Best in test?

Under skylt med text ´Se här själv - Testrum´ - tittar två män genom glas på maskiner som testar möblers hållbarhet.
Beneath sign saying ´See for yourself - Test room´ – two men look through glass at machines testing furniture durability.

In September 1964, a sensational article was published in a Swedish interior design magazine, claiming that a 33 kronor (EUR 3.30) chair from IKEA was better than a virtually identical chair that cost five times as much. IKEA was delighted, but the rest of the furniture industry was furious and threatened to boycott the magazine.

An impossible combination?

Ingvar Kamprad realised early on the importance of not only testing the quality of furniture, but also telling people about the high quality. There was, after all, quite a challenge in explaining how low prices and high quality could possibly go together. To help him, Ingvar had Erik Berglund, general manager and head of research at the Swedish Furniture Industry Association . Erik Berglund and Ingvar corresponded extensively on the subject of quality, and this gave Ingvar ideas about how IKEA should communicate with its customers. To show how serious IKEA was about quality requirements, several pages in the catalogue soon came to focus on how the various pieces of furniture were tested. Long, detailed texts explained how upholstered furniture was pushed around by pistons and pressure plates, and how table tops were subjected to heat and spilt alcohol. The 1964 catalogue: “All so that we know we’re delivering a good product, and you know you’re getting one.” But could consumers really trust what a furniture company said about its own quality?

IKEA catalogue spread with densely printed information about furniture testing, as well as two pictures of test machines.
The 1964 catalogue had two whole pages showing which products met the requirements of consumer information organisation VDN, and could bear its prestigious label. Nowadays it’s the Swedish Consumer Agency’s job to look after consumer interests, but in the 1960s it was the VDN that provided consumer information.

A closer look at IKEA

Around the time Ingvar Kamprad was trying to convince his customers that high quality and low prices could go together, the first Swedish interior design magazine came along: Allt i Hemmet, literally ‘Everything in the Home’. The young editor-in-chief, Marianne Fredriksson, represented a new kind of consumer-oriented journalism that was both professional and influential. She wanted to write about things that consumers were interested in, and in the early 1960s a lot of them were interested in IKEA. But at the same time, a lot of the ‘design elites’ of the day very much looked down on IKEA. Journalists and interior designers alike viewed IKEA as a cheap mail order company, with poorly designed furniture of dubious quality. But Marianne Fredriksson started thinking that if people kept on shopping at IKEA, could this negative image really be true? She was convinced that consumers would welcome a proper test of the industry, and decided to take a closer look at the newcomer from Småland.

Magazine cover says ´Is expensive furniture better than cheap?´. Photo of man with broken armchairs with different price tags.
“Per Albin Hansson built the welfare state, Ingvar Kamprad furnished it… but it was us at Allt i Hemmet who told people how to arrange the furniture”, said Marianne Fredriksson, tongue in cheek. “The magazine came along in the same, dynamic post-war era as IKEA. There was a new mindset about furniture, simple was beautiful. We may have been a bit naive, but we saw ourselves as educators.”

The sensation from Småland

Ingvar Kamprad and his cousin Inga Brita Bayley, who was manager for the range, were shaking when Marianne Fredriksson arrived at IKEA. They had heard of the young journalist and wondered what was going on. Well, her idea was to buy furniture from IKEA and have it delivered to Stockholm. Allt i Hemmet would then compare IKEA sofas, dining tables, bookcases and lamps to other furniture dealers’ products. Design, function, price and quality would be carefully examined, and readers would be given an objective picture of what the furniture industry had to offer. It was an ambitious project. The magazine arranged photo shoots of entire rooms furnished with each company’s products. The rooms were then priced and compared. The price difference between IKEA, which had the lowest priced room, and the luxurious competitor was the (for the time) dizzying amount of 6,000 kronor (EUR 600). But of course, anyone who bought the expensive option was getting very high quality. Or were they? And this was when the true sensation was revealed: IKEA beat all of its competing furniture manufacturers when it came to quality! The ÖGLA chair, costing just 33 kronor (EUR 3.30), achieved the highest score for durability.

Magazine page with photo of 1960s living room and text on choosing and testing ´furniture from mail order company´ IKEA.
A spread from Allt i Hemmet in 1964, which went against the design elites of the time and their ideas of IKEA as a mail order company of low quality. The magazine’s consumer test showed that IKEA had furniture of higher quality than all the expensive furniture companies.

Consumer power – yes please!

Well, after that, things went a bit crazy. The furniture industry was absolutely furious with the Allt i Hemmet article. They were so angry, that they threatened the magazine with an advertising boycott if they didn’t stop these kinds of tests immediately. But the publisher, Lukas Bonnier, kept his calm. The way he saw it, even if ad sales declined for a while, the magazine would still end up a winner. And he turned out to be right. As time went by, more and more companies started seeing independent product reviews as a good thing, and realising the benefits of consumer power. Being on the consumers’ side turned out to increase sales, and for IKEA, good test results obviously meant a wider customer base and higher sales.

Crudely built testing machine, a spinning round shape in which armchairs are being pounded by soccer balls.
Over the years, testing has moved on from the monstrous old homemade equipment to the sophisticated machines of today.
A woman and a man in 1960s clothing, Karin Mobring and Nils Hasselstig, squat next to a machine for furniture testing.
Designer Karin Mobring and engineer Nils Hasselstig with one of the early chair-stressing machines.
Black and white photo of large machine reminiscent of a stationary drill.
The ‘chair-stresser’ doing its important work.
Black and white photo of test machine pulling out and closing the drawer in a white dresser.
How many times can a drawer be opened and closed before it collapses?
Three women checking things in a test laboratory, in machines or under strong lamps and magnifying glasses.
Sometimes a magnifier was needed to study the details.
Large testing machine in which a chair is secured. Above is a sign with text
The chair-stresser in giant format. To achieve top score, the chair had to withstand at least 50,000 double impacts under a 70 kilo load.
Large test machine in which a black 1960s armchair is pounded by heavy pumping steel pistons.
Stuffed easy chairs were also put to the test.
Two men dressed in 1970s style clothing check measuring instruments connected to a desk lamp.
Lighting research under way.
A big machine uses steel pistons hooked up to a control panel with tubes, to pound and prod a quilted armchair.
The springiness and construction of the TULLANÄS chair were inspired by the car industry. The products were strong, but the series launched in the early 1980s were a flop in any case.

The tests continue

Already in the 1950s, IKEA started testing individual materials itself so that it could guarantee good quality, and in the 1960s the operation was so extensive that the company built its own small test laboratory in Älmhult. In the lab, men and women in white coats tested impact resistance in furniture structures and the strength of different textiles. The chair-stressing machines worked round the clock in the test lab to reveal any weaknesses in the construction. They also turned out to be useful for marketing. For many years they appeared in the catalogue, and in the 1970s the ‘chair-stressers’ left the anonymity of the lab and were displayed in stores. They appeared in large perspex cases, often working away at a POEM/POÄNG easy chair. No customer should be in any doubt that IKEA took quality seriously.

Machine tests armchair with steel pistons and wooden boards. Bearded man, Bo Wadling, sits at a desk holding small pipes.
In 1969, five years after the Allt i Hemmet article, Bo Wadling was employed at IKEA, an ambitious young man with the job of evolving the test lab in Älmhult. He became a permanent part of the IKEA story when he implemented an idea originated by Bo Lagerkrantz at the Nordic Museum. The idea was to place the furniture-testing machines in store entrances. The sight of a poor armchair being repeatedly stressed 24/7 would convince visitors that IKEA products were high quality.

The eternal wrestling match

Somewhat unexpectedly, the Allt i Hemmet article made IKEA more widely accepted. Even more people now dared to trust the company’s quality, despite the low prices. Investing in a sofa and bookcase from IKEA was actually a good idea, many people now realised, because they could save a lot of money without compromising on quality. Ingvar Kamprad expressed this as “low prices with meaning”. He had always claimed that low prices and good quality could go together – extra effort was all that was needed. Indeed the balance between low prices and high quality remains a daily challenge at IKEA.

When customers saw how tough the product tests were, IKEA hoped to convince them that high quality and low prices could go together.

Over the years, the testing of materials and products has become more important and more sophisticated. As well as the IKEA Test Lab in Älmhult, there is now also a branch in Shanghai. Both the test labs focus on two tasks: testing products and materials to international standards and/or legal requirements, and developing unique, special test methods. These unique IKEA methods entail simulations of how products are actually used by customers in their everyday lives. To help them, the labs have two robots that behave in the same way as ordinary people do at home.

Sterile looking lab environment with aluminium shelves holding multiple rows of lit LED lamps.
Advanced machines test two chairs in a bright, modern environment, a man standing next to them and taking notes.
Today, products are tested at IKEA labs in Sweden and China. The two modern material and development labs are accredited to official management systems, to ensure that IKEA works in line with international standards.


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