IKEA in Stockholm

A king, a fire, and a brand new IKEA.

Aerial view of huge store with IKEA sign and sign
Aerial view of huge store with IKEA sign and sign

When IKEA opened its first store in Stockholm in summer 1965, it was Europe’s largest furniture store. It was big and it looked good, but it wasn’t exactly efficient. In fact you might say that it wasn’t until the store burned down five years later that IKEA really got the hang of the store concept. Along the way there were colourful little plastic balls, revolutionary posters, and a famous museum in New York. But it all began with a king in a muddy ditch.

Stockholm bound!

Following the success of mail order sales, the showroom and then a store in Älmhult, it was time for Ingvar Kamprad to conquer Sweden’s capital with his IKEA. To be able to afford building a truly large store, he needed cheap land on the outskirts of Stockholm. He settled on a piece of land south of the city, in Segeltorp, which was virtually undeveloped up until the 1960s. The location away from the city centre would come to be part of the IKEA concept – building stores on a potato field.

Black and white aerial photo of huge buildings surrounded by parking lots, roads, forests, fields and highways.
An important part of the IKEA concept was created here – the potato field strategy, which meant setting up just outside the city where the land is cheap, a store with a large, inspiring area devoted to life-like room settings, self-service, meatballs and the ball room – features that became important parts of the IKEA concept.

Architecture and inspiration

Ingvar Kamprad asked Claes Knutsson, the town architect in Alvesta, to design the new IKEA store. Claes was already known to Ingvar and IKEA, as he designed the store in Älmhult in the late 1950s. But what Claes Knutsson had really created in Älmhult was not so much a store as an elegant showroom, where visitors could stroll around, see and feel the furniture before buying it and having it delivered. You might say that Knutsson designed a showroom in Älmhult, which eventually became a store. But now it was Stockholm’s turn, and the mission was to design Europe’s biggest furniture store – 45,800 square metres in total. The Guggenheim Museum in New York is often given as the inspiration for the architecture, but some sources say this may not be the full truth. The same year that architect Claes Knutsson went to New York and visited the Guggenheim, Ingvar also went on a journey. However, Ingvar didn’t go to any art museums, but was inspired by a Dutch builder’s merchants that had an exciting round shape. So when Mr. Knutsson and Mr. Kamprad then met up and discussed the design for the new furniture store in Stockholm, the inspiration may have come from two places: both Frank Lloyd Wright’s spectacular architecture, and a builder’s merchants in the Netherlands.

Hans Ax and Ingvar Kamprad in suits, shake hands in front of big building with sign FURNITURE IKEA in Swedish.
Both Ingvar Kamprad and store manager Hans Ax gave speeches at the grand opening of the huge furniture store.

Enter a true pro

IKEA Kungens Kurva was huge, and overseeing a project to build Europe’s biggest furniture store required a whole new level of professionalism. IKEA found this in the shape of Stockholm construction engineer, Hans Ax. At one point, Ingvar Kamprad described him as “someone who builds up people and organisations in an exemplary way. Logical. Consistent. The very opposite of disorganised.” Hans Ax started at IKEA on 2 May 1964 as construction and store manager. He had been offered a job at IKEA as early as 1958, but declined at the time on the grounds that he didn’t know of the company, and because it was owned by “an odd farmer from Småland”. But in 1964 he accepted, and he brought with him a structure and an approach for how to organise such a huge retail store. Hans has himself described the start-up in Kungens Kurva as somewhat revolutionary compared to the operation in Älmhult.

A 1940s Cadillac sits in water-filled roadside ditch, male onlookers in 1940s clothing have gathered on the road above.
The name of the district of Kungens Kurva is actually a reference to an old road accident. Apparently, King Gustav V wanted to go faster and his chauffeur, who lost control of the car, drove into a ditch.

From Segeltorp to Kungens Kurva

When IKEA started up outside Stockholm, the area was officially called Segeltorp on maps, but it was popularly known as Kungens Kurva, or ‘the king’s curve’. This was because of a royal road accident back in 1946. The chauffeur of Swedish King Gustav V, Gösta Ledin, had lost control in the right-hand bend, and the royal Cadillac ended up in a muddy ditch. So the place became known as ‘the king’s curve’. The name was very much of the people, fun and even a bit rebellious – a bit like IKEA. So why not name the place after what the people called it? Hans Ax contacted the municipality, as he described it “a business-friendly Social Democratic councillor” in Huddinge, and asked if IKEA could have its own little city district, called Kungens Kurva. And the answer was yes! The councillor made the arrangements immediately. All IKEA had to do in return was pay for a new sign on the E4 highway, replacing the name Segeltorp with Kungens Kurva.

From Möbel-IKEA to IKEA

One important matter before the store opened was what to call it. The business was registered as Möbel-IKEA i Segeltorp AB, which Hans Ax felt was a bit heavy-going. And since the store space was so massive, they may eventually need to expand the range in the future and not just sell ‘Möbel’ (furniture), which would make the name misleading. So Hans Ax recommended a more neutral name, to just call it IKEA. The matter was discussed back and forth, but no one could make a decision. So in typically Swedish fashion, the solution was a compromise: two signs with a different name on each. In one direction (towards the E4/Södertäljevägen) the sign said IKEA, and in the other direction (towards the Esso motel at the time) it said Möbel-IKEA. But among Stockholmers, the store was always known simply as IKEA.

Smiling girl peers out of moving box marked IKEA, sliding down a corkscrew shaped chute towards a conveyor belt.
A moustached Hans Ax, casually dressed, seen in store environment, furniture, pillow displays and signs seen in background.
One of the innovations at the Kungens Kurva store in Stockholm was the so-called chute, or screw slide. Hans Ax has described it as “two corkscrew-like mastodonts”. In these, the products were supposed to smoothly slide down to conveyor belts transporting them to the goods delivery desk, according to an intricate system. In theory, the chute system was amazing, but in reality it caused some problems. According to Hans Ax, it took time before IKEA found a varnish that gave just enough friction in the slide for a wide variety of materials. A cardboard box may not slide as well on a certain surface as a plastic lamp or a pillow. Hans Ax says, “In the beginning it often happened that stuff got stuck in that long slide, and when the customers had waited two and a half hours for delivery, they began to wonder where their stuff was. Then someone had to crawl into and go down the chute and push the stuff onto the conveyor belt.”

A problem child is born!

Now IKEA had a huge retail store and a folksy name. And crowds of people from Greater Stockholm wanted to come and visit this exciting place. The grand opening on 18 June 1965 was quite bombastic. The Swedish Army Band provided the music, there was free cheesecake from Småland, and a thousand balloons with gift vouchers were released. But when the cheesecake had run out and in the cold light of day, it turned out that the store was quite inefficient. There was a colossal difference between little Älmhult and gigantic Stockholm. The people of Stockholm flocked to the exciting new store, putting tremendous pressure on the business. Sales were too successful for the sales system to work properly. People queued for hours to get their furniture, yet customers carried on arriving in their thousands. One reason for the store’s popularity was that IKEA had set up close to many newly built apartment blocks, the so-called Million Programme areas. In a short time, about 100,000 apartments had been built in the suburbs surrounding Kungens Kurva, and many of the residents wanted to fill their new homes with modern furniture. And of course the boom in car-driving was another factor. A lot of people had their own car, and IKEA had a generous car park. And if the furniture didn’t fit in the car, IKEA sold roof racks at cost price. Even so, the store had some major problems, with queues, overcrowding and trouble getting the products to the customers.

A fire-fighter stands on top of a fire truck ladder spraying water on a neon sign with text FURNITURE IKEA in Swedish.
Onlookers gathered at night in front of huge burning building with sign FURNITURE IKEA in Swedish and a fire truck.
One evening in September 1970, one of the IKEA Kungens Kurva store’s neon signs caught fire. It spread quickly but no people were harmed. The rebuilding after the fire gave Hans Ax and his colleagues a chance to rethink and innovate. It was the beginning of a better concept for how an IKEA store should look and work.

The fire – the start of something new

At a quarter past eight on the evening of 5 September 1970, one of the neon signs on the store roof caught fire. Hans Ax, who had just started sipping on his second gin and tonic, asked his wife to drive him to the scene. As a former fire engineer he was not particularly shaken by the incident; only the building had been damaged, no people were harmed. And sources say that Hans Ax’s first thought was, “Great, now we can rebuild it better than before!” The fire marked a new start not only for the Kungens Kurva store, but also for IKEA stores as a concept, what they should look like and how they should work. The entire workforce worked hard together, both to sell off the fire-damaged goods, and to prepare the new store. In just 194 days, everything was done and a new, well-planned IKEA store could open. And one of the more major changes was that the warehouse area was now open to customers.

People rummaging through wares and boxes in crowded IKEA store displaying big sale signs.
After the big fire, IKEA put on a big sale of fire-damaged furniture and accessories.
A moustached Hans Ax in suede jacket pretends to hold up huge sign on scaffolding with text: IKEA, Ready again 19 March.
Hans Ax was known for getting straight to the point in his communication. He liked to say, “So are you going to sort this out, or the guy who takes over from you?” That could be one reason why the store was rebuilt in just 194 days after the fire…

Innovation! Simplicity! Freedom!

The new store offered all kinds of innovations. Customers collected their own items from the self-serve area, and the furniture was displayed in the interiors in a whole new way. Hans Ax had managed to assemble a group of creative people who were born in the 1940s and could identify with a young customer base. They created and displayed exciting, easy-going interiors for a free, simple life. One of the first employees was Lennart Ekmark, who with his future wife Mary Ekmark created realistic room settings with both a humorous and a political edge.

Three people stand around a table talking in casual 1970s clothing – Lennart Ekmark, Mary Ekmark and Hans Ax.
When Hans Ax employed Mary and Lennart Ekmark, he saw them as real ‘window dressers’, people who could create really good shop displays. At IKEA they were given an enormous window, where they inspired and challenged people with their innovative interiors. Their influence at IKEA became even greater after they relocated to Älmhult, where they had an impact on product development and communication for many, many years.

They developed a unique way of dramatising life at home, with realistic, down-to-earth rooms that looked like real living spaces. Rooms and homes that reflected a new age: revolutionary, exciting and progressive. Customers were happy to be inspired, and occasionally someone even wanted to buy everything on display, complete with Che Guevara poster and left-wing literature. IKEA in Kungens Kurva had become a destination for inspiration.

Mary Ekmark soon took over all responsibility for the showroom presentations, and her husband Lennart was put in charge of the store’s communication, advertising and marketing. Under his leadership IKEA started communicating its concept externally, with assistance from Brindfors advertising agency in Stockholm. A new age of innovative advertising was beginning for IKEA.

Two young women in a ​​ball room, one blonde, the other dark-haired with glasses.
Another big change after the fire was the way IKEA took care of children and families at the store. The lead figures were two young IKEA designers, Charlotte Rude and Hjördis Ohlsson-Une. So that they could afford to furnish their new flat in Älmhult, they started designing and building their own furniture. Between 1969 and 1973 they created all kinds of exciting products. But what really made its mark on generations of children was the play area they created after the Stockholm store had been destroyed by fire: the children’s ball room. Charlotte and Hjördis had an area of 100 square metres that should be able to accommodate about 50 children. They created a space where children could play and climb, but jumping around in all those balls was of course the most fun.

From Kungens Kurva to Älmhult

In 1973, Hans Ax moved down to Småland province and became head of marketing, range, purchasing and distribution. Within a year, Mary and Lennart Ekmark joined him. Their work on the displayed interiors had provided important insights into what the range was missing, and alongside a core group of designers at IKEA, the large group of people born in the 1940s came to dominate developments in Älmhult. Both Mary and Lennart Ekmark spent their entire careers at IKEA and their cool, controversial, rebellious attitude revitalised the company.

Hans Ax stayed with IKEA for 30 years and was considered a wise, dynamic leader who had a big impact on the people he managed and developed.

Hans Ax remembered the reconstruction of Kungens Kurva as one of the best times at IKEA. “We did a brilliant job. After just a few weeks we would start repainting the undamaged part of the warehouse. Then we put some furniture on display, and people could come along and see it, and order by mail. That was up and running within three or four weeks, and we finally opened the store again in March 1971.” During Hans Ax’s time, a new way of working was established at IKEA, a professional, systematic approach that was vital to its continued development. Hans Ax stayed with IKEA for 30 years and was considered a wise, dynamic leader who had a big impact on the people he managed and developed.