A train ride away from the famous bridge that connects Sweden and Denmark, in the middle of dense Swedish forestland, lies a tiny little town named Älmhult. Like any other small town, Älmhult has a smattering of local shops, a sleepy little police station, and a couple of cute eateries.
However, what Älmhult has that most other towns with fewer than 10,000 people don't, is the international headquarters of one of the most recognisable companies in the whole world: Ikea.
Älmhult is the site of the very first Ikea store, which opened its doors in 1958. The store is no longer in its original location (there is another, newer version five minutes away), but the building itself lives on as the Ikea Museum. Also in Älmhult is the Ikea hotel (really), the company’s offices, design studios, technology labs and two Ikea restaurants. In short, Älmhult is literally Ikea: The Town.
Every spring, the headquarters opens its doors, Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory-style, to journalists and creatives from all over the world for the Democratic Design Days convention. It’s a chance for Ikea to show off the new collections its working on, the research its doing for the future, and the out-of-this-world technology that comes together to make it a company that sold £35.5 billion worth of homewares, meatballs and flat packs last year.
And so, last week, I packed my bags and headed off to the middle of the Swedish countryside to find out how the company that provides the mattresses that one in five Britons were conceived on, really works.
The first thing to know about Älmhult is that it’s far. One hour and 40 minutes on the train from the international airport in Copenhagen, and one hour and 20 minutes from downtown Malmö, Sweden’s third biggest city. Not that the distance stops approximately 900 people from commuting in from Malmö every day. "All aboard the Ikea train," laughs Maria O’Brian, a creative lead who is currently working on an upcoming range of sustainable planters. "It's really funny. Everyone on the train gets off at Älmhult. I think they have, like, two special trains that are put on just for us."
Remote location aside, the headquarters aren’t as picturesque as their countryside surroundings. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but a series of ordinary-looking offices and warehouses spread across a car park to create a business park wasn’t it. It is also raining, which no-one can help. Nevertheless, the yellow flags are flying and the familiar Ikea logo is splashed across a number of buildings, which feels like a good sign.
First stop, the hotel: a squat building towards the back of the complex which disputes its external appearance within half a second of walking through the front door, when you're greeted with a customisable singing choir comprised of the company’s newest hero product – the Symfonisk – a Sonos speaker that’s been integrated into a lamp. I enjoy playing for approximately two minutes before I remember the receptionists are in direct earshot and the choir, while charming at first, must by now be starting to sound not quite so charming.
Inside the hotel, it’s an Ikea playground. To the left is a shop selling favourite items, to the right is a restaurant that looks like it’s fallen from the pages of the catalogue, and up ahead is a lounge area lit by around 50 of those white globe paper lanterns that you’ve had in every single house you’ve ever lived in. "Those chairs are cute," a man next to me says, pointing at some pink velvet bucket seats over to the right. "Where do you think they’re from?" he asks, seriously.
The rooms themselves are sparse. White bedlinen and pine fittings. I’m all for Scandi minimalism but this is next level. I later learn that on each floor there’s a lounge and kitchen with a cupboard full of knick-knacks and bits and bobs that each guest can take back to their room to give it an individual feel. I want to find one of those neon green Vattensnok Djungelorm snakes, seeing as I always wanted one when I was a kid, but alas, none are around. I settle on a bowl, which I place artfully on my desk before stepping back admiringly. I could absolutely be a stylist.
As the point of the conference is to tell everyone what the company is up to, early next morning they usher us into an auditorium to do just that. What follows is like a TED talk with a side of Eurovision (FYI: I love Eurovision). It's led by a woman with a smashing haircut à la The Pencil from Fleabag, who is wearing a fab yellow suit. Three Days Of Being Jealous Of Expensive Scandinavian Clothes I Can’t Afford was my alternative title for this piece.
She introduces person after person to describe what they’re working on. And it's an impressive roster. Everything is designed with sustainability in mind. We hear about a collection surfers are creating using plastic found in the oceans and a range of baskets that will help temper the rice straw-burning pollution in India. There’s a guy creating solar gadgets to power your everyday world, and a kit of small-space living furniture that folds up into an easy-to-move trolley. The head chef of (four-time winner of best restaurant in the world) Noma has been brought in to rethink food. There's even a collection from Solange! Although, it's not coming until 2021 and the installation her team have proffered to represent what they will create reminds me a bit of Oblina from Nickelodeon cartoon Aaahh!!! Real Monsters.
This being Sweden, there is of course a pause for fika at 11am. In case you’re not aware, fika is an exceptional Scandinavian tradition where everyone stops what they’re doing (big bosses included), drinks coffee, eats snacks and catches up with each other. It’s like elevenses, but without your mum trying to make you eat stale fruit cake. It is here I discover my new great love in life, which has nothing at all to do with Ikea: whipped butter. It’s fluffy as a cloud but much more delicious, and many slices of bread are sacrificed as butter shovels in my endeavour to consume as much as possible. (Side note: I googled it as I wrote this and found a recipe for rosemary and roasted garlic whipped butter and now shall not sleep until I’ve had some.)
I stumble across an installation that’s a collaboration between Ikea and perfume house Byredo. The collection (lord knows I am not too proud to replace my Byredo perfume tester bottles with an Ikea x Byredo room spray), which is coming out in 2020, consists of 13 scents. I slip on the headphones and enjoy the science of pairing sounds with smells. Tobacco and honey sounds like a dinner party, firewood and spice is an invisible old man snoring. I imagine the BFG.
Frustratingly, there are many things I am not able to experience here. Ikea works years in advance – most products have a four-year cycle from idea to inception, involving research and testing (I am told there are textiles in the test lab that are being washed on repeat and robots opening and closing cupboard doors for hours on end to see the impact of wear and tear). The end products are, the company says, as affordable, sustainable and high quality as possible. And while this is great for consumers, my impatient millennial self wants to see the tangible outcomes now. For instance, there's a fascinating collab with Lego about how smaller houses and parents' need for order in the home are impacting their children's ability to express themselves and be creative through play (think: Lego all over the floor). This contradiction is hampering their playtime as a family. The representatives from both companies say: "The hope is to move away from 'no' to 'yes' to play, and at the same time show respect to duties of the everyday." The research and blue sky thinking here is fascinating, but I can't help but wonder if a product based on ordered playing could ever exist. I will have to wait and see.
One tangible exhibit is Better Living from Space 10 – the company's super hip research lab (this isn't in Älmhult but in Copenhagen's trendy Meatpacking District, where they serve home-grown kombucha to the public, of course). They've been thinking about how to deal with the space issues facing a growing urban population.
The prototype apartment, designed for a mother, son and grandparents, is fascinating; a robotics company has created a living room/bedroom (the dividing wall between the two houses a slide-away bed which emerges as the dividing wall moves across the room), sliding walls pull across to give the grandparents privacy, storage units in the hall outside the flat hold things like extra chairs to be used as needed by all the flats in the building.
It does seem a little small for five people, and it falls short of the minimum square footage per person advised by the mayor of London, but it's an interesting idea nonetheless and perhaps, if cities keep growing at the rate they are, less space is something we might sadly have to get used to.
Elsewhere onsite I visit a technology lab that's created a VR experience which allows you to place furniture directly into your living room (there are no plans to release this, they did it just "because"), I find a 3D scanning studio that uses iron-like machines to scan the surfaces of products to make them appear on screen (see: Mike TV in Willy Wonka), and sample plant-based meatballs that taste, remarkably, just like real meatballs. It's an exhausting day and by the end, I'd be happy to crash in my marvellously decorated (thank you) hotel room. But just when things couldn't get any stranger, we're whisked out to the middle of the countryside for an authentic Swedish party at a real working farm.
I spend the rest of the evening drinking cider out of a tractor and watching a girl baa-ing at a herd of cows. After dinner a Korean YouTuber covers himself in fur rugs in a homage to Game of Thrones and a group of excitable Swedes sing Viking drinking songs. Surreal doesn't begin to cover it.
But then of course Ikea was always going to be weird. Where else would all the good ideas come from?