From left: First IKEA store in Älmhult, Sweden; Ingvar Kamprad office, 1963-64; BOHEM fåtölj/armchair. Design: Gillis Lundgren 1956; First IKEA store in Älmhult, Sweden. © Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2016
Älmhult, a town that bills itself as a “rural idyll with an international atmosphere,” is a bit Twin Peaks, a bit Scientology Celebrity Centre, and a bit Bentonville—Walmart’s Arkansas hometown—with a distinctly Scandinavian twist. With more than half of its roughly 9,000 residents working in some capacity for Ikea, in Älmhult and nearby (the rest of the company’s 4,600 Älmhult-based employees commute from across the region), it’s a company town, but not in the traditional, Pullman-esque sense, as it existed long before Ingvar Kamprad came along. My own trip—to attend the third annual Democratic Design Day, a media event at which Ikea unveils new product lines and collaborations—was sponsored by Ikea’s U.S. retail arm, but the town is not solely focused on Ikea, a fact that may sadden diehard fans who arrive expecting a place more like Billund, the Lego Group’s base in Denmark.
In fact, the statue located prominently in Älmhult’s Stortorget, or central town square, is of an unrelated native son, the botanist Carl Linnaeus. Born in 1707, a full two centuries before Ingvar Kamprad hawked his first pair of hosiery, Linnaeus is known as the “father of modern taxonomy,” as he laid the foundation for the elaborate species-naming system, binomial nomenclature, still in use today. The town’s website characterizes Kamprad and Linnaeus as “two people with ideas that left their mark on the entire globe.”
Devoid of tourist buses and the colors blue and yellow, the streets surrounding Stortorget in downtown Älmhult are quiet and tidy. Bike parking is ample, as is standard in this part of the world. Norra Esplanaden, downtown’s main retail strip, is a hodgepodge of quaint historic structures, low-lying 1970s-era socialist apartment blocks, and a few contemporary structures. Architecturally, this is a town of squares. Businesses on Norra Esplanaden include banks, florists, salons, and a smattering of small boutiques—nothing out of the ordinary or overtly touristy. There’s also an outpost of the ubiquitous Danish grocery store chain Netto, and an abandoned gas station or two.
At the opposite end of Älmhult, bisected by a major east-west highway, the sprawling Ikea campus is home to several key operations, including the Ikea Test Lab; the catalog-producing Ikea Communications, home to the largest photo studio in northern Europe; Ikano Bank, a Kamprad family-owned consumer bank with operations across Europe; and the retailer’s product design and development hub, Ikea of Sweden. (Inter Ikea Systems B.V., the entity that owns the Ikea trademark and oversees the overall brand concept, is based in Delft, the Netherlands, and is owned by a Luxembourg-based holding company. The Economist has a breakdown of the complicated corporate structure of the multinational, which is technically operated as a not-for-profit Dutch charity).
Also located within the complex is Aktivitetshuset, a community rec center of sorts for Ikea employees—known as “co-workers”—and their families to partake in “spare time and health activities.” Outfitted with spa facilities, squash courts, pottery and music rooms, and a climbing wall (sorry, no communal ball pit), Aktivitesthuset, which first opened in 1991 and moved to its current spot in 2001, largely predates the ping pong tables, meditation rooms, and other millennial-friendly downtime distractions that are now de rigueur in corporate workplaces. What’s more, retired Ikea co-workers can also access Aktivitetshuset as members of Vuxenklubben (“Adult Club”) for rousing rounds of bingo and boules.
On the fringes of Ikea’s spiritual-but-not-legal headquarters, flanked by the original Ikea store location and a churchyard—a jarring juxtaposition if there ever was one—is Ikea Hotell.
Undergoing an expansion that will render the 1960s-era property the largest hotel in Småland with a total of 500 beds, the hotel is a pared-down affair that’s more akin to a dormitory than anything else. With compact single rooms that resemble staterooms on the lower decks of a cruise liner and a brand-adherent emphasis on efficiency and economy without “the frills and gimmicks,” guests will not find theme suites or much in the way of luxe amenities at Ikea Hotell. This is an establishment that seemingly caters more to visiting Ikea co-workers than to wild-eyed pilgrims looking to pay their respects to the place where Poäng was born.
Work on the expanded hotel/co-worker crash pad is due for completion in September and, from the sounds of it, it will emerge not just significantly larger, but also with a greater emphasis on out-of-towner comforts. After all, there’s something special going on right across the parking lot.
Interior + exterior of the Ikea Museum. © Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2016
Until 2012, the original Ikea store was the largest tourist attraction in the municipality. But it has since closed and business has shifted to a larger, shopping center-anchoring store east of downtown Älmhult, where a forest once stood. It’s that new Ikea—home to a plant-filled “glasshouse” and Ikea Fynd, an only-in-Älmhult bargain emporium where shoppers can snag overstock lampshades and last season’s duvet covers —that you see when approaching town from the highway.
The original Claes Knutson-designed Ikea now houses Älmhult’s newest attraction, the Ikea Museum, which may prove to have an even greater tourist pull than the original store ever did. With an architectural master plan executed by London-based WilkinsonEyre and Swedish firm Uulas Arkitekter (noted international museum exhibition design firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates worked alongside an in-house design team on the interiors and overall flow of the space), the museum is a 75,000-square-foot celebration of the brand.