Last week, we took a trip to Ikea’s HQ in Älmhult, Sweden for the brand’s Democratic Design Day: an annual event offering a behind-the-scenes look at its testing lab, design centre and forthcoming products, from collaborations with British fashion designers to toys designed by children…
Ikea’s global design centre
Ikea now has 301 stores in over 30 countries, but its headquarters are still based in the tiny town where it was founded by Ingvar Kamprad in 1943 (the brand is named after his initials, and the first letter of the nearby village and farm where he grew up). Around an hour on the train from Malmö and one and a half from Copenhagen, it is surrounded by fields and farmland and home to just a few thousand residents. Most work for Ikea, or are related to someone who does.
Arriving at Älmhult station, there is little sign of the brand’s presence, just a few small apartment blocks, some old wooden houses, a handful of shops and a pizzeria. A few minutes walk, away, however, is Ikea’s head office, its global design centre and its product testing lab. There’s a notable absence of blue and yellow (and Ikea’s instantly recognisable logo), but there is an Ikea hotel and next door, a small museum presenting a look at branding and furniture from the 1950s to the present day.
We were invited to Ikea HQ for the brand’s second Democratic Design Day – a mini conference including talks from design manager Marcus Engman, CEO Peter Agnefjäll and chief sustainability officer Steve Howard, who discussed forthcoming collections and Ikea’s focus for the future. But first, we were taken to the lab, where everything from mattresses to light bulbs are put through a fascinating series of experiments to ensure they meet international safety standards and Ikea’s own quality guidelines.
Ikea Test Lab
In one room, mechanical wooden buttocks are used to test sofas and chairs, while a giant wooden roller measures the lifespan of mattresses. A robotic arm is used to open and close cupboard doors, a wooden sphere simulates a baby bouncing up and down in a cot, and there’s a room filled with bulbs hooked up to computers to measure their brightness and lifespan.
There are also climate chambers for testing products’ durability in extreme temperatures and humidity, and labs to test the chemicals present in furniture, the maximum height of candle flames and fabric resistance to sweat, saliva and stains. Ikea’s products aren’t usually seen as investment pieces, but the lab is a fascinating insight into how seriously the brand takes quality control, developing its own equipment and machinery to ensure items exceed safety standards and can withstand daily wear and tear (provided they’re properly assembled).
In the same building as the Ikea hotel, which is kitted out in Ikea furnishings and a dining room serving Ikea food, an Ikea Through the Ages exhibition presents a small but fascinating collection of memorabilia, from the brand’s first flat pack product (a three legged table which was recently put back into production) and early logos to every catalogue ever published, plus a series of displays showcasing living room furniture from the 50s to the 00s.
1950s Ikea logos
Ikea’s flat pack distribution model, its out of town stores and cafes are often the subject of ridicule – for many a Brit, a trip there conjures images of missing screws, lopsided furniture and hours spent sat in traffic – but the museum is a reminder that the brand’s approach to retail and distribution was pioneering. The museum is currently spread out over just one floor, but in 2016, will move into a huge site to house Ikea’s extensive archives, offering a more comprehensive look at the evolution of Ikea’s branding and homeware.
1980s and 90s catalogues
While the test lab and museum are fairly low key, Ikea’s design centre is a shiny new space complete with a room full of 3D printers for making prototypes, a vast workshop for testing materials and minimal meeting rooms stocked with Ikea furniture and whiteboards covered in Post-Its. It’s here that the Democratic Design Day takes place, and where journalists are invited to preview forthcoming collections.
1970s in-store advertisements
Products are displayed alongside sketches and photos showing their development, and include a range of soft toys designed by children (which reminded us of Kingston graduates Joshua Lake and Jack Beveridge’s brilliant chair based on children’s sketches); minimal cork furniture by designer Ilse Crawford, illustrated textiles and storage boxes from fashion designer Walter Van Beirendonck, and a striking collection from menswear designer Katy Eary.
Founder Ingvar Kamprad’s desk
Eary is known for her strange and surreal prints, and the Ikea collection is no exception – aimed at men, it includes mugs and plates with photographic fish prints, cardboard animal heads and textiles covered in a repeating eyeball pattern, inspired by Terry Gilliam film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Katy Eary’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas inspired designs
The Design Day is part of a new initiative from the brand to be seen as more transparent, but it’s also part of its efforts to reinvent itself as a leading name in furniture design. Ikea’s USP has long been its cheap prices and practical storage solutions, such as floating shelves and the Expedit bookcase, but with many consumers now opting for handmade, vintage and upcycled products, mass produced flat pack homeware has lost some of its appeal.
Engman has spoken before about his desire to bring some surprise back to Ikea’s products, and in a talk at the Democratic Design Day, highlighted several ways it plans to do so: from furniture which interacts with technology, including lights and bedside tables which can wirelessly charge phones and laptops, to ranges which offer ‘mass produced uniqueness’ (the retailer has recently been working with a university on creating a customisable system of parts which can be used to build hundreds of different wooden storage systems).
Collection designed by graphic artist Walter Van Beirendonck
He’s also keen to work with fashion designers, no doubt for the cultural cache that comes with doing so, but also, he said, because “fashion is fast and reactive”, something he feels Ikea should be too. The brand plans to launch more capsule collections and limited edition products in future, he said, and more ranges made in partnership with social enterprises and craftspeople from around the world.
Illustrated textiles, part of a new environmentally friendly range, Anvandbar
Other talks focused on forthcoming ranges to encourage creative play among children (including new books, games and apps), a collaboration with Unicef to build flat pack shelters for refugees which can be assembled in just a few hours and last up to three years (a batch of which has just been shipped to people who have been displaced in Nepal following the recent earthquakes there), and the results of Ikea’s annual Life At Home report. Published online, the report assessed eating habits in eight cities around the world, and will be used to create new dining products and kitchenware.
Ikea’s flat pack shelter for refugees and displaced communities
Attending the Design Day, it’s clear that Ikea is investing significant resources in boosting its design credentials: its biggest draw may still be its cheap furniture, but its new collections offer an interesting look at how a long-established retailer can attempt to compete with younger, newer and smaller labels – and restore its reputation as an innovative brand, as well as a low cost one.
Ikea’s new range of soft toys, based on drawings made by children. £1 from each will be donated to children’s charities
A new range of textiles and products based on patterns and textures found in India. The collection was designed by Swedish textile designer Martin Bergstrom, who worked with students at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi
Items from Lattjo, a new range of toys for children