In just a few years, the upstart from Småland had gone from being a small mail order for pipes and pens, to furniture brand IKEA. Ingvar’s unconventional methods had challenged the entire industry. And now visitors flocked to little Älmhult and the bright white building designed by Claes Knutson, town architect in Alvesta – a modernist concrete structure resting on huge V-shaped pillars, which the press would later refer to as ‘victory signs’.
The first IKEA store
From furniture showroom to store.
When IKEA opened its new furniture showroom in Älmhult in 1958, everyone was there: the county governor, the chairman of the municipal board, along with press and critics from Stockholm, all curious to see the latest move from furniture rebel Ingvar Kamprad.
The road to a store
In the late 1940s, mail order had become a tough business. Competition for customers was extremely fierce, and the only factor to compete on was price. Furniture dealers kept undercutting each other, and it was having an effect on quality. Ingvar wanted to give customers a chance to see the products with their own eyes, and form their own opinions on comfort and durability. IKEA had previously only exhibited furniture at temporary trade fairs across Sweden, but now Ingvar and his close colleague Sven Göte Hansson decided to open a permanent showroom in Älmhult. The challenge was to find suitable premises. When Ingvar heard that the Albin Lagerblad joinery in Älmhult was closing down, he acted fast.
The furniture showroom opened on 30 March 1953, and there was huge interest. But after a while, the Lagerblad building started to feel a bit small. Ingvar Kamprad had discovered that a lot of people were prepared to come a long way to be able to touch and feel the furniture before buying it. Sales increased, and IKEA started appearing in the press. In those days there were some quite rigid rules from national and local authorities about opening hours for shops and showrooms. Once these rules were removed, IKEA decided to build a brand new furniture showroom opposite the old joinery. That was the first step towards what would later become the first IKEA store.
A bold venture
Architect Claes Knutson was paid 30,000 kronor (EUR 3,000) for his design. The entire building would cost an estimated one million kronor – that’s roughly 15 million kronor or EUR 1.5 million today. IKEA applied for and was granted funding for the project by the local council, which believed it would make the town more attractive and create many new jobs. Permission was also granted by the local employment board. As the local newspaper put it, it would mean “winter employment for elderly construction workers who need to stay local because of their age”. Work began in autumn 1957, and even at that point there were plans for a first extension.
The grand opening
Ahead of the grand opening on 28 October 1958, Ingvar and Sven Göte had written what they called an ‘orientation text’. In it, they outlined the business model they had developed during their time in the joinery building, with home-like settings built up in the showroom and the possibility to take some furniture home the same day, in flat packs. The text was distributed to journalists and other people at the opening. An excerpt: “The reason for the dramatic expansion, in addition to the normal factors affecting a business’s progress, are attributable to the new form of distribution practised by the company. The combination of mail order selling by catalogue, and retail at the showroom in Älmhult.”
The premises were 6,500 square metres, of which 4,000 was used for the furniture showroom and the rest for storage, and were soon packed with curious visitors who crowded into the large atrium in the building’s centre. On the top floor Bengt Ruda, recruited by Ingvar from department store Nordiska Kompaniet/NK in 1957, had set up two small apartments, where visitors could study and try out IKEA products in a life-like home setting. Even when the store was closed, visitors could come and look at the products. They simply took the outside steps up to an arcade of large display windows along the building’s whole long side, which was 84 metres in length and called Smålandsgången – literally ‘Småland Walk’. In the evenings, people from near and far would come to Älmhult to visit IKEA, and walk along looking at furniture and lit room settings in the large windows.
The festive grand opening began with a speech by Ingvar Kamprad – the “black sheep” as he described himself. He mentioned how his success had caused some real concern: “The industry seemed to have something against us. We were banned from the S:t Eriksmässan show – but solved the problem by renting an exhibition space over the road. Our suppliers were boycotted. They had to protect themselves by sending delivery notes with neutral company names. And worst of all, rumours were spread that we had inferior products and poor service.”
Land of the betrothed
Following the grand opening IKEA received extensive press coverage, both positive and negative. Perhaps the most enthusiastic response was that of the magazine Svenska Journalen, which claimed that Ingvar Kamprad had made Småland “the land of the betrothed” – a nod to all the engaged couples and newlyweds who came to IKEA in Älmhult to buy their first furniture. In the interview, Ingvar Kamprad said that: “A young couple about to marry should be able to decently fit out a modern one-bedroom apartment for 2,000 kronor (EUR 200) – and that includes furniture, rugs and curtains.” The keen journalist was amazed at this low price and described IKEA as a “Mecca for furniture and interior dreams”, and the modernist building as “A spacious concrete monstrosity over four floors … as if it were made as a landing field for future spaceships”.
Publications that represented the established furniture industry were more cautious. They described Ingvar Kamprad and his IKEA in quite mocking and somewhat condescending tones. Bo Lagercrantz, an active design figure in the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design, and Director of the Nordic Museum at the time, wrote about his mixed feelings in the evening paper Expressen. He described much of the range as “contrived”. He also wondered whether the insides of the upholstered furniture could really be of the quality IKEA promised, at such low prices. But he also liked the fact that IKEA had started a “healthy price war” that challenged the furniture industry. Bo Lagercrantz felt that IKEA and Ingvar Kamprad would have “a lot to gain by having all of their products consumer tested”. At the time, the new consumer agency VDN had begun rating chairs and tables, and Bo reckoned that IKEA now had a chance to prove it could offer high quality at low prices.
The day after the opening in Älmhult, Bo Lagercrantz wrote a letter to Ingvar suggesting he have his own testing machine made, a “chair testing machine made of iron tubes”. “If you set it up in the main hall and let visitors see how you’re testing the chairs hour after hour, displaying the number of ‘sits’ on a counting device, I think that will be the most powerful advertising there is. Few of your competitors have the same opportunity to demonstrate the method publicly.” Ingvar Kamprad was quick to follow
New role for an old faithful
The furniture showroom was an immediate success. Visitors flocked to IKEA to be welcomed with refreshments at the entrance bar, and either wander around themselves or be guided by sales staff who were experts at home furnishing. When the first extension was finished in 1960, initially a provisional servery was built, which later became an IKEA restaurant with a professional kitchen and an interior designed by Bengt Ruda. This laid the foundation of the IKEA restaurants that can now be found in all IKEA stores around the world.
The first furniture showroom soon became an IKEA store – the first of hundreds to spread worldwide. The store stayed open for more than 50 years before closing down in 2012 and being replaced by a large, modern blue box on the outskirts of Älmhult.
By this time Claes Knutson’s beautiful white building was quite worn out, with various renovations and additions both inside and out. The building was then hidden behind scaffolding and tarpaulins for a long time. When they were finally removed in 2015, large parts of the exterior had been restored to their former glory. The modernist architectural style was back in Älmhult, while the interior had been adapted to the building’s new role – as the home of IKEA Museum, and all the spectacular stories of IKEA through the ages.