Tim Richards says 'Hej!' to Swedish design as he climbs, then descends through the biggest IKEA in the world.
A question occurs: when Swedes visit the biggest Ikea store in the world, do they order the famous “Swedish meatballs”? Or is the dish simply “meatballs”?
I'm travelling through the drab south-west suburbs of Stockholm on a commuter train, looking for answers to the hard questions. I might not be Mikael Blomkvist, the Millennium series' detective hero who unravels mysteries involving psychopaths and dirty money, but I've read the first book, walked by his fictional address and visited his local café.
I'm staying in the hip district of Sodermalm, where novelist Stieg Larsson lived and set much of Blomkvist's life. I'm feeling gritty, I'm feeling noir (in a Scandi kind of way), and I reckon I can deduce the secret of Ikea's worldwide popularity by visiting its biggest outlet in the world.
You might think that the furniture giant's success speaks for itself, with its merchandise present in nearly everyone's homes. Its ubiquity was even satirised by cult film Fight Club, in which Edward Norton's character discusses his furniture fetish while walking through a room with Ikea-esque price tags popping up from every item he passes.
Still, there should be clues about Ikea's distinctive style and success in the country that birthed it, and I've sighted some large ones on the journey from central Stockholm: numerous bulky concrete housing blocks. They were the product of the Million Program, a public housing project by the Swedish government in the 1960s and '70s that filled the 'burbs with modernist blocks that remain more functional than pretty.
They look, frankly, like better-maintained versions of the Cold War buildings in the ex-communist countries to Sweden's south and east. Even my hotel in cool “Soder” has the air of having once been a dowdy housing block, since converted.
In truth, Swedish architecture seems to favour simple, unfussy lines, whatever the century. The squares and cathedrals of the oldest and most picturesque part of Stockholm, Gamla Stan, are sober and plain compared with the curvy lines and colourful facades of Central Europe.
Even Sodermalm's remaining art nouveau buildings, occupied by wealthy factory owners in the suburb's industrial heyday, look positively minimalist in relation to the florid versions of Vienna. This adds an extra clue to divining the origin of Ikea's simple design lines.
Having made it to Skarholmen station, and then threaded my way through a vast shopping mall and along paths leading beneath a freeway, I'm confronted by a large circular building with the familiar logo on the roof; built in 1965 and said to be inspired by the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Ikea Kungens Kurva covers a whopping 56,301 square metres, spread across five levels and surrounded by 1850 parking spaces.
Entry is via a broad concrete square decorated with garden furniture and pot plants, with a big friendly “Hej!” on the front door. Then it's up long escalators divided by a cavity filled with jumbled napkin packs, a sort of art installation, and I'm in the belly of the beast.
A map suggests the optimal journey is via circles downward from the top, inviting snide comparisons to Dante's nine circles of hell. I'm making my first circuit around the building's top floor, inspecting a series of mocked-up rooms filled with furniture and homewares (and featuring more white than a Eurovision final), when my clues fall into place.
This relatively spare, neat-and-tidy look wasn't just an aesthetic design choice, it was a necessity for an urban populace largely living in compact apartments. There are decorative elements here, of course, but overall it's about that old saw, "form follows function". I'm starting to understand Ikea's finicky obsession with storage options.
As if to confirm my deductions, I immediately arrive at a section labelled “55 square metres”, for people living in really tight spaces. A dizzying array of living room setups follow, in every theme imaginable, though there's definitely more brightly coloured floral designs than you could get away with in Australia. There's also a puzzling number of black-and-white prints depicting cities such as New York and Paris; perhaps the Swedes have a little cultural cringe of their own?
All of a sudden I'm back where I started, which is odd because I feel I've hardly moved at all. There's an escalator down, or I could explore the slightly lower inner floor contained within the outer circle. But a restaurant has also appeared on my left, presenting an opportunity to solve the meatball question.
The answer is yes, they're just “meatballs” – sort of. Though Swedes are stunningly fluent in English, this store displays only Swedish notices. So my meatball treat is kottbullar. As in Ikea's Australian outposts, they're served with mashed potato and a pink jammy pile of lingonberries. Unexpectedly, given the Swedes' traditional love-hate relationship with alcohol, this Ikea store is licensed. Add a Danish beer to accompany the meatballs, and lunch is served. Haute cuisine it ain't, but as comfort food it works.
I won't bore you with my long, circular descent to the ground floor, or my lengthy stroll through a flatpack warehouse big enough to satisfy the Norse gods. Though there are Ikeas back home, this has been an interesting experience. Throughout Stockholm and this building you can sense the tensions between mass production and individuality, and one-size-fits-all simplicity versus colour and variety; and it's revealing of the character of the city and its people.
Depending on your viewpoint, this gigantic circular furniture store would represent either a temple to design or a portal to the netherworld. Though for true Hell, I think, you'd have to visit about 2pm on a Sunday.
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Stockholm Visitors Board.
Finnair (1300 132 944; finnair.com) has connections from Australia to Stockholm via Helsinki.
Scandic Malmen (+46 8 5173 4700; scandichotels.com) in the centre of the lively café and nightlife district of Sodermalm has rooms from $140 a night.
A cool alternative is the STF Hostel af Chapman & Skeppsholmen, on a historic sailing ship (+46 8 463 2266; stfchapman.com). Dorm beds from $36 a night, rooms from $82.
Ikea, Kungens Kurva, Skarholmen is open 10am-8pm daily. Access via Skarholmen station or the regular free bus from Vasagatan next to Stockholm Central station.