No Tools Necessary, No Assembly Required

On 3 July 2016, a group called Avprivatisera Hagsätra occupied an unoccupied auditorium in the last publicly-owned building in Hagsätra, a low-income suburb of Stockholm. They declared the need to maintain a free space for democratic assembly in a municipality whose public housing has mostly been sold to Ikano Bostad, a subsidiary of the Ikano Group, owned by the Kamprad family. The squatters described a process in which the apartments were purchased at low cost from the local government, using loans from another subsidiary, Ikano Bank. The modest post-war buildings were then renovated with kitchens from IKEA, the company founded and owned (through opaque and byzantine corporate structures) by Ingvar Kamprad. Following the renovations, the apartments were put back on the housing market with rent increases of more than 60 per cent, drastically altering the economic profile required of local residents.

To the casual reader, this story may seem incompatible with the image of Sweden as a social welfare state, where the right to affordable housing and long-term investment in high-quality architecture and furnishing are enshrined not only in the cultural ethos but also protected by law. At the same time, it may seem unusual that Kamprad, the 13th-richest person in the world with $38.9 billion in wealth, should be so intimately tied to the everyday reality of the urban poor in Sweden, from the planning and real-estate development that governs their rent price and security to the shape of the spoon in their cutlery drawer, evoking Ernesto Nathan Rogers’s 1952 slogan dal cucchiaio all città not only in matters of design but also in matters of trade and financial profit.

Kamprad is an enigmatic figure and avoids most media scrutiny, but his notorious thrift—flying economy class, buying his clothing in car-boot sales—is recounted in IKEA marketing material and newspaper articles to build a line of empathy with the common citizen. As in Pliny’s account of the kings of Taprobane [Sri Lanka], whose offences would be punished with death, not by physical force but through the deprivation of all things, Kamprad’s parsimony seems to partially absolve him of the personal stigma and ethical expectations surrounding such enormous financial power. On the other hand, his preference for cheap haircuts in developing countries and tax shelters in Liechtenstein exposes an economic mentality that is consistent between the man and the multinational corporation. The range of stories in the Kamprad narrative are symptomatic of a unique sense of hybridity between businessman, politician, corporation, and country.

In fact, the relationship between IKEA and Sweden could be described as an experiment in corporate-governmental symbiosis. The Swedish national imaginary, a long-term outcome of its post-war progressivism, is used as branding for a global company, whose profits are then reinvested in the country’s real estate and material landscape, acting as a mechanism for gentrification and the privatisation of common assets under the same veneer of pragmatic, liberal, and elegantly-appointed Scandinavian-ness. By that logic, cheap furniture becomes a vehicle for industrial minimalism, hygiene, sustainability, and tasteful modesty rather than consumer greed and wastefulness (in contrast to companies like Walmart). In turn, IKEA also becomes a proxy for international relations through the slippery medium of commerce rather than the marginally accountable political system. (In some countries, the opening of an IKEA store is a more momentous event than the opening of a Swedish embassy.)

If IKEA is viewed as the functional counterpart to the more ideological government, its mission “to create a better everyday life for the many people” can be read as a wordier, nationally-generic version of the slogans of Swedish political parties, from Moderaterna’s “Sweden can be more” to the Social Democrats’ “A better Sweden for all.” Furthermore, IKEA already addresses its customers with the sense of self-imposed, shared obligation needed to make social democracy function, what they call their “democratic design process: We do our part, you do your part, together we save money.” (That Kamprad clearly saves more money than the rest is unmentioned.) By framing consumption as a “democratic” activity, they recast the labour of “assembling flat-pack products” as participation; by aligning IKEA with Sweden’s progressive energy and material recycling programmes, they make “having a climate positive approach at home” into a matter of buying the right products.

As design theorist Christina Zetterlund pointed out in her study of the 1930s Liljeblå ceramic service, the common man or the labourer has historically been invoked in the Swedish design tradition as an abstract concept rather than a user with full agency; he or she must be re-educated and disciplined through the material furnishing and improvement of their personal space. Luckily, the ideal subjects of the IKEA corporation and the Swedish government are virtually identical, and thus can be shaped in concert. The prefabricated urbanism of Ikano Bostad can thus be inhabited with the same sense of decorum and upward financial mobility of the denizens of the IKEA catalogue. Unexpected outcomes are dangerous in a piece of furniture, but they can scale up even further to the level of street protest and public assembly.

In that respect, multiple interpretations can be applied to the very materiality and construction of IKEA furniture, as the smallest units of a hybridised, commercial-political soft-power system. In the past few years, the company has begun to alter its classic reliance on final assembly by the consumer. Many objects are now designed for tool-free construction, without the ubiquitous Allen wrench, from the wedge dowel legs used in the LISABO table, the rubber bands holding together the SANNOLIKT curtain rod, or the self-threading lighting strips on the ÄLVSBYN LED chandelier. What may come as a relief to some shoppers should also be viewed with a critical note, as IKEA parts become more proprietary and less interchangeable or modifiable. “No assembly required” becomes a design manifesto as well as a political warning.

In 1932, the American economist and self-proclaimed technocrat Stuart Chase concluded his book, A New Deal, with the following question: "Why should Russians have all the fun of remaking a world?” Chase seemed to question why widespread economic reform (in this case, via public works, price manipulation and artificial scarcity, and cooperation between government and private enterprise) had to be associated with the violent rupture in the historical continuum described by Karl Marx. Why couldn’t America do the same, under its own rules? One could argue that, over the past seven decades, IKEA and Sweden have choreographed another kind of revolution, one that incorporates a commercial, material, logistical, and social strategies in order to achieve an invisible colonialism of the global domestic interior as well as a domestication of the national public space—a revolution that has transpired quietly under the guise of benign, benevolent, neutral, natural Swedishness.