Two decades ago, few Washingtonians had ever heard of Ikea.
But the Swedish home furnishings giant was poised to become a vital player in America's retail landscape, bringing a Scandinavian smorgasbord of affordable knock-down pine shelving, bright rag rugs, install-it-yourself kitchen cabinets. And meatballs.
The night of the Ikea kickoff in April 1986 at the recently opened Potomac Mills Mall, a colleague and I made the trek down I-95 to check out the newcomer -- the chain's second U.S. store. At the time, knock-down furniture was a novelty in this country -- as were home stores with cafeterias attached.
Back then, some of Ikea's home furnishings were sold in Scandinavian dimensions: beds sized to European standards, sheets in metric sizes, narrower tables. (This is no longer the case.) And the products had weird Nordic names like Ivar, Hussar and Kronvik. (This is still the case.)
"We learned a lot of things about Americans, such as that a dining table must be big enough to serve a turkey," says Tomas Franzen, manager of the Potomac Mills store.
College kids, empty nesters and young families fell for the Scandinavian version of cheap chic. If it meant saving bucks, shoppers seemed willing to carry home their purchases in flat cardboard cartons.
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