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Culture

First-ever Ikea exhibition shows simplicity can revolutionize

Swedish retailer Ikea's approach to design not only revolutionized the way people live, it earned its own exhibition in a Munich museum.

Ogla chair from Ikea

Simplicity is key

Walking through the display in the museum Pinakothek der Moderne is not unlike browsing through any of Ikea's branches around the world.

You're led along kilometers of pathways and end up stopping to gaze at things you weren't looking for.

But here, the focus isn't on kitchens, beds or children's furniture, but on design classics: chairs by Gerrit Rietveld and Michael Thonet, the famous String shelves and Bauhaus pieces by Marcel Breuer.

While other design exhibitions tout big names, this one - under the title "Democratic Design" - has a different claim to fame, summed up in a quote from a 1979 Ikea catalogue: "The aesthetic form is here for all. And not just for the museum!"

Indeed, this is the first time a museum has made Ikea the subject of an exhibition.

Billy's roots

Billy shelves from Ikea

Some 28 million Billy shelves have been sold

Corinna Roesner, one of the curators of the exhibition, said the combination of the museum's permanent design exhibition and Ikea pieces was particularly interesting, because visitors could recognize where many of the ideas came from for furniture pieces they are familiar with.

"Since the end of the 1980s, we've collected pieces from Ikea - very selectively, of course," said Roesner of Die Neue Sammlung - The International Design Museum Munich, which presented the show in collaboration with Ikea. "Half of the items [in the exhibition] come from our collection and the other half from the Ikea museum or private lenders."

It's one of the few design shows where a large number of visitors can say that they, too, own an original. For most, it's the "Billy" shelves in white. They have been sold 28 million times since Ikea opened in 1948.

Design philosophy that sells

In 1943, at the age of 17, Ingvar Kamprad started off selling odds and ends like pencils and matches. A few years later, Ikea's founder discovered his ticket to success: furniture that could be packed flat in a box.

Kamprad, who lives in Switzerland, is now one of the wealthiest individuals in the world.

Ikea design, however, is more than just a successful business strategy. One decisive element is that it combines various schools of design that wouldn't otherwise be juxtaposed. Natural, wood-based Swedish Modernism is combined, for example, with international movements such as post-modernism.

Mammut chairs from Ikea

The Ikea look fits into to many different cultures

A concept for practically every culture

"The amazing thing is that it works in Dubai the same way it works in Shanghai, and in Germany just like in the US," said Roesner. "I think one factor is the light, no-frills approach that the pieces have, because they're part of this Scandinavian design tradition. They're not intrusive and fit into many cultural contexts."

Before long, Ikea had become a synonym for people's first furniture purchase.

"The first step was cinder blocks and boards," recalled Roesner. "As soon as we had a little bit of money, we went to Ikea."

The Democratic Design - Ikea exhibition runs through July 12, 2009, in the museum Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. Click on the link below for more details.

Author: Renate Heilmeier / Kate Bowen

Editor: Nancy Isenson

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