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Architecture + Branding: IKEA carves up cavernous expanses and crafts crave-worthy cozy confines

1-Acronyms and archetype

For the initiated fans, IKEA is synonymous with stylish ready-to-assemble (RTA) furnishings and home goods exuding cheap chic and fashionable functionality. Alternatively, for those less fond of the brand, it is seen as an outlet selling cheap, disposable, low quality furniture.

Appealing to the converts and responding to the critics, IKEA describes itself as providing “… a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them” (source: ikea.com). Combining style with low prices, IKEA, not coincidently, ranks as the largest furniture retailer in the world (source: wikipedia).

IKEA logo and typeface

The IKEA name is an acronym, which consists of the initials of the founder’s name (Ingvar Kamprad), his childhood farm (Elmtaryd), and home parish (Agunnaryd, in Småland, South Sweden). (source: wikipedia). Founded in Sweden in 1943, IKEA remains privately held, extensively controlled by the founder through a series of profit and non-profit organizations and foundations.

Originating in Småland, Sweden, now based in Denmark, the IKEA group of companies sells and distributes its products through its global network of over 300 retail stores in 38 countries, clustered mainly in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia (source: wikipedia).

2-Out-of–home advertising

IKEA has a long history of taking chances, going out-of-the-box, and straying away from the norm when it comes to promoting the brand and broadening its appeal. The company has demonstrated a willingness to not take itself too seriously, often portraying itself playfully, in a profoundly tongue-in-cheek manner.

Nonetheless, IKEA has taken a leadership role in tackling serious social issues. In 1994, early to embrace alternative lifestyles, IKEA was one of the first companies to feature a homosexual couple in their television advertisements (source: wikipedia). Subsequent commercials depicted Gay and Transgender individuals also (source: wikipedia).

In addition, it has often managed to find innovative ways to shock and surprise, bringing attention to the brand, by recasting non-traditional spaces with IKEA products and flair. Transforming the mundane into memorable, IKEA has revamped, subway train cars in Russia (2008), the monorail in New York (2008), heavily trafficked metro stations in Paris (2010), temporarily altering them with a flurry of furnishings and décor items into life-size mobile showrooms (source: wikipedia).

IKEA decorated metro station, Paris, France (source: fastcompany.com)

Likewise, the temporary “pop up apartment” installation in Brooklyn (2008) brought the retail store into the streets, ever closer to the consumer, exemplifying the brand vision “… to create a better everyday life for the many people” (source: ikea.com).


In early 2009, prior to the Southampton (UK) store opening, the MV Red Osprey of Red Funnel started a year-long deal that would see it sport the IKEA yellow and blue colours, instead of the Red Funnel red and white (source: wikipedia).

MV Red Osprey of Red Funnel in IKEA blue and yellow livery (source: wikipedia)

Emboldened with a willingness to experiment with various innovative and sometimes ground-breaking out-of-home advertising campaigns, IKEA also employs its cache of distinctive retail stores in establishing, communicating, and reinforcing the brand position.

3-Augmenting the big-box

Wrapped in an aura of Nordic cool, IKEA has skilfully sidestepped some of the big-box invective, escaping unscathed, whilst proposing, in many instances, substantially larger, more imposing stores than those of its stigma afflicted rivals.

Sam’s Club (Former), Route 31, Clay, New York

IKEA retail stores simply cannot be classified as big, they are truly massive. Many of the retail outlets equal or exceed their big-box neighbours in size, at times eclipsing them completely (source: wikipedia). While a standard Wal-Mart Superstore may measure in at roughly 160,000 sq. ft, many IKEA stores surpass 400,000 sq. ft. in size (source: globalnews.ca, lesaffaires.com). Notwithstanding a sampling of newer smaller concept stores, mostly constrained by site and urban density issues, the basic design premise remains sprawling size and scale.

IKEA store, Stockholm (Kugens Kurva), Sweden (source: googlemaps.com)

Indeed, tasked with the dual purpose of being both, a showroom and a warehouse, an IKEA retail store requires a substantial footprint. This twofold demand ultimately results in buildings of outsized proportions, in length, width, and height, in order to fulfill the supplemental brand objective of immediate availability across the product range. Thus, IKEA stores are expansive, imposing, recognizable, and highly visible from a distance.

IKEA store, Paramus, New Jersey

IKEA store, Vaughan, Ontario

Clad in the colours of the Swedish flag, blue and yellow, and acting very much as immense surrogate billboards, these monuments to merchandising have become an integral part of the brand experience. However, the architectural identity of the stores tends to adhere to a set of guiding principles and overarching features, rather than forceful attempts to apply a pre-ordained prototype design.

IKEA store, Montreal (Ville St Laurent), Quebec (during expansion in 2012)

In fact, there is a clear degree of localization within each IKEA, responding to a myriad of issues including site conditions, environmental concerns, market demands and product mix, to name just a few. Although the basic rectilinear/rectangular form is prevalent, there is an increasing incidence of multi-storey and irregularly shaped retail stores in the IKEA portfolio. Almost without fail, the overarching encompassing feature that binds them together is the colossal scale.

IKEA store, Ottawa, Ontario (during construction in 2011)

Ingress and egress functions occur at separate locations within the storefront. The entrance is typified and highlighted with a preponderance of the contrasting yellow colour, a more liberal use of glass, and a ceremonial path ringed with flagpoles, benches and other accoutrements.

IKEA store, Montreal (Ville St Laurent), Quebec

The main customer exit, comprised a series of aluminum and glass sliding doors, is comparatively more subdued, with little attention or fanfare, quietly serving its function. The necessary series of emergency exit doors scattered along the perimeter, along with various service rooms and spaces, are made inconspicuous, blurring into the background field of blue coloured metal siding.

IKEA store, Montreal (Ville St Laurent), Quebec

Typically, ground level windows are sparse, clustered near customer touch points, or non-existent, with some windows present at upper storeys, and a spattering of skylights to provide natural light, particularly in the warehouse areas.

In suburban locations, the retail stores are traditionally supported by expansive parking areas which feature easy in and easy out circulation. In denser urban locales, space-saving multi-level parking garages are becoming more prevalent.

Although applying the same principles as other retailers, IKEA has deftly managed to escape much of the criticism lobbed towards other big-box retailers.

IKEA store, Boucherville, Quebec – Front elevation – Right portion

 IKEA store, Boucherville, Quebec – Front elevation – Left portion

In as much, the IKEA ethos is not so much about improving the big-box concept, as it is about augmenting it.

4-It’s a-maze-thing

IKEA’s massive monolithic warehouses give little away from the outset. Upon approach to the main entrance, the imposing vertical presence, a wall of yellow and blue, reveals little at first, effectively increasing pent-up anticipation. Intentionally, a slow process of discovery, a progressive strip tease of domestication delight unravels with every successive step, thus engaging eager, adventurous, and curious shoppers to discover ever more of the store.

 IKEA store, Boucherville, Quebec

Although IKEA was not the first furniture retailer to begin displaying their goods in themed room settings, it has certainly gained an edge over the competition. In order to ensure that shoppers see as much of the merchandise as possible, circulation inside the store is designed to flow in one direction, along a predetermined path: entrance, showroom, warehouse, checkout, and exit.

The path, often compared to an elaborate maze, adds a sense of adventure and discovery to the shopping experience, uncovering new design ideas at every turn and around every corner. The intentional misdirection and myriad turns disorient shoppers, and carves up the massive footprint into less overwhelming parts. However, gently coercing shoppers to view and experience the entire IKEA range of offerings, in a soft sell manner, is the real design ingenuity of the path.

IKEA sample showroom, kitchen

Furthermore, the sheer size warrants an almost leisurely exploratory pace, as shoppers meander, peruse, shuffle and dodge their way down the path. Astutely, shortcuts and cheat routes are provided along the path for those that would prefer to jump forward towards the warehouse directly.

Yet for those taking in the entirety of the experience, IKEA provides several other features to increase stickiness, and encourage increased time in-store, such as a supervised play area for the children and shockingly inexpensive meals in the cafeteria.

IKEA cafeteria, Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York (source: wikipedia)

And finally, after having invested umpteen amounts of time trekking through the store; it seems almost foolish to leave without a purchase.

5-Elmtaryd to Emulated

Although not initially in the home furnishings business, IKEA nonetheless managed to gain the enviable position of global market leader. During that period, it has improved, if not perfected the process by which to compartmentalize aircraft size hangars into small easy to digest morsels of dwelling bliss, and stock on hand the implicit required levels of product to instantaneously feed the imaginations of many individuals around the globe.

However, IKEA has been studied and analyzed without doubt, and its operating procedures and methods are reproducible by competitors. Case in point, in August of 2011, news stories surfaced about a “fake” IKEA store in Kunming City, China.

Fake IKEA store uncovered in 2011, Kunming city, China (source: reuters.com)

Parachuted into the store, one would find many of the signature IKEA brand elements, showrooms, wayfinding, signage, fonts, pencils, shopping bags, cafeteria, all emulated and tweaked. However, standing outside, one could certainly not construe the “fake” store for a true blue and yellow IKEA.

IKEA shopping list and pencils

IKEA yellow and blue shopping bags packed into in-store bin

Successful ideas and concepts tend to attract many more imitators than failing concepts, and IKEA will surely continue to receive such unwanted flattery. As IKEA embarks on its expansion plans in North America and around the globe, it would be wise to defend its market position and strengthen its enduring unique brand elements. A cursory overview suggests that the established path of developing monstrously vast retail footprints, with the two-pronged advantage of providing immediacy and abundance, seems destined to continue to fortify the architectural identity as an integral part of IKEA’s brand character.

IKEA store, Ottawa, Ontario (new in background, existing in foreground, during construction in 2011)

All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.


About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.


One thought on “Architecture + Branding: IKEA carves up cavernous expanses and crafts crave-worthy cozy confines

  1. yep really like what youve done here

    Posted by Noctural Nath | August 19, 2012, 5:15 am

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