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IKEA. The ‘other’ architectural agent
© Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2021

IKEA. The ‘other’ architectural agent

Researchers at KU Leuven Sint-Lucas Brussels Campus are studying IKEA from a novel, architectural perspective.

8 minutes
08 March 2021

The IKEA catalogue, the shopping experience, the blue bag, the little pencil, the BILLY bookcase … many are the IKEA products that are now part of our collective imagination and have become iconic over the years. The Swedish company has monopolised our minds as well as our interiors. However, in the field of architectural research, the furniture giant has long been on the sideline. Professor Martino Tattara, professor Fredie Floré and doctoral student Rebecca Carrai at KU Leuven Sint-Lucas Brussels Campus are studying IKEA from a novel, architectural perspective.

Although IKEA is an indisputable global phenomenon, the Swedish-founded multinational has been almost completely overlooked in architectural research and education programmes. According to researcher Rebecca Carrai at the Faculty of Architecture, Sint-Lucas Brussels Campus, IKEA has been the object of study in fields such as “economics, anthropology, marketing, brand design and business studies, but it has not been considered a fully-fledged research topic from a purely architectural perspective.” She therefore wonders: “why has the impact of influential commercial activities, such as IKEA, been overlooked by architectural scholars for so long?”

Magazines without a scientific character, like Blueprint or House Beautiful, have devoted extensive attention to the furniture chain; ICON, for instance, has even ranked it as the first phenomenon to have changed the world’s design landscape. Yet IKEA is barely mentioned in “canonically established” architectural magazines such as Domus or The Architects' Journal. “Concurrently, an increasing number of architects and scholars working at the intersection of architecture, research and teaching have recently started to pay more attention to the company. To mention a few, Andrés Jaque curated the exhibition IKEA Disobedients for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 2011, and a design studio in collaboration with IKEA was launched at the University of Technology Sydney in 2018.”

9 1972
© Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2021

A closer look at Junk Space

According to Rebecca Carrai, IKEA’s absence from architectural research could be related to the chain’s explicitly commercial character. “Architecture is dominated by what historian Adrian Forty defined as the myth of the ‘ingenious designer’: a story created, spread over time and supported by authors such as Pevsner and Giedion, whose texts are milestones in architecture studies. It is a myth that prejudiced the relationship between the designer's mind – usually belonging to an educated, Western and powerful male – and the shape of the designed object. As a result, there has been a certain hesitation in bringing the ‘intellectual property’ and replicated merchandise of a company to the attention of the academic public.”

Rebecca Carrai’s research aims to challenge canonical Western historiographies of architecture and demonstrate how corporate enterprises, their perspectives on architecture, and mass-produced products have a place in the ‘making of history’. Their massive influence in shaping our everyday life and domestic spaces is more easily taken into consideration if we conceive them not merely as a physical reality, but also as a milieu and a product of specific historically constructed conditions. She draws inspiration from books by figures like Rem Koolhaas in Junk Space or Robert Venturi in Learning from Las Vegas. She sees in Venturi a figure who, “since the 1970s, has learned from the forms and habits of vernacular and commercial phenomena and embraced a multitude of voices and perspectives to write a more nuanced history of architecture. This includes commercial players, their ideals, signs and objects.”

By closely looking at the objects of mediation used by IKEA to address its audience – first and foremost the catalogue, but also the home model, the shopping experience, the product design and so forth – Rebecca Carrai investigates how the furniture company has historically influenced our homes, their perception and design.

© Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2021

Fictional rooms

The architectural mock-up has a long tradition, going back to the opening of the first department stores, their shop windows and the creative sets used to display products at World’s Fairs going back to the first one at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. Then, with the arrival of new technologies and methods of production, this display culture became even more prominent. The vast majority of 20th century home models were produced for ‘display’, to convey an idea in three dimensions, to send messages to a vast audience, rather than for habitation as real building sites.

“Because these fictional three-dimensional spaces could be constructed and deconstructed quickly, they have also progressively appeared in Architectural Biennales, fairs, department stores and shopping malls, where they have effortlessly appealed to a broad nonexpert audience. Using life-size models, architects and other agents have been able to test ideas and present them to the larger public more effectively than through the use of abstract architectural plans, sections and sketches.”

Using life-size models, architects and other agents have been able to test ideas and present them to the larger public.

Do It Yourself

The fictional rooms we see in the showroom of every IKEA today have always been a hallmark of the company. “The first showroom opened inside the old Lagerblads carpenters’ factory in Älmhult in 1953. IKEA’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, wanted to offer visitors a three-dimensional, sensorial experience. He encouraged visitors to look at, touch, and smell all the products on display.”

At the same time, the introduction of the first knock-down tables in the 1953 catalogue enabled IKEA to offer its customers a ‘close to real’ experience, whilst also offering them the opportunity to build furniture themselves. This literally activated customers. “This DIY mentality strongly characterises the entire IKEA philosophy. At IKEA, customers are empowered and engaged with almost the whole design process, from searching for ideas in the catalogue and imagining their ideal home, to the shopping experience and furniture assembly, where an IKEA key and instruction manual are physically in their hands.”

Rebecca Carrai argues that IKEA’s attitude towards the user-consumer has caused an increasing popularisation of architecture and can lead to an impoverishment of the role of the architect: “The empowerment of inexpert figures, customers but also employees, such as those who offer the clients interior design advice and who are not necessarily trained as architects, undermines the agency of architects. IKEA makes their expertise almost superfluous … this is something which dates back to the ‘50s, when, for instance, the design of the iconic BILLY bookcase was assigned to the advertising consultant Gillis Lundgren, rather than to an architect.”

From print to virtual reality

Starting in the ‘50s, images of fictional rooms have exponentially populated IKEA’s catalogues and progressed into online platforms. “Their creation now happens using the latest technologies. The IKEA catalogue – which has recently moved from paper to digital – the corporate websites, and social media channels, all present a mix of real and rendered spaces. Since 2005, they have increasingly displayed computer-generated images developed by a specific department of the company: the IKEA communication and global market department

The empowerment of inexpert figures, customers but also employees, undermines the agency of architects.

Hidden in the catalogue

IKEA is nothing but an entry point for tackling the effects of capitalist and consumerist societies in our homes. Rebecca Carrai’s doctoral project, therefore, implicitly touches on a number of relevant contemporary themes and reveals important societal changes manifested in the home interior. Going back through IKEA’s history, a series of underlying conceptions can be discovered about the family unit, home ideals and domestic chore divisions, as well as conceptions about architecture at large.

For example, by looking through the sources held in the corporate archive and the pages of its commercial brochure, you can see how “the role of women in the house has changed and has been pictured historically. During the ‘50s, women were portrayed by IKEA as the ‘managers’ of the home, in alignment with the policies of the Folkhemmet, the Swedish Welfare State System. Then, in the ‘70s, they were seen as tokens: sexy, decorative elements wearing fashionable outfits who adorned the house and the images of the catalogue. From the ‘90s onwards, IKEA started to become ‘woke’ and present itself as an increasingly progressive and forward-thinking actor. It’s enough to realise that IKEA was the first brand to include images of gay couples in the adverts.”

It is therefore possible to retrace the history of IKEA in conjunction with the evolution of domestic space by exploring what Rebecca Carrai defines as the “IKEA Archive”. This includes the complex spatialities whose significance has historically been constructed by IKEA and which are made up of its product range and images, all ordered, grouped and disseminated over time by the company. In addition, it is possible to reveal how IKEA has entered society and affected the architectural discipline and the role of the architect. By foregrounding episodes, it is possible to assess how the company has promoted – purposely or not – a decentralisation and dilution of the sole authorship of the architect. And as was shown in the 2020 essay collection, Architecture after Architects, this is a theme that will remain an extremely hot topic for the foreseeable future.