Round Helsingborg in southern Sweden the countryside looks flat packed like Ikea furniture, with only a couple of factory chimneys rising like pegs from the board-straight horizon beneath a sky as flat and grey as Swedish bureaucratic wallpaper

Ikea houses

Andrew Brown for Night and Day 17 December 1997

Near Helsingborg in southern Sweden, even the countryside looks like flat packed furniture, with only a couple of factory chimneys rising like pegs from the board-straight horizon beneath a sky as grey as wallpaper. It is a perfect place for Ikea to sell houses. Almost all Swedish houses have, inside, the slight dolls-house feeling that you find in an Ikea warehouse, even when they have been furnished somewhere else: a mixture of tidiness and impermanence as if the whole thing were a stage set which would all be changed when the market moves on. But in most of the country, this daintiness is balanced by the overpowering landscapes outside. The wilderness is always close. Great rounded granite boulders appear like whales surfacing to break up the classical monotony of housing estates; forests must be held back from the road by spaces cleared to discourage the elks from leaping in front of passing cars. Only in Skåne, the southernmost province of the country, facing Denmark, does nature seem to have been ironed flat, and to stretch out endless and pointless as an Ikea warehouse.

The first tenants of the first Ikea estate have just moved into five bright yellow L–shaped houses in a suburb of Helsingborg. Each house holds six flats, and each flat holds a fragment of a family. "The nuclear family is dead in Sweden", says Madeleine Nobs, Ikea’s guide to the houses, herself a single mother. "70% of Swedish families are headed by single parents."

You cannot, yet, walk into an Ikea store and order a house to take away; but when the first announcement of these flats was made, last March, Ingrid Frennesson started queuing for hers at six in the morning. By half past eight, two other people had joined her, and by 10.30, when the office that would process their applications opened, the queue was really long. But that was only the start of the craze. When Ikea announced a similar estate would be built in Stockholm, people queued for nine hours for a chance to rent a flat. Now it is building eleven estates in Sweden, one in every city where it has a warehouse, and two in Helsingborg. They are popular partly because they are cheap — at least by Swedish standards. But they also answer to deeper needs: mass-produced, well-insulated, cheap and cheerful, they turn divorce into a commodity item, rather as cars once made romance available to everyone.

"The difference between Swedish and British flats is that Swedish flats are hamster-proof" says Ms Frennesson, an executive with Findus, the frozen-food company. In an English house, when a hamster escapes, there is always a crack in the floorboards, or a space behind the bath, where it can hide. In Swedish houses, everything fits tightly: when her daughters’ hamster escaped, it could only hide in the sofa-bed.

On the other hand, to an English eye, the Ikea flats are not much bigger than hamster cages. They are scrupulously clean and neat, but they have to be. The largest are just under 60 square metres and the smaller size just under 50. This is not a great deal of space for a mother and two children, or even for two elderly people with a lifetime’s accumulation of stuff. Instead of a cellar, or an attic, the tenants have storage spaces in long rows of sheds outside. All this is usual enough in Sweden: the Ikea houses are surrounded by very similar, if older, blocks of low flats; on the other side of the main street are the detached houses where families with two parents live.

Ingrid Frennesson moved in to her flat at the beginning of December, with Anna, 9, and Emma, 7, from one of the detached houses after her marriage broke up. "People asked how on earth we could all fit in to a place like this, coming form somewhere twice the size, with our own garden and everything. But it is surprisingly easy. When you are a single parent you don’t have time to garden, anyway, or to keep up a large house; and the money we saved by moving here can be spent on other things."

She has squeezed in a piano for the children, (they would still rather listen to the Spice Girls) and specially built cupboards and bookcases, made for her by an uncle who is a carpenter, hang on the walls. It seems a little like living on board ship: cosy and tightly organised.

Her daughters were out when we talked, rehearsing for a candle-lit procession on horseback to mark the feast of St Lucia, which is the great Swedish festival of hope. As it grows fully dark, at around four in the afternoon, young girls form a procession dressed in long white dresses and holding candles. At the head of the procession walks one girls wearing a crown of candles in her hair. It is normally too cold and windy to do with outdoors, but everywhere indoors that people gather, the girls sing traditional hymns. The thin voices rising through the darkness make an extraordinary symbol of hope and of rebirth. There is a similar promise to the Ikea houses: that you can drive to the warehouse and buy a wholly new life in a box.

Of course, it is not quite that simple. the houses themselves are not built by Ikea, but by Skanska, the largest Swedish construction company. Ikea only markets them, and Lars-Åke Lindvall, Skanska’s representative, was not wildly amused when I said that I imagined his customers standing in the wilderness with a heap of flat-packed walls and ceilings and an Allen key, wondering which bit goes where. "We have one of the most modern house factories in Europe." he said. It really is a house factory: three walls a day emerge from it, complete with windows and fittings, ready to be placed together. The shell of a house can be assembled in a week. At present it takes about five and a half months to build an estate of five houses, starting with a patch of bare ground and finishing with five houses, each complete with washing machine, kitchen, and a gunmetal grey Ikea coat-rack by the door.

Lars- Åke himself has moved into one of the flats after a prospective tenant backed out at the last minute. Originally, no one form Ikea or from Skanska was to have lived on the estate, but he himself is separated, with a six-year-old son who comes every alternate weekend, so it made perfect sense to live over the shop, as it were. His flat was the only one that seemed to have been furnished entirely from new: the most prominent feature is a tall drinks cabinet all made of glass so that its precious contents can be admired from all round the room. "We designed these for the modern way of life." He says. "These places make sense when one is newly separated or divorced, as I am."

Customers also get a cheque for £300 to spend on Ikea furnishings: this is at least enough for a cheap sofa. They can choose from four different patterns of wallpaper, and whether they want to have the living space arranged as a single large room, or a partition wall installed to make a second bedroom. It’s like buying a Ford Fiesta, except you get to fit the accessories yourself. Very few of the furnishings we saw were from Ikea; some of the genuine Ikea furnishings were so old that they seemed from another shop entirely, which sold Seventies retro-chic like black-lacquered chairs. All the flats have the same floor plan; all of them have the kitchen equipment in the same place; all have two rounded metal pillars in the doorway between the main room and the hall. Yet it is astonishing how much individuality and personality each one shows. They are not quite the standard Skanska line of two-story blocks of flats. They have slightly higher ceilings than normal — 2.6 metres instead of 2.4 — and, of course, the famous washing machines. It is illegal to build houses in Sweden without access to washing machines.

It is also illegal for dogs to make parachute jumps. One might not think it from the outside of these houses but there are reckless spirits within. Freya, a large black dog who lives at 26A, had been going to make a parachute jump on live television until the authorities stopped her. She would have been strapped to a more experienced, human, parachutist, in order to demonstrate how sniffer dogs could be dropped into disaster areas after an earthquake, to help with the hunt for survivors. Her owner, Maria Liljeblad, still keeps the newspaper cuttings about Freya’s abortive leap for freedom.

The details that distinguish the flats from the outside are small: outside Maria Liljeblad’s flat is a wooden plaque, saying Maria and Karl live here. It is one of the houses that is entirely full of single women: Maria is forty and Karl, her son, eighteen months old. She looks much younger: having a child when your old rejuvenates you, she says, and laughs.The kitchen table is not messy, exactly — no Swedish table ever could be — but it was less than perfectly hygeinic when we arrived, for she was preparing her traditional Christmas decorations with pine branches set in baskets full of earth.

For Maria, the little flat is about the right size, even shared with a very small child and a very large dog. She moved from a three-room flat that was considerably larger; before that, as part of a couple, she lived in a detached house twice the size. "The next stop would have to be a bedsit" she says, and laughs. She was third in the queue to get a flat, having started at 7.30 in the morning, instead of six, like Ingrid Frennesson. Maria works, as a dietician, full-time, even though Karl is so small; and she really appreciates, she says, the little touches that distinguishes these houses from the normal Swedish block of flats. The most obvious is that there are gardens, or there will be. At the moment there is nothing growing outside but a few birch trees left over from the forest which had been here before the houses. The mud around is still raw from the bulldozers, and only one lawn has been planted. There are a few skeletal twigs where the hedges will be. Even the wooden gates which are meant to lead into the yard of each house stand oddly by themselves. But there will be lawns and flowerbeds outside the flats next spring, and even a row of allotments for vegetables.

This is such a simple and cheering idea that it is a wonder no one has thought of it before. I lived for five years in Swedish flats quite like these, though larger and shabbier, and one of the most completely depressing things about them was that the only greenery around was viciously spiked bushes planted apparently to repel pedestrians and, if possible, blind and maim them too. The other thing I remember about those flats was the way in which ignoring the neighbours was brought to the status of an art form. It was as if people reacted to the knowledge that everyone else lived in identical flats by asserting their own individuality to point of madness. No one had curtains: one night my wife and I watched a couple in the block opposite waltz naked round their living room till passion and vodka overcame them. The neighbour to our left did not speak once to us in three years: the only way we knew he was alive was by the occasional quivering of the potted plants that screened his kitchen windows.

In the Ikea houses, people talk, or so they say. Everyone knew who some of their neighbours were, despite having only been there a month or so. Inga-Britt and Thore Sjöberg, knew who lived in all six of the flats in their building; but then they are pensioners, and, as if to make up for the transience of the relationships all around them, have been married for 46 years. They had moved here to be close to their youngest daughter and help her with her children. Their eldest grandchildren had taken over their old flat and all its furnishings in Ängelholm, fifteen miles away, where they had lived all their lives. "It was a huge decision to move here" says Thore. He speaks carefully, giving weight to his words. But they were encouraged that they had done the right thing by a sighting of Ingvar Kamprad, the mythical multi-millionaire who founded (and is the IK in) Ikea; and who had inspected the project in the autumn. He had asked them if anything was wrong, but no: they were wholly delighted.

Everything in their flat spoke of an older, more delicate age: a dishcloth concealed the washing up as it dried. We drank black coffee from delicate china cups and nibbled at gingerbread biscuits. They talked about the small satisfactions of life in Ängelholm: the golf that was an easy drive away; the fact that their flat is placed to catch the sun both in the morning and the evening.

Their walls are decorated with pen and ink drawings of old Ängelholm: a fine old town of half-timbered houses and broad streets. All have been demolished now and replaced by modern concrete buildings, like almost everything else in Sweden. Ödåkra, the suburb of Helsingborg where the Ikea houses are, counts as a real community: there are a bank, a shop, a library, a school and a health centre within walking distance. But all are modern, purpose-built buildings. Only one farmhouse, incongruously surrounded by modern flats, seemed less than thirty years old as I walked around.

About a mile from the project stands the Ikea warehouse itself, in a huge shopping complex alongside ToysRUs, Hennes Mauritz, MacDonalds, and a mall full of smaller shops. Just about the only thing you cannot get is a coffin. The Co-op in Sweden used to have its own undertakers, as well as selling everything else except alcohol, but it seems there is no call for such services in the new capitalist Sweden. The mall complex is one of those vast areas where, if you have a car and a credit card, you can get everything else you need in life; I wandered round the Ikea store, watching mothers with their children selecting new living room furniture, and couples quarrelling among the bookshelves, and wondering what would lead people to buy houses here, and not anywhere else. At the checkout, a young couple were just pushing a heavily loaded trolley through: one of those tricky operations when it seems that everything can overbalance and spill your hopes all over the floor, but they managed, and as the last of their packaging emerged safely, she turned to him and looked upwards with the most radiant smile. They embraced clumsily. Their new life could begin, all newly furnished. I thought: this is our secular engagement rite. Places like Ikea really do function now the way that churches used to: we go to them to mark the changes in our lives.

When we fall in love, we buy new furniture. When our children are born, we buy more. A new job means a new sofa; and then, when we get divorced, we need to buy furniture all over again. The old stuff percolates down to the young who don’t have lives of their own. The extraordinary thing is not that Ikea has moved into the housing market, but that the growth market in housing is for people who are trading down: who need, or can afford, less space than they had before. That cannot only be true in Sweden. The company has been astonished by the amount of interest that these houses have aroused in England; and if it does expand them overseas will almost certainly start building them here first.

"We are always very careful to find out what our customers want." Says Madeleine Nobs. "We will not sell things which lots of people don’t want, even if they are good and cheap. But here we are sure that we have found the sort of houses that people want to buy. They are about a quarter cheaper than the competition thinks they should be. That doesn’t bother us. We would be happy if other people tried to compete. We’re sure these are flats which our customers really want."

The future is here, and it’s hamster proof.

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