IKEA Digitizes & Puts Online 70 Years of Its Catalogs: Explore the Designs of the Swedish Furniture Giant

The time­less mod­ernism of the IKEA cat­a­log, its promise of tidi­ness, clean, eco­nom­i­cal lines, and excel­lent val­ue belie a strug­gle ahead, an ordeal cus­tomers of the glob­al Swedish build-it-your­self jug­ger­naut know too well. Will the bulky, major­ly-incon­ve­nient­ly shaped box­es fit in the car? Will the rebus-like instruc­tions make sense? Will we assem­ble a bed with love and care, only to find our­selves in a pile of its bro­ken parts come morn­ing?

Clear­ly out­weigh­ing such tragedies are the many hap­py mem­o­ries we asso­ciate with buy­ing, build­ing, and liv­ing with IKEA prod­ucts. The com­pa­ny itself has built such mem­o­ries over the course of almost eight decades with an empire of Scan­di­na­vian design super­mar­kets.

“As of 2019,” Marie Pati­no writes at City­Lab, “IKEA boasts 433 stores across 53 coun­tries.” The IKEA cat­a­log is as wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ed as the Bible and Quran. The Swedish com­pa­ny with the quirk­i­ly named prod­ucts and leg­endary cafe­te­ria meat­balls defines fur­ni­ture shop­ping.

The lay­out of IKEA’s show­rooms may turn “retail into retail ther­a­py,” with cor­ri­dors filled with mono­chro­mat­ic visions of clut­ter-free liv­ing. In these times, of course, we’re far more like­ly to take refuge in those ven­er­a­ble cat­a­logs or the company’s always-improv­ing web­site. Now we can do both at once with a trip through sev­en decades of IKEA cat­a­logs, uploaded to the web­site for the 70th anniver­sary of the first 1950 release.

1951 “marked the first prop­er IKEA cat­a­log,” writes Pati­no, as well as the first icon­ic cov­er fea­tur­ing the first icon­ic design, the MK wing chair. Cov­ers became more elab­o­rate, with smooth mid-cen­tu­ry mod­ern liv­ing room lay­outs that tan­ta­lized, but the con­tents of the cat­a­log looked like gov­ern­ment order forms until the late 60s and 70s. It did not appear in Eng­lish until 1985. In these ear­ly lay­outs we can see just how dat­ed so many of these designs appear in hind­sight.

The company’s sig­na­ture busi­ness mod­el came togeth­er slow­ly at first. It start­ed in 1943, found­ed by Ing­var Kam­prad in Swe­den, as a mail-order busi­ness for sta­tion­ary sup­plies. The fur­ni­ture arrived soon after, but it would take anoth­er decade or so for the flat-pack idea to ful­ly emerge. The BILLY book­shelf, per­haps the most pop­u­lar IKEA design ever, debuted in 1979. Oth­er sta­ples fol­lowed, and in 2013, the orig­i­nal wing­back chair made a mod­i­fied come­back as the STRANDMON. Through it all, the cat­a­log has doc­u­ment­ed Swedish design trends in a glob­al mar­ket­place.,

The 21st cen­tu­ry has seen not only the return of the wing­back but of the mid-cen­tu­ry Scan­di­na­vian mod­ernism with which the com­pa­ny made its name in the 1950s and 60s. Maybe that’s why it’s easy to think of IKEA as con­sis­tent­ly embody­ing this trend, slight­ly updat­ed every few years. But brows­ing through these cat­a­logs shows how thor­ough­ly IKEA absorbed all sorts of Euro­pean influences—as well as the look of hotel room fur­ni­ture from Mia­mi Vice.

What kind of ther­a­py is this? Gaz­ing at dat­ed or retro-hip prod­ucts we are years too late to buy? It offers the same expe­ri­ence as all IKEA cat­a­log shopping—without the strug­gle and expense of trans­port­ing and assem­bling the results: the dis­trac­tion of a world with­out dis­trac­tions. Explore the new archive of IKEA cat­a­logs here.

via Bloomberg and Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Mas­sive Har­rods Cat­a­logue from 1912 Gets Dig­i­tized: Before Ama­zon, Har­rods Offered “Every­thing for Every­one, Every­where”

The Bauhaus Book­shelf: Down­load Orig­i­nal Bauhaus Books, Jour­nals, Man­i­festos & Ads That Still Inspire Design­ers World­wide

Meet the Mem­phis Group, the Bob Dylan-Inspired Design­ers of David Bowie’s Favorite Fur­ni­ture

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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