Building  the Future - Ikea's 1970s Breakthrough

July 5, 2024

Building the Future - Ikea's 1970s Breakthrough

During the 1970s, Sweden's furniture industry underwent dramatic changes due to an energy crisis, leading to Ikea's rise with its affordable, innovative designs and setting the stage for global influence.

The Swedish furniture industry went through dramatic changes during the decade of 1970. 1973 was the year of the oil crisis. Arab producers were decreasing production and shockingly raising prices, leading to an energy crisis in the West. In Sweden, fuel and energy rationing was introduced, and the industry ended up in a recession. The number of furniture companies decreases by over 70% in ten years. Those who focused on production rationalizing had the greatest chance of survival, leading to loss of quality and eroded craftsmanship. The manufacturers became fewer but larger; carpenters became machinists, and chipboard replaced solid wood. However, some years later, the market turned, and many companies cracked the code for international business. Swedish furniture exports increased by 750% in ten years.

The 1970s became a dynamic decade for Ikea. Their Swedish market share grew in parallel with their introduction in Europe. The company skillfully exploited the more accessible way of furnishing that came out of the youth revolt. The department stores' innovative exposures, created by Mary and Lennart Ekmark, completely differed from traditional furniture shows. The new fashion with unpretentious, simple, and light furniture lived in parallel with the more traditional style. Ikea had something for everyone. The founder Ingvar Kamprad's vision "to make everyday life better for the many people" was entirely in line with the 1970s social climate. 

Ikea's aggressive pricing policy put enormous pressure on suppliers and competitors. More and more skilled designers were hired, developing their bright concepts. Tomas Jelinek (1935–2009), Karin Mobring(1927–2005), and Niels Gammelgaard (b.1944) are examples of 1970s Ikea designers with great design integrity and international recognition.

Ikea's main competitor in Sweden, Kooperativa Förbundet (Coop Sweden) became during the 1970s a significant player in the Swedish interior design industry, extending its market share by opening new department stores throughout the country. The idea of developing a range of simple and affordable furniture for the home's basic needs had existed within the company for several years. Now, it would be realized. The project was run in collaboration with Svensk Form, the world's oldest design organization. The first range, called basmöbler (utility furniture), was launched in 1978. The range became a media and commercial success, but from a designer's point of view, Coop was criticized for the furniture's anonymous expressions.

Prior to stage two, it was therefore decided to engage professional designers. In 1980, an armchair design competition was announced. The competition was won by Kersti Sandin (b.1950) and Lars Bülow (b.1952), who were commissioned to develop the chair. It was well received by the press, and the design was awarded, but the chair only sold for a couple of years. Maybe because of the 1980s paradigm shift into the Postmodern era, focusing more on expressions instead of functions?

Article written by Lars Bülow in March 2024

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Designer of the month
Hans J. Wegner

Danish furniture designer Hans J. Wegner created over 500 pieces of furniture and was instrumental in the spread of Scandinavian design as an international concept. the Peacock Chair and the Ox Chair are two of Wegner’s most well-known pieces.

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