ikea-posterApparently, there are 298 stores IKEA worldwide, from Rotterdam to anywhere, by way of Kuala Lumpar and Kuwait City. In 2008 alone, more than 600 million of us shopped there, and we’ve been doing so since 1943.

Crazy and unbelievable? Perhaps, but whether we like it or not, in the world of furniture, IKEA is king. The Swedish retailer that brought us flat-pack tables, supposedly simple DIY fixtures and cheerful home furnishings has conquered the globe, and then some.

A new exhibition traces fifty years of history through the evolution of the store, which pioneered affordable, functional and fun furniture as a lifestyle choice. The retrospective, which opened earlier this month in IKEA’s hometown of Stockholm, is said to be “an exhibition about how we live our lives”.

Visitors to the capital’s contemporary art museum Liljevalchs Konsthall can see where it all began, with a pale green armchair from 1951, as well as enjoying cheap and cheerful designs from throughout the decades, including the denim furniture phase of the 1970s.

The exhibition tells the story of IKEA’s birth, at the hands of the then teenager and now millionaire Ingvar Kamprad. And by featuring furniture borrowed from homes across Sweden, it also tells a different story – that of its consumers. Steffan Bengtsson, the curator, has described it as a “nostalgic exhibition”.

“People will recognise their own old furniture, from their teenage years, their homes, their family,” he said. “And then I guess people will start to talk about their own lives.”

ikea-2The walk down memory lane is completed with prints of the front covers of old IKEA catalogues and shots of early customers walking away with the latest flat-pack fashions. Over the years, IKEA has attracted vitriol and rage like few others. Its bright lights, endless queues and identikit fittings are seen by many as all that is wrong with our modern, globalized existence.

Yet as a broke gap year traveler faced with a very desolate, empty apartment, I can remember how a trip to the nearest IKEA provided solace (and some chairs). For myself and my flatmates, furnishing our place was the first of many bonding experiences. Indeed, almost all of us will have slept in an IKEA bed, eaten with IKEA cutlery or worked at an IKEA desk. It seems only fitting that we should celebrate its imprint on our culture.

The exhibition runs until 30th August at the Liljevalchs Konsthall Gallery. Visit www.liljevalchs.stockholm.se for more information.

Liljevalchs Konsthall
Djurgårdsvägen 60
SE-115 21 Stockholm