Wherever you are in Sweden, you can’t go far without finding yourself deep in the woods. That’s because forests cover 70 percent of Sweden’s landscape. These deep forests are a beautiful natural tangle of old-growth trees, earthy smells, and—on a good day—sunlight streaming through the canopy to bring light and warmth to the forest floor below. Whenever I’m in the woods in Sweden, I half expect to meet an elf or a dwarf wearing a red cap and white beard and beaming a wide smile.
But not long ago Peter and I found ourselves driving through deep green forests heading south from Stockholm to the southern province of Skåne, where my brother lives. Instead of an elf in the forest, however, we came upon an industrial complex bearing a name that’s known around the world.
In Älmhult, a small city in Småland in the center of Sweden’s southern half, we found the first ever IKEA store, which in 2016 was transformed into the IKEA Museum. As a longtime IKEA fan, I couldn’t wait to explore the museum and learn more about this iconic brand. But first we wanted to check out the local IKEA (meatballs, anyone?) and the hip IKEA Hotel.
The IKEA Hotel is Perfectly Located To Shop & Flop
Try Deer Capaccio and Meatballs in the Hotel Restaurant
The current iteration of the Älmhult IKEA opened in 2012 and houses the largest selection of IKEA products in the world. Talk about sensory overload.
Of course, since we were vacationing, we weren’t there to buy anything, so Peter and I just wandered through, checking out the cool décor, splashy designs, and rooms full of sleek Scandinavian style. Before too long, the Swedish meatballs in the restaurant started calling my name.
Good thing it was time for lunch, so we sat down to a hearty repast of meatballs, potatoes, and lingon berries for me and smoked salmon on a roll and apple cake for Peter. Turns out I’m not the only one who likes IKEA’s meatballs. Worldwide, the restaurants serve a whopping one billion meatballs every year.
You can dine on meatballs at the IKEA Hotel also in Älmhult. Besides meatballs, the hotel restaurant serves fancy fare like deer carpaccio, smoked salmon filled with shellfish, and deep-fried artichokes. Wine, beer, and cocktails are also available. The restaurant prides itself on offering guests local flavors, including Småland produce and meat. Too bad we couldn’t stay for dinner!
Peter and I took a brief tour of the hotel and loved the simple, clean lines of the property. Rooms are small and basic, but very clean with large windows and comfy beds. Family rooms feature bunk beds with curtains for privacy. You’ll also find spacious lobby areas with comfortable IKEA furniture and pillows for relaxing. Outside on a garden patio, seasonal herbs and vegetables grow in tidy raised beds. Guests are invited to “pick and enjoy.”
The hotel originally opened in 1964, but has since been renovated, and the current property feels modern and trendy. The hotel was originally built to offer the multitudes of people from across Sweden a place to stay, since many of them drove long distances to visit the original IKEA store. “Shop and flop” became a new catch phrase. Today the IKEA Hotel is a must-stop for IKEA fans from around the world.
Learn About IKEA’s Founder, Ingvar Kamprad, at IKEA Museum
Exhibits Remind Us of IKEA’s Mission to Create A Better Everyday Life
Across the parking lot from the hotel sits the IKEA Museum, where you can learn everything you want to know about this multi-billion dollar company and the man who founded it, Ingvar Kamprad. The name IKEA, incidentally, comes from his initials followed by an E for Elmtaryd, his family’s farm, and an A for Agunnaryd, the village where he grew up.
At the age of 17, young Ingvar registered the name IKEA and started a mail order company featuring furniture, fashion, and household goods. The year was 1943. His first “catalog” was called IKEA Nyett, which means news, and came out in 1951. Soon after, he launched his first annual catalog in 1953. IKEA catalogs have been coming out ever since and are one of the world’s most widely distributed publications.
The mission statement for the company is to “create a better everyday life for the many people” and has its roots in Ingvar’s youth, growing up on a family farm where money was scarce and the family had to maintain a frugal lifestyle to survive.
Of course, this frugal lifestyle became the foundation of IKEA: to provide quality furnishings to families at affordable prices. In 1953 Ingvar opened a showroom, and in 1958, he opened his first proper IKEA store in Älmhult. The rest is history.
Since his humble beginnings, Ingvar has led the brand to become a global empire with a total of 445 stores in 54 markets. In 2019, over one billion people visited IKEA stores. The only inhabited continent without an IKEA is South America, and that will change in 2022 when Santiago, Chile, will open a store.
Much of the brand’s success has been due to the company’s reliance on cutting-edge design from Scandinavian designers, whose input helped create the company’s bold look and iconic furniture. The designers always strive to create functional pieces that evoke playfulness and curiosity, two concepts that define the company’s vision.
The 7000-square-foot museum hosts both temporary and permanent exhibits, including one dedicated to the life of Ingvar Kamprad and the company he founded. The main exhibit, “The Story of IKEA,” is divided into three parts: “Our Roots,” “IKEA Through the Ages,” and “The Many Sides of Ingvar Kamprad.”
You can see Ingvar’s recreated office from his home in Switzerland, where he ran the company to escape Sweden’s high taxes. Lots of artifacts and timelines also offer insight into the man behind IKEA. In 2018 Ingvar died at the age of 91 and left the company to his three sons.
Learn About The IKEA Effect and #IkeaHacks
You Can Even Pose for the IKEA Catalog Cover
Our favorite exhibit was “IKEA Through the Ages,” which chronicled how tastes and styles have changed in the past 70 years. I actually loved the mid-century versions of IKEA’s early furnishings, many of which were built with solid teak and evoked a cool 50s and 60s vibe.
A free interactive opportunity you can try is to take a photo of yourself on the set of a catalog cover. After you position yourselves on the furniture, the camera clicks and, and in a few seconds a glossy 8x12 color photo of you comes from a whirring machine in the wall. When we posted the one of us on Facebook, our friends really thought we were modeling for an IKEA catalog cover!
During our visit, a temporary exhibit called IKEA Hacked focused on a recent trend to repurpose IKEA products and furniture into functional art. More than 30 artists and designers from all over the world were invited to present their take on hacking IKEA products. We saw everything from a chair made of pencils to a globe-shaped light fixture made of multiple bulbs. It’s inspiring to see people’s creativity and the cool new inventions they come up with. There’s even an Instagram feed devoted to IKEA hacks.
One new concept we learned from our visit to the museum was something called the IKEA Effect. If you’ve ever bought anything from IKEA, you know how time consuming putting it together can be. Figuring out what goes where and then using that odd-shaped Allen key to connect everything together is not for the faint of heart. Well, it turns out there’s a method to the madness. When you spend a great deal of time on anything—whether it’s planting a garden, writing an article, or putting together a Billy bookcase— the amount of pleasure you receive from the finished product is commensurate with the amount of effort it took to finish it. That’s why you love your IKEA products so much!
And I have to confess I do—even though my husband has been the one wielding the Allen key and putting our IKEA furniture together through the years. Back in the late 80s with two little toddlers and another baby on the way, we bought two of the famous ergonomic IKEA armchairs. They were perfect for rocking a fussy baby to sleep in my arms. Those chairs, since recovered, have been passed on to my son Jasper, in whose living room they currently reside. They’re still my favorite!
In the 90s, we bought a beautiful L-shaped leather couch from IKEA’s scratch-and-dent department at a price we could afford. That couch also was a fixture in our home for many years. Even though it’s gone to furniture heaven, I have many memories of watching TV and gathering with loved ones on that comfortable couch. Sometimes it feels like IKEA is a part of our family—and these iconic pieces of furniture, kitchen gadgets, and wall hangings make us feel at home.