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Swedishness

WRITER: GINNY FIGLAR

The writer Ginny Figlar sitting on the staircase outside her home in Portland, Oregon.

Is it Sweden, or is it IKEA? Experience Ginny’s personal perspective on Swedish culture, coming from the US but working for IKEA of Sweden in Älmhult, the heart and birthplace of IKEA.

“I didn’t know much about the Swedish culture when I applied for a job to work at IKEA in Älmhult, Sweden. But, after five years as a copywriter in “the heart of IKEA,” it seems that some Swedishness has rubbed off on me.

Despite moving back to America, I’ve developed a strong affinity for white walls, unfinished wood, the warmth of tealights, and placing carved Swedish Dala horses on practically every free shelf and windowsill in my home.

Light-coloured walls and candles fight the dark winter’s never-ending grey weather, which is not unlike Sweden here in Portland, Oregon, while wood makes me feel closer to nature. I blame my long walks in the Swedish forest for that. But it goes much deeper than home furnishing. If I could sum up Swedishness in one or two words, it would be simplicity.

A boy and a girl in their pyjamas, playing in the living room.

Simplicity as an approach to life. And heart. It sounds so nice. Almost too nice. But it didn’t always make sense to me. In the beginning, I found it strange that, all around Sweden, shops closed at 5 or 6 p.m. during the week and by 2 p.m. on Saturdays (and they didn’t even open on Sundays). At first, I wondered why the shop owners didn’t want to make money. Then I realized they just valued their time with their families more. It’s why parents get 16 months of parental leave when their children are born. Caring for each other is a priority, and it starts right at birth.

A boy in his pyjamas sitting on a black TV bench in front of the window, eating a sandwich.
A close-up of writer Ginny Figlar.

"If I could sum up Swedishness in one or two words, it would be simplicity.

A black Swedish Dala horse, a gold-coloured Christmas star and a black picture frame with a poster with capital letters shown in front of two French doors.

At work, people felt more like family than co-workers (and still do). There were no egos. There was no hierarchy. This made working in a corporate environment quite refreshing, but it also meant that decisions were made by committee. In other words, they weren’t made very quickly. But everyone worked together, respected each other and had fun. Despite the hard work, people came first. Life came first. You could say the stuff that matters most came first. I’ve often reflected on my time working there and wondered if what I experienced was because I was living in Sweden or working at IKEA. The line always seemed blurred to me. Was it the Swedish culture or the IKEA culture?

Last year, a project in the Netherlands helped clarify that for me. I was asked to work on internal communication ideas around IKEA core values at the head IKEA office in Delft. I would be working with a team of Dutch co-workers that I had never met, and I was the only one from outside the office. There is some kind of magic that happens when you brainstorm ideas with people you are comfortable with. There is a trust there, and knowing how everyone works helps you get to those hard-to-reach, really good ideas. So I was pretty nervous when I arrived to meet everyone for the first time at the kick-off meeting.

But from the moment we were all together in the same room, I felt an overwhelming sense of familiarity. It was as if I had worked with these people for years. The same things I experienced in Sweden were happening right then and there. Swedishness was coming to life all around me – it wasn’t just about Sweden anymore. It was about values, and values don’t have borders. They live inside each of us and thrive on being connected. That way you just click with some people.

That’s when I realised – it’s IKEA.”

And some more highlights…