IKEA: A Force for Aesthetic Good
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 21 2003 1:59 PM

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Today's slide show: Images from Växjö. Today's  audio: Anna Ehrner describes her passions and goals in working at the Kosta Boda glass factory. Today's video: IKEA's Anna Efverlund designs for "the most important people in the world."Bonus video: The art of handblown wine glasses.

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VÄXJÖ, SWEDEN—A fourth consecutive glorious day. Piling into our powerful Volvo, we motor eastward out of Copenhagen, pass through a suburban stretch of elegant Corbu-style office buildings, cross a spare modern suspension bridge with the deep blue Baltic Sea to our south, and regain land on the southern tip of the kingdom of Sweden. There, guided by the infallible commands of our vehicle's global positioning satellite system—issued in the deliciously stern voice of what seems to be an English dominatrix—we make our way to the remote village of Älmhult, the improbable headquarters of the most powerful domestic design force in the world: IKEA.

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I expected the IKEA headquarters to be designed to the hilt, but it turns out to be an unprepossessing collection of low-slung industrial-looking buildings surrounded by icy parking lots. So, this is the place where all those inexpensive good-taste objects are conceived! I know that the very mention of IKEA causes the lips of elitists to purse in disapproval. I remember how the movie Fight Club seized on it as a symbol of all that is sick in the young bourgeois soul. But I think it has been a force for aesthetic good around the world: first in Sweden in the 1950s, later throughout the rest of Europe, still later in Australia, the United States (or at least the more civilized part of it), and China. The company uses an army of free-lance designers to create its thousands and thousands of product lines, but it has only eight staff designers, and one of them is going to have lunch with us.

Her name is Anna Efverlund. Anna has been with IKEA since 1980, and her very first design, she proudly tells me in her charmingly wonky English, is still in the catalog. It's a coathanger called the "Bagis." I have always loved the names IKEA gives its products. They sound so whimsically and exotically Scandinavian: "Skanor," "Axstad," "Blecka," "Stro." (You have to imagine the little circles and dots over the A's and O's.) When I asked Anna and one of her co-workers what my name would be if I were an IKEA product (sort of on the analogy of one's porn name), they immediately agree on "Billi." My dog, I guess, would be "Barka."

Before lunch, Anna gives us a tour of the showrooms where the current IKEA products and the secret prototypes for new ones are displayed. I am a little surprised to hear that exactly the same stuff is sold in IKEA stores in every country on every continent. Even, I ask, the United States? "Well," she says, "Americans do get bigger couches, bigger glasses, and softer beds."

As we come to the part of the showroom with IKEA products for children, Anna picks up one of her latest creations and shows it to me. It's a pillow in the form of a red heart sprouting a pair of arms that end in little hands and fingers. Pretty adorable. I ask her how she got the idea for it.

"A factory in India was making teddy bears, but there was sabotage and the eyes of the teddy bears were coming off," she says. "I was sent there right away. The factory was shut down, and the children had lost their toy pets. We had to design something that the factory could make so that the workers could keep their jobs—something without eyes or buttons. We had a dozen ideas, and this pillow-heart with the arms and hands was one of them. But then it turned out that adults like the pillow too. Sick people in the hospital like holding hands with it, women like to have it in bed with them when their husbands are away."

We leave IKEA, a world where design is married to industrial production, and make our way to the Glass District, also in a rural setting, about an hour away. Here artists who design crystal collaborate with glass-blowers whose skills have been handed down from Bohemian craftsmen that fetched up here in 1742. Decorative glass has never really been my thing, but what I see is so enchanting that not even the buyers from Bloomingdale's hanging around can spoil it.

Check out our earlier trips to Kashmir, Zambia, the Outlaw Trail, the Blues Highway, the Galápagos Islands, and Costa Rica.

Jim Holt writes for The New Yorker, the New York Times, and other publications. A former visiting journalist at U.C. Berkeley and an American correspondent for BBC Wales, he now divides his time between New York and Paris.

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