Get Lost in 70 Years of Old IKEA Catalogs

The Swedish furniture giant dropped its catalog archives online, letting shoppers browse 19,000 pages of midcentury Scandinavian design.

As millions of people around the world become intimately familiar with their home decor, the Swedish furniture giant IKEA is offering an online resource to fuel your redecoration reveries: In honor of the the 70th anniversary of the company’s first catalog, IKEA just dropped digital versions of every catalog on its museum website. If your idea of a good time is wandering the labyrinth of your local IKEA showroom, trying out sectionals in a pretend living room, this digital trove of modular furniture makes an excellent and Covid-safe alternative distraction — and a fascinating time capsule of Scandinavian design trends. 

As of 2019, IKEA boasts 433 stores across 53 countries, inundating markets around the globe with its distinctive brand of affordable build-it-yourself products. The company has been around since 1943, when founder Ingvar Kamprad launched it as a mail-order business selling matches, postcards and pencils in the Smaland region of Sweden. But 1951 marked the first proper IKEA catalog, says IKEA Museum archive and collections manager Per-Olof Svensson. On its cover: the iconic MK wing chair. It was discontinued a few years later, but made a retro comeback in the 2013 and 2014 catalogs as STRANDMON.

The business took off, and fast: Customers could phone or mail in their orders by returning a coupon included in the catalog. Starting in 1958, they could drop by the first IKEA store, in Almhult, Sweden, and go home with the item of their choice. The “supermarket for furniture” concept is part of what made IKEA such a success. But the do-it-yourself assembly wasn’t the original idea. “At first, it was already assembled products,” Svensson says. “But quite early we tried to experiment by taking off the legs from the tables.” The birth of flat packaging can be traced back to an employee who started unmounting the legs of a LOVET table to safely load the piece into a customer’s trunk.

The early catalogs are comparatively utilitarian affairs; things don’t get really interesting until the late 1960s and ’70s, when colorful plastics and zany fabrics emerge and photos began displaying the furniture in sample living arrangements that still look inviting today.

The catalog’s illustrations also serve as a timeline of household technology. The first television shows up on page 88 in 1958, and soon the new devices proliferate and begin to dominate the home; the size of entertainment centers gradually increases, and the orientation of living room couches and armchairs progressively shifts, from facing one another to pointing toward the TV screen. 

The company opened its first store outside of Scandinavia in 1973, in Spreitenbach, Switzerland. International expansion was a turning point in the company’s branding: Its Swedish roots turned into the foundations of its brand identity, making IKEA an instrument of Swedish soft power. Going global meant “Swedifying” the brand, writes design historian Sara Kristoffersson in her cultural history of the company, Design By IKEA. The company’s iconography and design sensibility ultimately became synonymous with Sweden itself. She recounts a story of a Spanish soccer fan asking, “Why is the Swedish team sponsored by IKEA?” at the Euro 2012 championship: “The Swedish team’s blue and yellow kit clearly triggered associations with IKEA, rather than with the Swedish flag.”  [ … ]

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