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The blue and yellow front of an IKEA store

Flatpack Empire

Explore IKEA’s design studios, factories and stores around the world for the very first time.

About the programme

IKEA is undoubtedly one of the world’s most successful, enigmatic, and recognisable global brands - last year nearly 900 million people in 49 countries visited its stores, with a turnover of over £34 billion. The famously secretive Swedish furniture retailer is guided by the principle of creating “the better everyday life for the many people.” But what is the secret to its success? How does the machine of IKEA affect the people who work for it, and how does its ruthlessly efficient business model affect the world?

Read more about the series on the BBC's programmes pages  or find out more about the fascinating world of IKEA below. 

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

IKEA batteries close-up

Photo by Ed on Unsplash

Unpack IKEA

Uncover the mysteries of flatpack, everyday designs and brand names.

Billy bookcase flatpack instructions

Swedish by name, Swedish by nature

Dr Fiona Harris explores IKEA branding and product names.

An IKEA Ektorp sofa

An IKEA Ektorp sofa

The chances are you may have a Poäng chair, a Billy bookcase, an Ektorp sofa or perhaps a Hövåg mattress, Skubb storage or Faktum kitchen in your home. Part of the charm of IKEA’s ever popular furniture products are their sometimes tongue-twisting (for at least some native English speakers) Swedish brand names. Aside from the contemporary classic designs, IKEA products’ brand names underline their Swedish identity. Visit an IKEA store and you can have your children cared for in the Småland crèche, eat Swedish meatballs in the IKEA restaurant and enjoy Swedish fika (Swedish coffee break). Even the IKEA stores and shopping bags echo the blue and yellow of the Swedish flag.

© Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2019

Brands were originally “a name, term, sign, symbol or design, combination of them, intended to identify the goods and services or one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competitors”1. However, they have become much more than just a label or logo. Now they represent “a shared desirable and exclusive idea embodied in products, services, places and/or experiences”2. IKEA’s idea is in combining stylishness with affordability, manifest by the marketing message of “making home a better place”3.

Brand names are typically one of five types: coined (made up names e.g. AXA insurance company); arbitrary (real but unrelated words e.g. Caterpillar, the construction and equipment manufacturer); suggestive (evocative words that have implied benefits e.g. Pampers nappies; descriptive (words that describe the product or service more directly e.g. John’s Chicken House); or generic (if the name is a synonym of the product category)4. In the latter case, generic names such as ‘cellophane’, cannot by protected by trademarking5.

© Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2019

IKEA itself is named after Ingvar Kamprad (IKEA’s founder), Elmtaryd (the farm on which he grew up) and Agunnaryd (the village near to his family’s farm)6. Ingvar originally started giving names to IKEA products because he found their order numbers difficult to remember7. IKEA products’ brand names appear to be of the arbitrary variety, although there is reportedly a catalogue of available brand names for IKEA products and a system, with for example male names used for bookcases and place names used for tables, storage and sofas8. However, IKEA’s collaboration with the designer Tom Dixon to create a bed-sofa, which can be personalised by customers, is called Delaktig – meaning ‘involved’. Yet for many of IKEA’s non-Swedish speaking customers, the IKEA product brand names might as well be arbitrary and occasionally prove amusing – a Fniss waste bin anyone? (Incidentally, fniss actually translates as ‘giggle’). Småland, IKEA’s crèche, is the name of the Swedish province where IKEA’s founder was born, but is perhaps also a fortuitous phonetic play on words for IKEA’s UK stores.

IKEA storefront at night

Photo by Rendy Novantino on Unsplash

However, multinational companies have to be particularly careful in their choice of brand names and usually conduct or commission research to ensure that a brand name infers the desired connotation and does not mean something inappropriate in some other language. Unwisely chosen brand names quickly become the butt of jokes and the stuff of legend. Other considerations are the ability to trademark a brand name and, in more recent times, to be able to register it as a top level Internet domain name.

The five types of brand names are not mutually exclusive and may be used in combination. Meaningful brand names, which combine descriptive and suggestive brand naming approaches, are easier to remember and are preferred over non-meaningful types of brand names (coined and arbitrary)9. Brand names that communicate meaning through words, symbolism or phonetic associations are sometimes referred to as using the ‘Joyce Principle’ (after the writer James Joyce) as opposed to non-meaningful brand names with no pre-existing associated meaning, which has been dubbed the ‘Juliet Principle’ after a line in Shakespeare’s play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (‘that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet’)10.

Brand names also need to allow a brand space to grow. While descriptive brand names make the nature of what is being offered clear, choosing a very constrained descriptive brand name can make expanding into offering other types of products or services more difficult. One way around potentially constraining names is to use their initials, removing the meaning-limiting words from view. Examples include HSBC (the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) which for many years marketed itself as ‘the world’s local bank’ (albeit eventually finding that particular positioning too much of a stretch)11 and UPS (United Parcel Service of America) which, although its parcel service is still a core part of its business, has become ‘a global company and a leading global provider of specialized transportation and logistics services’12.

While brand names often accrue value through the investments made in them over time and the resulting goodwill towards them built up among their consumers, sometimes a change of name becomes necessary if the brand becomes irrevocably damaged by some form of scandal. Stories of such scandals tend to linger online, so we will move on. Other brands however, have lived on beyond their original businesses, with the rights to their brand names being bought for huge sums. One such well-regarded name is the Mini brand, which was the only part of the Rover Group retained when the business was purchased by BMW13. As Shakespeare’s character Othello declared: “Good name in man and woman, … Is the immediate jewel of their souls …  But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed”14. The same might be said of brand names.

Someone putting together an IKEA flatpack

Uncover the mysteries of flatpacks

Flatpack - does the word strike fear or joy in your heart? Julian Cooper investigates the history of the mysterious flatpack. 

Michael Thonet's iconic No.14 chair. Holger.Ellgaard - Own work under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license

I suspect that the word flatpack strikes a sense of fear in many of us. It’s not so much the flatpack itself; it’s about what happens when we have to unpack it and are confronted by all the pieces, (which we last saw in one piece in the store or online), together with bags of connecters and pages of instructions. 

So why do so many - and it is many (IKEA stores in the UK contributed £1.9b to their global profits in 2016 with a significant proportion of that being in flatpack form products) buy our products in this way?  What is it about flatpacks that makes us continue taking on the challenge and hoping to conquer our fears?

The production methods that helped lead to the flatpack delivery phenomenon have been around for a long time. One of the first examples was Michael Thonet's iconic No. 14 chair, first mass-produced in 1859. Made of eight pieces of steam-bent wood and ten screws, crucially it could be shipped disassembled to save space in rail boxcars.

By the 1890s, the US retailer Sears Roebuck was selling mass-produced products for mail-order, everything from guns to furniture and in 1908, they began selling complete houses in flatpack form. Over the next thirty years, Sears Roebuck sold 70,000 25-ton units. Again, each kit was shipped by boxcar, complete with all the parts needed to complete the build. However, it seems Sears Roebuck did not spot the opportunity to extend flatpack delivery to smaller items such as furniture.  

We can see already some of the early drivers for what would come to be known as flatpack (also known as knock-down) design and delivery. The ability of manufacturers and retailers to mass-produce products, meant that the logistics cost of delivery to stores and customers across the country and even abroad was becoming a crucial factor in developing and maintaining a profitable business1.

An IKEA worker picks up a flatpack box

© Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2019

Whilst we can find several examples of the early implementation of mass-produced products designed for flatpack delivery and self-assembly, the generally accepted opinion was that this process had its origin in Sweden. The Swedish designer Gillis Lundgren is today celebrated for developing and implementing the process in the early 1950s, although he acknowledges his countryman, Fiolke Ohlsson, has patented a ready-to-assemble chair some years before in 1949. Working with IKEA’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, Lundgen began developing his flatpack idea – triggered it seems from having to remove the legs from a table to fit it into his car – becoming the business model that has proved crucial to IKEA’s decades of success.2

The basics of self-assembly design have been improved over the years, with increasing reliance on highly sophisticated computer driven design and engineering. According to Object Guerilla:

 "...from an engineering view, IKEA's hardware is ingenious, combining simple tools with self-registering systems that (hopefully) force pieces into alignment as they are assembled…. There are three basic sub-systems: screws, barrel bolts (inline and perpendicular), and dowels or tacks.

IKEA's system is one approach, honed through seventy years of iteration, that works on a giant corporate scale. However, the world of flat-packery includes designs fastened with screws, zipties, pegs, pins, ratchet straps, and, for the adventurous, nothing at all." 3

A better shelter. Copyright: Better Shelter

The benefits of the flatpack model were, and still are significant for companies such as IKEA, encouraging volume production, where flatpack storage and then transportation costs can be minimised, handling becomes easier and breakage costs are reduced.

Some would argue the downsides are all for the customer, however the use of self-assembly flatpack design enables manufacturers to keep prices low and customers can gain immediate gratification from collection. Perhaps there is also a sense of achievement and ownership that come from successfully completing a self-assembly product!

Despite the potential benefits to the manufacturer and retailer of flatpack, we have seen significant failures of companies known for their flatpack credentials. Take the example of MFI, founded in the UK in 1964 by Noel Lister and Donald Searle, aiming to exploit the gap in the market for self-assembly furniture. At one point, MFI had expanded to become the largest self-assembly furniture retailer in the country, acquiring well known flatpack brands such as Hygena on the way. By 2006 however, MFI was sold for the nominal sum of £1 to a private equity firm.4

Self-assembly, flatpack design can now be found across many industries. Looking back to those surprisingly early US flatpack houses, this industry has grown significantly, with a significant boost in the UK after the Second World War. With housing in short supply, flatpacks were imported from Sweden to boost the numbers being produced in the home market. You can see some of these on the Prefab Museum  which is a living history online museum about Britain’s post-war prefabs. Today we can even find TV programmes about self-assembly homes. ‘My Flat-Pack Home’ on Really TV, features people building their own prefabricated houses.  

The Swedish social enterprise Better Shelter has developed a self-assembly, flatpack shelter for refugee families, in collaboration with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and funding from the IKEA Foundation. The shelter is solar powered, weatherproof and can be assembled without tools and is made of recyclable plastic and a galvanised steel frame, with an expected lifespan of three years.

The shelter is delivered in two cardboard boxes, which have been packed to reflect the order in which components will be used when building. The two boxes can be lifted and built by four people in four to eight hours. Whilst costing more than refugee tents, the shelter offers important benefits the tents don’t, such as durability, privacy and security. 5

IKEA Warehouse

Image by icondigital from Pixabay 

With similar aspirations, but in vehicular rather than building form, the OX is manufactured in the UK. The aim is to provide a simple, cost effective vehicle that can cope with the needs and road conditions of the developing world and Africa in particular. Three OX prototypes have been built by so far and put through rigorous testing with an investment from the Global Vehicle Trust, which claims the OX to be world’s first flatpack vehicle. The benefits of the flatpack approach means that the components and sub-assemblies of the OX fit within its own frame, with a separate transport crate for the engine and gearbox. This enables up to six OX vehicles to be transported in a single shipping container, with the assembly labour transferred to the importing country, thus reducing import taxes that exist in many countries.6

Let’s return now to that question of flatpack fear; it seems that it is real after all, according to Dr Miles Richardson, from the University of Derby, who explains that we really do struggle with flatpack assembly. 

"There is evidence that suggests that self-assembly furniture isn't just difficult to assemble, but can lead to frustration and damage to the product and injury," he says. Dr Richardson points to a 2006 survey which found that 67 per cent of 1,295 participants reported some form of difficulty during the self-assembly process. Some 40 per cent of brave souls attempting to construct a piece of furniture lost their temper before they completed it – perhaps because 33 per cent misread or misunderstood the instructions. 7

For those of us who can relate to flatpack frustrations, there is a solution at hand. Companies such as Bidvine and Flat Pack Mates and are available to take care of your flatpack and complete the build. You might wonder if the cost of using such services rather negates the reason for self-assembly flatpacks in the first place but even IKEA recognises that this is not a preferred way of shopping for all of us, offering its own delivery, assembly, and installation services.

So, it seems the ubiquitous flatpack delivery is here to stay although there are just a few clouds on the horizon. Could we one day be able to use a local 3D printing depot to build our own furniture?

Ingvar Kamprad holding a chair

How 20th century design may have influenced IKEAs

The enduring popularity of IKEA’s products, particularly its furniture, suggests that the design principles have been carefully considered over time. But how have they been influenced?

The emergence of design simplicity

Furniture at the first IKEA store

Copyright: IKEA

We can see from the high-profile role of IKEA’s designers that the company recognises their importance.

A focus on design simplicity has long been part of the IKEA ethos and the crisp, clean lines of tables, chairs, lights and bookshelves have transformed household interiors not just within Europe but increasingly globally.

In post-war Europe, around the time of IKEA’s emergence, we remained largely comfortable with furniture often based on 18th and 19th-century designs, exuding a sense of solidity and permanence. But frustrations with traditional design had been simmering since the 1920s or earlier, together with an urge to innovative, using newly available materials and technology.

Architecture for the masses

Marcel Breuer Armchair (1936), Collection Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen,

Sandra Fauconnier under CC-BY licence under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license

Ingvar Kamprad was born in the south of Sweden in the mid-1920s, in an era where these frustrations were beginning to be discussed and addressed. Architects, designers and engineers were starting to use new materials and technology to test the boundaries of traditional design. Architects such as Walter Gropius and designers like Marcel Breuer, both from the Bauhaus school of art and design in Germany, were among those producing innovative new designs based upon clean simple lines and making use of steel, glass and bent wood, looking to balance form with function.

As such, they were protagonists of what became known as the 'Modern Movement', part of an International Style of thinking in design. There were social elements to the thinking of this movement, for example, ‘that all architecture should be aiming toward mass housing, directly related to the new social conditions’ and that ‘standardisation would provide the key to a whole range of industrial processes and materials’ (Benton & Sharpe, 1975). 

The internationally famous French architect, Le Corbusier, stated: ‘I am going to maintain that apart from chairs and tables, furniture is, in fact, nothing more than pigeon-hole boxes. I will make certain that, with the new wood and metal industries, it is possible to construct accurate pigeon-hole fitments with an admirable functionality…These objects are all in proportion to our limbs… they have a common scale… they obey a standard’ (Le Corbusier, 1929, 1938). How prescient are those words? Looking at the Corbusier Casiers Standard storage unit designed in 1925 and the IKEA VALJE storage unit, it is not difficult to visualize those ideas still being implemented.

The birth of IKEA

© Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2019

Fast forward to the early 1950s, when Ingvar Kamprad was just beginning to build a business that was the genesis of IKEA and the Modern Movement, as well as developing its own Scandinavian version of design ethos. ‘In markets such as the UK, the USA, and Germany, suggest Skou and Munch (2016), ‘the Scandinavian Modern style was praised as a modern, functional design with a human touch and as a subtle modernisation of traditional values than the international style of Central European modernists and based on the basic picture of Scandinavian values, societies, and landscape. The minimalist style of Scandinavian Modern was thought by its designers to be accessible and democratically inclusive, because forms and constructions were easy to comprehend and items were light to handle.’

Perhaps now we get a hint of how the culture, values and the design ethos of Kamprad and his designers may have originated and developed from their base in Sweden, taking some of their ideas and references from Scandinavian Modern styles but also from the wider International Movement. Looking at the early furniture designs from IKEA we can see maybe the beginning of a transition from traditional towards a clean and stylish design approach? Amazingly, the chair on that first catalogue cover has a modern equivalent in the STRANDMON wing chair. 

Copyright: Wivatt, E.L (2017)

Today our IKEA furniture may still have to fight for its place in the living room. How many of us still have the desire to retain memories of our past in the furniture we live amongst? 

Indeed, designer Laurence Llewelyn Bowen (2017) hints at a change (in the UK at least) of sentiment in Scandinavian furniture design. ‘Have we reached peak Scandi furniture?’ Bowen asks, ‘Could brown furniture finally be on the comeback’? observing that UK ‘auctioneer Nick Carter has noticed a slowing down in sales of Scandi style in favour of an increased interest in 18th and 19th-century antiques.’

If you would like to listen in full to Laurence Llewelyn Bowen’s witty and acerbic views on IKEA’s and Scandinavian design, click here .

Meet the OU experts

Dr Fiona Harris, Senior Lecturer in Management, The Open University
Dr Fiona HarrisSenior Lecturer in Management - The Faculty of Business & LawVIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Fiona Harris, Senior Lecturer in Management, The Open University
Dr Fiona HarrisSenior Lecturer in Management - The Faculty of Business & Law

Fiona is a Senior Lecturer in Management in the Department for Strategy and Marketing. Her doctoral research was in brand management. Prior to joining The Open University, Fiona held research posts in academic, governmental agency and commercial contexts, involving the development of a range of new technologies in vehicles, aircraft cockpit displays and human-computer interaction. She has authored teaching material on marketing, management, ethics, corporate social responsibility and brand management for a range of Open University modules, spanning all levels of the undergraduate programme through to postgraduate level. Her research interests and publications mainly concern ethical marketing practice, the application and impact of marketing principles in relation to health and sustainability, and branding.

Julian Cooper - Associate Lecturer in Business, Creativity and Marketing, The Open University
Julian CooperAssociate Lecturer in Business, Creativity and MarketingVIEW FULL PROFILE
Julian Cooper - Associate Lecturer in Business, Creativity and Marketing, The Open University
Julian CooperAssociate Lecturer in Business, Creativity and Marketing

Julian joined The Open University as an Associate Lecturer in 2000, from where he had previously been awarded an BA [hons] and MBA. He lectures in business, creativity and marketing and was recently selected to tutor in the new Business Honours Apprenticeship degree.

His career includes heading Ordnance Surveys Market Research and Insight team, leading research projects for the World Bank (e.g. developing commercial resources, Namibia) and European Commission (e.g. Project owner, European Location Framework).

Julian has been involved in digital innovation and development for over two decades, working with Vodafone to research and develop new markets for mobile technology, conducting research into digital navigation technology (e.g. European Commission, EuroRoads) and has been a regular publisher and presenter in the digital industry. 

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