U.S. Ikea Is 20, And Still Frisky

Mats Nilsson, Ikea's U.S. creative director, at a recent design conference in Washington.
Mats Nilsson, Ikea's U.S. creative director, at a recent design conference in Washington. (By Len Spoden For The Washington Post)
By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 15, 2005

Mats Nilsson grew up 50 miles from Almhult, the rural Swedish village where the first Ikea store was born. Even as a preteen, he was drawn to the store's vast aisles of modern design at moderate prices, arranging his bedroom with Ivar pine shelves, canvas director's chairs and fresh blue-and-white-striped wallpaper.

Now, as creative director for Ikea in the United States, Nilsson has become a key player in the continuing success of the Scandinavian chain. Last month, at the annual Industrial Designers Society of America conference in Washington, he gave a presentation on the current status and future ambitions of the giant global purveyor of affordable style.

The first Ikea store in this country opened 20 years ago just outside Philadelphia. There are now 24 U.S. locations, including Woodbridge, College Park and Baltimore. In the decades since its founding in 1943, the name has become synonymous with low-cost urban chic, stylish living in small spaces, storage solutions, multi-tasking furniture, and an aesthetic that reaches from Scandinavian country to spare modern. The chain operates 215 stores in 33 countries, drawing a million visitors a day and annual worldwide sales of $15.5 billion.

How does a massive operation premised on inventiveness keep churning out fresh designs, such as Klubbo powder-coated steel-and-ash nesting tables, Linjar kitchen cabinet doors of high-gloss blue finish and Jules avocado green beech swivel chairs? By keeping a close eye on changing demographics, housing trends, global cross-currents and economic realities.

Nilsson, 43, started working for the company in 1982, in the display department of a Stockholm store. After rising through the ranks, including stints in Saudi Arabia and Italy, he moved to Ikea's U.S. headquarters in Philadelphia four years ago. He travels to Sweden about twice a year but spends a lot of his time visiting U.S. stores to make sure the company message remains crisp and on target, adding products consumers like, dropping what they don't.

We caught up with him at the conference here after his presentation to product designers eager to land a design on Ikea's shelves.

How do you like living in America?

America is the land of plenty and excess. There is something in America that has puzzled me. It's about American tastes. Why are the most popular styles here traditional and fake antiques? In the America of the 1950s, housewives were using new things, like Tupperware and Formica, and there was a modern design revolution. Now, everyone is striving to look like Martha Stewart at Turkey Hill or Williams-Sonoma. That is different from Europe, where there is a great appreciation of modern. I think Ikea is changing this slowly in America but not as fast as we would like.

Do Americans still have misconceptions about Ikea ?

When we opened in America, we had European sizes in our mattresses and bedding, and that hurt us a lot. That is all changed now. Also, our kitchen measurements have been modified to fit the American market. Some people never got the message that we now sell everything to fit standard American sizes.

Who is your customer?

We want to be relevant to people with limited budgets, too much stuff and too little space. We want to appeal to families with kids and to kids themselves. We want to appeal not to the rich, but to the smart.

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