Icon with shoulder straps and legs of its own

Ikea’s blue shopping bag may have become a fashion accessory overnight, but it’s been working its way up to fame for a couple of decades.

It was conceived in 1996, when Ikea had a less than glamorous problem. Smaller things than flat-pack items were being added to the product range, but customers weren’t finding it easy to cart them around the gigantic stores. The blue bag was the solution – though it wasn’t one the furniture empire could keep within the confines of its premises. No matter how they tried, they could never quite stop customers from taking the bag home with them.

That was when somebody had the bright idea of putting a price tag on it: 99 cents. Now “Frakta” – the official name of the tote – was able to walk proudly out of the big glass doors and keep on going. Its light yet sturdy material could carry heavy loads of almost anything, from kitchenware and bedding to concrete and rubble. And since the need to move stuff around is universal, people from every walk of life have found uses for the polypropylene carrier. Students use them to bring their laundry home, beach lovers fill them with buckets and shovels,and – on a more profound note – they have become trusted friends to those who must take their possessions wherever they go.

Of course, you might not want to be seen with a one dollar plastic sack over your shoulder – even if it helped you to cope with a trunk full of boutique shopping. And perhaps this is what the designers at Balenciaga were thinking when they designed their electric blue, glazed-leather tote bag, priced at over two thousand dollars. Social media were quick to spot the price-performance paradox. And Ikea was quick to jump on the ripple of excitement with an ad campaign touting its bag as the loud and resilient low-price original.

At this point, the product was famous enough for the general public to start tapping into its sizeable recognition in order to make fashion statements of their own. Videos showing how it could be turned into a rucksack, a hat or even a G-string started trending on YouTube. Resourceful individuals across the globe were turning out their own new range of Ikea products, leveraging the brand’s values. Happily for Ikea, the wave of how-to-hack-your-Frakta videos was simply reinforcing the idea that design and functionality should be affordable to all. What more could Ikea possibly ask for? The blue bag was holding its head high, now also an Internet celebrity.

Having spotted some of the market potential for its in-store problem solver, Ikea turned to a Danish design company to come up with something that looked a little less like a giveaway. Something that could be sold to shoppers even in supermarkets. The resulting redesign by Hays has woven fabric and a more natural color scheme – and the bright yellow logo is gone. But while this somewhat more expensive line of bags will undoubtedly increase revenues, it seems unlikely it will achieve the iconic status of Frakta.

Aside from being a brand ambassador for the company, the blue and yellow bag carries the colors of the Swedish flag. From milk cartons and zippers to dynamite and ball bearings, Swedes have a track record for inventing useful things. And like another of their breakthroughs, the adjustable spanner, Frakta is an all-in-one innovation. It is Sweden’s answer to the Swiss army knife. Which ultimately explains why Ikea could never keep it to itself: it’s far too useful. And why would they want to? The further it travels, the more its maker can bask in the spotlight.

Frakta. Designed by the siblings Marianne and Knut Hagberg.

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