Giant IKEA comes to Midwest SCHAUMBURG, ILL. -- Chicago motorists on I-90 can't help but take notice of the mammoth, three-story, 410,000 sq. ft. structure that opened in mid-November to overflowing crowds. Bearing the bold colors of Sweden's flag, yellow and blue, the exterior of IKEA Chicago is striking. After gaping at it for a moment, passers-by may instinctively ask, "What is IKEA?"

It is, of course, a home furnishings retailer that specializes in ready-to-assemble furniture. The IKEA philosophy is to offer a wide range of home furnishings of good design and function at affordable prices. Most IKEA products are flat-packed, making them easy to transport.

The suburban Chicago location, one of 128 located throughout 26 countries, enjoys several distinctions: It is the largest IKEA store in North America, the third largest in the world and the first in the Midwest. Even the automatic revolving door at the entrance is bigger than life. It is reportedly the largest in Illinois.

"We went through four different entrance designs. If you came to our office, you'd see renderings all over the office, and each one is a distinctively different entrance," recounts Andrew Koglin, president of Koglin Wilson Architects Inc.

The Chicago-based firm oversaw site planning, building placement, exterior building design and landscaping for the $45 million project. The firm also collaborated with IKEA officials on the store's interior features.

Spacious with sense of scale The final product, four years in the making, represents a crowning achievement for Koglin's 12-person architectural firm, which had to fend off larger competitors to win the assignment.

"We convinced IKEA that the size of the firm wasn't a critical issue," he says, "that it was no problem for us to handle the size of the project." In this case, the owner of the architectural firm, Koglin himself, was directly involved in the project. "That was very important to IKEA."

Much like an anxious film director on opening night, Koglin couldn't predict public reaction to the retailer's giant undertaking.

"My biggest fear was that the store was going to feel overwhelming to the customer, that it would have no sense of scale," he says. "It's a gigantic building, but if you walk around, your eye carries only to the next corner of the octagon, so you don't feel you're in a giant warehouse. It's not like walking into a Sam's Club where you see 450 feet to the back."

Bold approach This store dares to be different. For example, the Vermaport System, a German innovation, operates like an escalator by enabling unmanned shopping carts to be transported from one floor to the next on a conveyer. Meanwhile, hurried parents can drop off their youngsters in the store's ballroom for 45 minutes while they shop.

Then there are the IKEA cafe, IKEA restaurant and Swedish Foodmarket. The latter draws on the company's rich Scandinavian history; Ingvar Kamprad, born in Sweden in 1926, founded the company in 1943.

"IKEA wants people to come here and spend half a day," says Koglin. "If you walk through the entire store, you'll find that you spend more time here than you might think."

During a guided tour led by Koglin, I was struck by the large variety of consumer options. For example, the store offers an assortment of clocks -- table clocks, wall clocks, alarm clocks -- in 50 different styles that range from playful to nostalgic to bold and modern. According to company literature, IKEA works with 2,400 different suppliers in 65 countries.

Upon entering the store, customers are met by a greeter who directs them to begin their tour on the third floor and wind their way down to the ground floor. Customers are urged to make themselves feel at home in more than 100 living room, bedroom and kitchen settings.

"I don't think there is anybody in the business who fixtures room settings as thoroughly as IKEA," says Koglin. "Typically in a furniture store, you'll have the bed, the table and dresser and one or two obligatory knickknacks. This has every little accessory you can have in the room. And they sell them all, outside of the books. People come in and buy a room."