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How 20th century design movements may have influenced IKEAs design culture

Updated Monday, 29th January 2018

The enduring popularity of IKEA’s products, particularly its furniture, suggests that the design principles have been carefully considered over time. But how have they been influenced? Julian Cooper investigates. 

The emergence of design simplicity

The enduring popularity of IKEA’s products, particularly its furniture, suggests that the design principles have been carefully considered over time. We can see from the high-profile role of IKEA’s designers that the company recognises their importance.

A focus on design simplicity has long been part of the IKEA ethos and the crisp, clean lines of tables, chairs, lights and bookshelves have transformed household interiors not just within Europe but increasingly globally.

In post-war Europe, around the time of IKEA’s emergence, we remained largely comfortable with furniture often based on 18th and 19th-century designs, exuding a sense of solidity and permanence. But frustrations with traditional design had been simmering since the 1920s or earlier, together with an urge to innovative, using newly available materials and technology.

Architecture for the masses 

Marcel Breuer Armchair (1936) Collection Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Creative commons image Icon Sandra Fauconnier under CC-BY licence under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license Marcel Breuer Armchair (1936), Collection Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen,

Ingvar Kamprad was born in the south of Sweden in the mid-1920s, in an era where these frustrations were beginning to be discussed and addressed. Architects, designers and engineers were starting to use new materials and technology to test the boundaries of traditional design. Architects such as Walter Gropius and designers like Marcel Breuer, both from the Bauhaus school of art and design in Germany, were among those producing innovative new designs based upon clean simple lines and making use of steel, glass and bent wood, looking to balance form with function.

As such, they were protagonists of what became known as the 'Modern Movement', part of an International Style of thinking in design. There were social elements to the thinking of this movement, for example, ‘that all architecture should be aiming toward mass housing, directly related to the new social conditions’ and that ‘standardisation would provide the key to a whole range of industrial processes and materials’ (Benton & Sharpe, 1975). 

The internationally famous French architect, Le Corbusier, stated: ‘I am going to maintain that apart from chairs and tables, furniture is, in fact, nothing more than pigeon-hole boxes. I will make certain that, with the new wood and metal industries, it is possible to construct accurate pigeon-hole fitments with an admirable functionality…These objects are all in proportion to our limbs… they have a common scale… they obey a standard’ (Le Corbusier, 1929, 1938). How prescient are those words? Looking at the Corbusier Casiers Standard storage unit designed in 1925 and the IKEA VALJE storage unit, it is not difficult to visualize those ideas still being implemented.

Image of an IKEA VALJE unit and LC Casiers Standard Unit Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: IKEA - VALJE Image, Ikea Asset Bank. LC CASIER - Standard Image IKEA VALJE units and LC CASIERS standard unit

The birth of IKEA

Fast forward to the early 1950s, when Ingvar Kamprad was just beginning to build a business that was the genesis of IKEA and the Modern Movement, as well as developing its own Scandinavian version of design ethos. ‘In markets such as the UK, the USA, and Germany, suggest Skou and Munch (2016), ‘the Scandinavian Modern style was praised as a modern, functional design with a human touch and as a subtle modernisation of traditional values than the international style of Central European modernists and based on the basic picture of Scandinavian values, societies, and landscape. The minimalist style of Scandinavian Modern was thought by its designers to be accessible and democratically inclusive, because forms and constructions were easy to comprehend and items were light to handle.’

Ikeas first catalogue and Strandmon chair Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: IKEA IKEA's first catalogue and the current STRANDMON chair

Perhaps now we get a hint of how the culture, values and the design ethos of Kamprad and his designers may have originated and developed from their base in Sweden, taking some of their ideas and references from Scandinavian Modern styles but also from the wider International Movement. Looking at the early furniture designs from IKEA we can see maybe the beginning of a transition from traditional towards a clean and stylish design approach? Amazingly, the chair on that first catalogue cover has a modern equivalent in the STRANDMON wing chair. 

Today our IKEA furniture may still have to fight for its place in the living room. How many of us still have the desire to retain memories of our past in the furniture we live amongst? 

Traditional and modern design, side by side, Swedish apartment 2017 Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Wivatt, E.L (2017) Traditional and modern design, side by side, Swedish apartment

Indeed, designer Laurence Llewelyn Bowen (2017) hints at a change (in the UK at least) of sentiment in Scandinavian furniture design. ‘Have we reached peak Scandi furniture?’ Bowen asks, ‘Could brown furniture finally be on the comeback’? observing that UK ‘auctioneer Nick Carter has noticed a slowing down in sales of Scandi style in favour of an increased interest in 18th and 19th-century antiques.’

If you would like to listen in full to Laurence Llewelyn Bowen’s witty and acerbic views on IKEA’s and Scandinavian design, click here.






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