comforts. After all, there’s something special going on right across the parking lot.

Interior + exterior of the Ikea Museum.
© Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2016

Until 2012, the original Ikea store was the largest tourist attraction in the municipality. But it has since closed and business has shifted to a larger, shopping center-anchoring store east of downtown Älmhult, where a forest once stood. It’s that new Ikea—home to a plant-filled "glasshouse" and Ikea Fynd, an only-in-Älmhult bargain emporium where shoppers can snag overstock lampshades and last season’s duvet covers —that you see when approaching town from the highway.

The original Claes Knutson-designed Ikea now houses Älmhult’s newest attraction, the Ikea Museum, which may prove to have an even greater tourist pull than the original store ever did. With an architectural master plan executed by London-based WilkinsonEyre and Swedish firm Uulas Arkitekter (noted international museum exhibition design firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates worked alongside an in-house design team on the interiors and overall flow of the space), the museum is a 75,000-square-foot celebration of the brand.

For the uninitiated and those unfamiliar with the company’s roots, a walk through the chronologically arranged four-level space—dubbed "a museum for the curious"—can be enlightening, especially with regard to the reverence lavished upon his holiness, Ingvar Kamprad. (The museum’s predecessor, in fact, was a modest exhibition space-cum-Kamprad shrine hidden away on the basement level of a corporate training facility adjacent to Ikea Hotell.) In addition to many of his notes, photographs, and random touches like his pipe and bedside table, Kamprad’s office has been carefully recreated in "Our Story," one of three sections in the museum’s permanent exhibition.

And for those who have already guzzled the lingonberry spritzer, the 20,000-piece-strong museum—oddest feature: a pneumatic "Ball Coaster" contraption that’s an homage to the Chuck E. Cheese-style ball pits introduced at Ikea stores in 1971—may prove to be a frenzied and intense experience. From the 105 iconic Ikea pieces dangling along a conveyor belt high above the central atrium to the #IkeaTemporary exhibitions on display on the lower level, it’s a lot to take in.

That being said, the period showrooms and collection of vintage Ikea catalogs on display are worth the price of admission (60 SEK for adults, a little over $7) alone. As far as museums dedicated to large retailers are concerned (hello, J.C. Penney Museum!), the Ikea Museum is a daytrip-worthy stunner.

Ikea spokeswoman Johanna Blomqvist won’t divulge an exact figure when asked how many visitors the museum expects to welcome during its inaugural year.

"We look forward to many visitors, and of course with the ambition to engage a lot of people and encourage them to take an active part in the story of Ikea," she notes. "We do not want to speculate on an exact figure." She expects that most of the visitors will hail from Sweden and northern Europe, "but of course we hope Ikea Museum will attract people from all over the world." Judging by the significant expansion of the hotel across the parking lot from the new museum, Ikea is banking on an influx of visitors in a town with little tourism infrastructure to speak of.

"We've been a part of many people's homes for a long time, and now we're happy to invite people to Älmhult—the heart of Ikea," says Ikea Chief Designer Marcus Engman. "After more than seven decades there are of course plenty of stories to tell, and through Ikea Museum, we want to tell the story of Ikea."

Ikea store exteriors + Älmhult, Sweden.
© Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2016; Matt Hickman

Will additional hotel rooms and a world-class museum bring change to Älmhult?

Let’s hope not.

Älmhult’s charm comes from its underwhelming, unassuming nature. Safe, clean, and rather dull, this is a small town that just happens to be home to a company—both a Swedish national institution and the largest home furnishings retailer in the world—that millions around the world are obsessed with. Unlike Ikea, with its Russian nesting doll-style corporate structure, Älmhult is uncomplicated. Exceptionally unexceptional.

As Engman explains, the fact that Ikea was born in the sticks, a place surrounded by forests and horse farms, has only been beneficial to the company, which now operates 328 stores in 43 countries. In 2015, Ikea’s total global sales topped €31.9 billion.

"I do think that being in ‘the middle of nowhere’ has helped us creating a unique ‘doing it differently approach,’" he says. "You need a curious resourceful brain when there is a lack of resources and influences around you, that makes the right kind of people dig in a little extra and dare a little bit more."

Editor: Sara Polsky


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