FLATPACK EXMPIRE examines a company founded in 1943 by Swedish entrepreneur Ingvar Kamprad. IKEA is now a global giant with 375 stores (and counting) in more than 50 countries that chews up 1% of the world’s commercial wood supply every year.
An estimated 1 in 5 children in Britain were conceived on one of the 12.8 million mattresses sold since the first UK store opened in 1987. While the irresistible lure of its Swedish meatballs and Daim cake, make it the 10th largest food retailer in the world - selling 1 billion meatballs a year across the globe.
Notwithstanding these remarkable stats, Flatpack Empire’s premise - a documentary delving under the shrink wrapped skin of the furniture giant’s worldwide operations over the course of a year - sounds about as alluring as a Saturday morning excursion to one of its labyrinthine, relationship wrecking stores.
Though if there’s one thing that the BBC does rather well it’s glossy crime dramas - but if there’s another, it’s make fascinating documentaries out of the most unlikely subjects. Their latest quickly establishes itself as strangely compelling viewing.
As per standard reality documentary format, we meet a variety of characters from the IKEA family - from top brass at IKEA HQ in Sweden, to floor workers in the Warrington branch. We join the central design team as they embark on a new creative journey, partnering with the likes of Sonos and Nike in an attempt to attract millennials. We also meet their latest collaborator Tom Dixon, an “enfant terrible” of British design whose low volume, high value business model is the antithesis of IKEA’s ‘pile it high’ approach to furniture retail.
The documentary makers quickly display a sly sense of humour as Dixon’s big idea of a cradle-to-grave product culminates in his invention of...the sofa bed (or the Bed Sofa as he catchily christens it). It’s a project that quickly shows the fissures between IKEA’s mass-produced, flatpack ethos. An innovation born out of a need to ease transport and cut costs - and the modern consumer’s desire for customised products at high street prices.
Indeed, the programme hints at stormy seas ahead contrasting the Warrington store’s blockbuster opening in 1987 which sparked a retail revolution, with today’s slowing UK sales as the company finds itself fighting for every pound. Attempts to incorporate technology seem timid and clunky, and later we get an eye opening sense of just how conservative the company is as we follow the creation of IKEA’s new catalogue. The front cover must win the approval of “The Catalogue Council”, an administrative wheeze dressed up as democracy that is sure to wring a wry smile from anyone who has ever worked in a large organisation as we watch their members label the inclusion of people as “disturbing” distractions.
As the episode progresses, it becomes clear that IKEA is not the almighty leviathan it appears to be. Having disrupted the retail furniture market so profoundly that IKEA’s self-assembled, Scandanvian designs are now the everyday cheap-as-chips norm. Flatpack Empire presents us with a risk averse bureaucracy that is currently losing the battle to stay innovative, meet changing consumer tastes and keep up with today’s pioneers like Amazon.
The verdict? Flatpack Empire is an unexpectedly intriguing peek behind the blue and yellow curtain and I find myself looking forward to the next episode.
- Aired on BBC Two, February 6 2018 at 21:00.