I have a fantasy about Ikea: While shopping, I don’t hear the closing announcement and security overlooks me on its evening sweep. I have no choice but to spend the night inside the store. To bide my time until the opening hour, I try out all of the chairs, sofas, beds, light fixtures, outdoor furniture and stuffed animals. For dinner, I raid the cafe and eat Swedish meatballs dipped in lingonberry jam. When I run out of meatballs, I eat just the jam, with a giant serving spoon from the kitchen department. After the sugar high has worn off, I fall asleep in the lifestyle I covet the most.
I assumed the likelihood of my fantasy coming true was as low as me assembling a shelving unit without cursing. But then, on a July trip in Sweden, I had to pinch myself. The chair was a Bernhard. The lamp was a Riggad. The trash can was a Mjosa. The sink was an Ensen. Yes, it was happening: I was sleeping in an Ikea.
Almhult doesn’t call itself IKEAville, though it could. Founder Ingvar Kamprad grew up on a nearby farm and established his first store here in 1958. In 2012, a new outpost opened in Almhult. It isn’t the biggest store in the world (Kungens Kurva in Stockholm holds that title), but it does carry the largest range of Ikea products. Four years later, the Ikea Museum arrived, coinciding with the expansion of the Ikea Hotell. Both sites run restaurants, and meatballs are on the menu. The only detail missing from my full-on Ikea immersion was losing my car in the immense parking lot. I took the train, because I didn’t need to relive that nightmare.
This being Sweden, the land of subtlety, I didn’t see any Ikea billboards or neon signs rubbing the charm off the village square. Near the train station, I noticed a whisper of a sign that led me up and over the tracks and onto the Ikea campus. The blue-and-yellow flags of Ikea and Sweden rustled in the wind like fraternal twin banners. Several Ikea buildings — Fastigheter, Communications, Test Lab and Tillsammans — lined the lot. I turned my back on the Ikea Museum and walked into my fantasy.
The Ikea Hotell dates from 1964, when the company built accommodations for shoppers who drove a distance to stroll through the showroom and order furniture. In the lobby, I felt like one of those early customers. If only I had a clipboard so I could check off the items I wanted to take home. Instead, I had to crawl on my hands and knees to look for the labels. When I couldn’t find the product name, I approached the front desk.
“Can you please look up the cow-print ottoman for me?” I asked the attendant, pointing at the dairy farm-chic object in one of several seating areas.
He happily obliged — “I have time. I’m working till 6 a.m.” — and turned the computer screen to show me his findings. I could have played this game all night.
My room resided on the second floor in the new section of the hotel. The guest rooms come in four categories, such as the Family Room, which features curtained bunk beds, and the 45-square-foot Cabin, ideal for solo travelers with retractable limbs. I chose the Grand Lit, an update on the original Grand Standard.
If I had taken the museum tour before I had checked in, I might not have been so startled when I first entered the room. Instead of the multi-textured and -patterned look on the ground floor, my room resembled a hospital recovery room. It contained a few pieces of furniture (bed, desk, chair) in soothing monochromatic tones (white, blue-gray, light wood). The hot pink hook and hanger provided the sole pops of color.
The second time I stepped inside, I had gained a better understanding of Kamprad’s egalitarian and economical aesthetic, and I embraced the room with a newfound appreciation. The minimal style, I now realized, upheld the principles of Democratic Design, a philosophy that promotes form, function, quality, sustainability and low price. As long as I didn’t raid the Borrow Cabinet, which was stocked with loaner accessories, I could honor Kamprad’s spirit. I just had to resist that fuzzy woolly mammoth throw.
The English-language tour started in front of Kamprad’s face.
“He would not have liked this,” our guide, Ebba, said of the oversize portrait of the founder that graced the museum entrance.
Kamprad was a humble, deferential man who credited his staff — all 208,000 of them in 2018, the year he died at age 91 — for the success of Ikea. A wall quote summed up his hiring strategy as, “When looking for co-workers, I look for people that are good at the things that I’m bad at.”
Ebba urged us to approach the artwork. Kamprad’s eyes, ears, nose and neck dissolved into tiny head shots of his employees, 5,000 in all.
The museum follows several thematic tracks. Ebba chose “Our roots,” but encouraged our group to independently explore the others, including “Ikea through the ages” and “The many sides of Ingvar Kamprad.” We threaded our way through a hallway plastered with Ikea objects. The items — a pink flower-shaped light, a yellow clock, a green watering can, a blue stool — were grouped by hue, a burst of brightness before we entered a darker Sweden.
The Scandinavian country is one of the wealthiest in the world, but it wasn’t always so prosperous. From the mid-1800s through the 1920s, Swedes struggled to survive. They lived in dank, cramped quarters and scavenged the land for food. Lingonberries were a staple. More than a million people, or about a quarter of the population, fled Sweden for better opportunities in Australia and the United States.
Ebba led us through this rough period in Swedish history.
“This is not an Ikea kitchen,” she said. “But you can see many of the same ideas at Ikea.”
We stood before a rustic kitchen with an open hearth and a hanging baby seat that saved space and protected the infant from the germy floor. She showed us a handmade chair that folds into a table, a piece tailor-made for a survivalist or an urban studio-dweller.
“This is the Ikea Effect,” she said. “You feel proud and lots of love for your furniture.”
In the 1930s, the Social Democratic Party assumed control of the government and initiated a public housing plan called “the people’s home.” The goal was to raise the standard of living through such means as rent caps, subsidies and linoleum flooring.
Kamprad grew up in this era of uplift. He started selling objects at the peewee age of 5 — matchboxes provided by his Aunt Erna, fish he peddled on his mother’s bicycle. When he turned 17, his birthday wish was not a car or a kiss from his sweetheart but to register his own company. He called his business Ikea, which I was surprised to learn is an acronym. A sign on the wall spelled it out: I and K, the initials of his name; E for his family farm, Elmtaryd; and A for the province, Agunnaryd. He originally spelled Ikea with an acute accent on the “e,” but dropped the fake diacritic in the 1960s.
You know how you think you can race through an Ikea, grab what you need and escape while it’s still daylight outside? And how hours later, you find yourself inspecting kitchen cabinets, even though you came for towels? Well, that same voluntary hostage situation takes place at the museum. I couldn’t help myself: I read every informational placard (there were dozens of them) and inspected every piece of sample furniture (ditto). I posed for a mock catalogue cover and looked at family photos, wondering if Kamprad furnished his three boys’ first apartments with Ikea pieces, as my father did mine.
I returned to the ground floor for the gift shop. The retail space was small but, for those of us without restraint, dangerous. I eyed a T-shirt with an Allen wrench design and real furniture, including the Mjolkpall stool that Kamprad and his son, Jonas, designed in 2004. (Kamprad said he was inspired by his first job, milking cows on the family farm.) For Swedish souvenirs, I checked out the Dala horses and the lingonberries, both of which appeared in myriad forms. I Google-translated a lot of words.
At Koket, the museum’s restaurant, I pretended to study the menu even though I had known my order since breakfast time. The cafe offers five versions of meatballs with different accompaniments. The traditional Kottbullar cozies up with potatoes, lingonberries, pickled vegetables and cream sauce; the salmon balls share plate space with three kinds of peas, egg and potatoes. I picked the veggie balls, which seemed to have rolled east into India. The kitchen staff piled on the curry, yellow rice, mango chutney, dill raita, chapati bread and roasted chickpeas.
I carried my meal across the parking lot to the hotel and ordered an Ikea lager at the bar. Three guys sitting in Ikea chairs positioned themselves before a TV screen airing the women’s World Cup semifinal between the Netherlands and Sweden. We all howled, the universal sound of disappointment, when the Dutch scored the winning goal.
I went upstairs to my room, curled up in the Rodtoppa comforter and lay my head on the Arenpris pillows. Then, I bid my fantasy a good night.
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IKEAgatan 1, Almhult
The hotel is completely furnished with Ikea products, down to the trash can in the fitness center. The ground floor offers a restaurant, bar and gift shop — a mini-version of the museum shop across the parking lot. Guests can also prepare meals in a community kitchen on the second floor. Four room types are available for solo travelers, couples and families keen on bunk beds. Rates start at about $52 per night and include a generous breakfast buffet.
IKEAgatan 5, Almhult
Meatballs are the star of the menu. Stick with the traditional, which come with potatoes and lingonberries, or stretch your palate with veggie, salmon, chicken or oriental balls. And for dessert, chocolate balls. The cafe also serves salads and non-round sweets, such as Swedish cheesecake with cream and strawberry jam. Open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed major holidays. Meatball platters about $8.
IKEAgatan 5, Almhult
Learn all about Ikea and its founder Ingvar Kamprad through exhibits that explore such topics as Swedish history, Scandinavian design and furniture fads. English-language tours are held in July and August. The museum also hosts exhibits and has a gift shop with a curated selection of Ikea items. Open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed major holidays. Adult admission costs about $6; free for children 17 and under.