Mention Scandinavian furniture to most Americans these days and the name Ikea is likely to come to mind. And little wonder: Since opening its first U.S. store outside Philadelphia in 1985, Ikea has become America’s leading destination for furniture, even as it’s continued its global conquest.
Not only did the company rack up sales of 41.3 billion euros ($45.9 billion) last year, its success in popularizing the Scandinavian aesthetic has opened the door for other mass retailers to the point where a Nordic look for your living room can be had anywhere from Wayfair to Alibaba to Target—and usually at very low prices.
But this dynamic has been a mixed bag for 80-year-old Finnish furniture brand Artek, whose pieces sell at retailers throughout the United States and are not what you’d call cheap. (A Domus lacquered-birch chair, for example, lists for about $700.)
“The reputation of Scandinavian design has both benefited and suffered from [mass availability],” managing director Marianne Goebl told Adweek. “Mass players in fast furniture have of course generated awareness of a certain Nordic aesthetic, but the price for this democratization is extremely high. Fast furniture, like fast fashion, makes things available at a rhythm and a price that is far from what we can offer, but it tends to disappear or self-destroy as fast as it comes to life.”
So when Artek was putting together its latest marketing campaign, it decided that the only way to go was to buck the fast-furniture trend by stressing quality over low prices, timelessness over trendiness and longevity over disposability. Developed with creative shop Kokoro & Moi, the “Conscious Consumption” campaign deploys a series of short slogans—for example, “Buy now, keep forever”—that tout the merits of consuming less and better, over more and cheap.
But the real impact is reserved for the visuals. Artek took a dip into its corporate photo archive and, in a compelling then-and-now montage that uses a torn-paper boundary, produced ads that illustrate how many of its present-day pieces are essentially the same ones that shoppers could have purchased from the company in 1935, the year that renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto founded the brand.
“Our visuals juxtapose images of two products of the same design, which were produced decades apart,” Goebl said. A hanging lamp or a side table from the 1930s, for instance, is “in dialogue with its younger sibling” made in 2020. “This demonstrates to our customers that our products are impervious to passing trends and built to last,” she said.
Artek has been using this rallying cry for a while now. A decade ago, it began putting slogans like “One chair is enough” and “Timeless content inside” on its packaging. The decision to expand that messaging into a full-blown marketing campaign, however, has its roots in a number of broader trends.
One is consumers’ growing concern over sustainability. Not only is cheap particleboard furniture made with a host of chemical adhesives and hardeners, it’s not recyclable. Artek’s pieces, by contrast, use hardwood that’s sustainably grown in Finland. “Each Finnish birch tree harvested to build Artek furniture is 50 to 80 years old—and if a tree takes a lifetime to grow, the furniture made from it should last at least as long,” Goebl said.
And just as consumers’ love affair with fast fashion cooled after shoppers learned that 85% of the stuff winds up in landfills, Artek is wagering that when it comes to flimsy furniture, a similar day of reckoning is coming.
A decade ago, cheap and trendy names like Forever 21, for example, seemed like the wave of the future. But Forever 21 declared bankruptcy last year, and while fast fashion has hardly disappeared, a growing number of young shoppers are joining in for Buy Nothing Day, a popular retort to Black Friday, on Nov. 27. Last year, after closing his stores for that Friday, U.K. designer Christopher Raeburn said on his website, “In a world of overconsumption and fast fashion, one of the most radical things we can do is to keep our clothes in use for as long as possible.”
Nonetheless, Goebl acknowledged that there are challenges associated with convincing a culture built on mass consumption that buying fewer items is cool. But Goebl is hopeful that, just as local sourcing and organic farming slowly evolved from fringe concepts to mainstream trends in the food segment, so too will the notion of conscious consumption inform how we furnish our living rooms.
“We are witnessing an emergence of a more conscious way of consuming,” she said. “Many of us are making more deliberate choices about what we buy and which things we bring permanently into our lives. We want to know if products are made in an ethical and ecological way, how they will change over time and how long they are likely to serve us. This concerns food and cosmetics as much as fashion or furniture.”