Ikea unpacked

In the five decades since, his space saving concept has helped turn Ikea into one of the world’s most successful brands

Ikea was founded in 1943 by 17-year-old Ingvar Kamprad (the company is named after his initials, and the first letters of the town and village where he grew up) and started out as a mail order business selling lighters, pens and stockings. It now owns 328 stores in 28 countries, and over 700 million people shopped at Ikea last year.

With a mantra “to create a better everyday life for the many people”, Ikea describes its design approach as democratic: items have to be affordable, with “just the right mix” of form, function, quality and sustainability. But how do you create furniture that has mass appeal – products that are as useful or desirable to a couple in a small urban flat as they are to the owners of a large family home, whether those homeowners live in Africa, Asia or Europe? As you’d expect, it’s a complex process – and one that can take years.

BELOW: Ikea’s Viktigt collection, launching in 2016, was created with glass designer and ceramicist Ingegerd Raman and craftspeople in Vietnam; Sinnerlig, an affordable collaboration with luxury product designer Ilse Crawford, is made from cork and mouth-blown glass. 

Ikea’s HQ is still based in Älmhult, Sweden, where it opened its first store in 1953. A tiny town around an hour on the train from Malmö, Älmhult is home to a small Ikea museum, an Ikea-furnished hotel and Ikea’s global design centre. A vast building with a giant alan key sculpture outside, it features minimal open plan workspaces, wood, metal and textile workshops, and a room filled with 3D printers which designers can use to make prototypes of new products.

The site is also home to the Test Lab; a fascinating building housing a a bizarre range of equipment that is used to ensure products meet global safety standards and Ikea’s own quality guidelines. Wooden buttocks and robotic arms test the durability of everything from cots to light pulls and sofas, while experts in labs upstairs check if textiles are sweat, flame and stain proof. There’s also a series of rooms where products are exposed to varying temperatures and humidity levels to make sure they can withstand a range of climates.

“We test every product so it can be sold all over the world – but that means there are a lot of different tests going on,” says Per Krokstäde, business leader of Ikea’s Vitality Collections (limited edition and permanent ranges including designer collaborations, and experiments with new materials or processes).

“For example, if you have a sofa in the UK, there are special demands for how you have to treat it [to protect against] fire, but the same treatment can’t be used in France. We make different versions of the same products to comply with different markets and also our own Ikea standards, which are even tougher,” adds Krokstäde.

It can take up to five years for an Ikea kitchen to make it into stores, partly because of this testing process but also because the brand won’t sign off a product until it is satisfied that it is as cheap and economical as it can be, and that waste is kept to a minimum. Single items like textiles are less complex – but can still take around six months to source, develop and test.

“If a product or material is totally new to us – like the cork table for Sinnerlig [a new range created with designer Ilse Crawford] – it’s more like one and a half years. It takes a really long time because there’s a lot of development of ideas, looking and saying, ‘can we use that material a little bit better’?” says Krokstäde.

“The sourcing part also takes time, as we are being a little bit tougher, more demanding about what we use. Normal cotton, for example, uses lots of water and chemicals, so we’re using better cotton. But even then, it’s not just about, ‘let’s go and buy better cotton’, it’s about training farmers to make it on their farms.”

The brand’s long lead times can make it difficult to respond to changing trends or act quickly on new ideas. Much of its product development, however, is based not on what’s popular on Instagram or appearing in high-end stores, but on detailed research into how we use our homes.

Each year, the brand carries out thousands of home visits in different countries to ask people about their daily routines, how they organise each of the rooms in their house and anything that frustrates them about their space. Answers and images are then recorded on a database. In some homes, with the owner’s consent, Ikea installs cameras to record occupants’ behaviour, which is then analysed by anthropologists to determine why people use their home the way they do.

It may sound like a rather voyeuristic approach, but Ikea’s head of research Mikael Ydholm says video footage, along with home visit data, presents a more honest view of people’s everyday lives than traditional surveys. In the brand’s annual Curiosity Report, a publication which outlines key areas Ikea is focusing on for the year ahead, he notes: “To make better, more relevant products, we have to be constantly curious about people and their everyday lives: how do they behave, why do they behave like that, and why contemporary phenomenon arise.

“As humans, we are also not aware of a lot of our own behaviours. …[By filming and observing people], we come even closer to their everyday lives, and are able to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Another key part of Ikea’s research is its annual Life at Home report, a global study focusing on a particular aspect of home life. 2014’s looked at morning routines, while this year’s explores how people eat, store and prepare food. Ikea surveyed over 8,500 people in eight cities for this year’s report, speaking to residents in Mumbai, London, Moscow, New York, Paris, Shanghai, Berlin and Stockholm aged between 18 and 60 years old (admittedly, a demographic that misses out a large percentage of the population, but a broad range nonetheless).

Ikea teamed up with students from the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi to create Svärtan, a range of black-and-white textiles with patterns inspired by peeling walls and masses of twisted cables found in the Hauz Khas area of the city
Ikea teamed up with students from the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi to create Svärtan, a range of black-and-white textiles with patterns inspired by peeling walls and masses of twisted cables found in the Hauz Khas area of the city

The results are published online and reveal some interesting cultural differences as well as common kitchen traits – for example, the fact that 25% of people feel guilty about the amount of food they throw away, that 36% never eat in the kitchen during mealtimes and that six in ten urban residents grow herbs, fruit or vegetables. Findings will inform a new range of kitchen accessories and storage as well as larger products, and the report is also given to the brand’s communication team, informing catalogue artwork and ad campaigns for the year ahead.

Alongside its space-saving products and core ranges, some of which have been in store for over three decades (the Lack coffee table and Billy bookcases were introduced in the 70s and 80s), Ikea is also hoping to attract new audiences with more limited edition collections, which will feature some surprising collaborations with fashion and product designers, unusual sustainable materials and handmade items created in partnership with social enterprises in Asia. At the brand’s annual Democratic Design Day this year, a one-day conference in Sweden, design manager Marcus Engman said he hoped these new collections would bring some surprise back to Ikea’s product range.

Forthcoming collections include dining accessories and textiles created with fashion designer Katie Eary, which feature surreal digital prints inspired by Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, cartoon-print storage boxes and textiles by experimental Belgian fashion designer Walter van Beirendonck. Black-and-white textiles have also been created with the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi, and feature patterns inspired by peeling walls and cable mess in the city.

Sinnerlig, the collection designed with London-based Ilse Crawford, includes high-end looking tables, chairs and accessories made from cork and natural fibres, while another new range features items made out of M-Board, a material that is as strong as MDF but made from 90% recycled paper.

BELOW: A chair prototype for the PS collection, launching 2017

Working with fashion designers is now a key focus for the brand, no doubt because of the cultural cachet that comes from doing so, but also because Engman says he is keen for Ikea to be more ‘reactive’ and start producing more experimental products – and that means collaborating with people from outside the world of furniture.

“It’s really interesting us working with fashion designers,” adds Krokstäde. “We come from a heritage of furniture design, but now we can see that fashion and furniture have become more blended – and these fashion designers can bring a new way of thinking and looking at patterns or products that we haven’t really explored before. It’s a great learning experience for us to work with them. Katie and Walter gave us designs that were creative and really stretched our expertise.”

In collaborating with Eary, Ikea had to learn how to apply the digital printing technique used on her clothing to lampshades, cardboard animal heads, plates and lightshades, something it had never previously done before. While working with Crawford, the brand learned new ways of using cork to make large-scale furniture such as dining tables.

“It is a learning experience for us, but we want that to be mutual,” says Krokstäde. “With Ilse Crawford, she’s been making some fantastic furniture for years, but where we have an advantage is making those products affordable. So by working with us, Ilse learns too – it’s about sharing [skills] and seeing how we can keep her level of design and detail, but do it in a way that keeps prices down, so that many people can have them.”

A student from India’s National Institute of Fashion Technology sketching a design for forthcoming textiles range Svärtan
A student from India’s National Institute of Fashion Technology sketching a design for forthcoming textiles range Svärtan

Collaborating with high-end designers to create affordable ranges is nothing new in fashion – brands from Vans to H&M have been teaming up with such designers for over a decade – but it remains pretty rare in mass-produced homeware. And Ikea hopes it might help change perceptions among those who don’t see Ikea as a fashionable or desirable brand.

“As we see it, people like Walter and Katie’s designs are probably going to appeal to teens, or people in their 20s and 30s, and Ilse Crawford’s targets another group – the people who perhaps don’t associate Ikea with fashion. We use Vitality Collections like this both to get existing customers to come back more, but also to get more customer groups into Ikea.”

As Krokstäde points out, these limited edition ranges are particularly important in regions where Ikea has been around for a long time, and where customers might feel little incentive to go there unless they need something specific.

“We’re viewed differently in many different countries. If you come to South Korea, everything we do is new because we haven’t been there for long, but in the UK, people might have been to Ikea many times, either with their parents, or shopping for their first home, and know our range well. We want people, whenever they come to Ikea, to see something new, something they haven’t seen before.”

Ikea has also been working on developing ideas for mass customisation (something we spoke about with fashion brand Knyttan in our September issue). In this year’s curiosity report, Engman notes: “one-off furniture is expensive and takes time to create. The next big frontier in furniture design is to figure out personalisation on a mass industrialised scale. This is something we think a lot about, and we’ve already started to experiment with.”

The Sinnerlig collection with Crawford includes vases which are given different treatments during production, meaning each one is slightly different to the last. Ikea has also been working with students from Lund University in Sweden to develop Hacka, a modular kitchen built around a frame consisting of standard size wooden beams, which are held together with metal joints. The flexible kit can be used to form hundreds of different structures which other cabinets and products – whether they are from Ikea, other stores or hand made – can be fitted to. The design is still a concept, but was part of an Ikea installation at Milan furniture fair this year alongside an interactive kitchen.

Several recent limited edition collections from Ikea also make use of traditional techniques and crafts: the brand worked with weavers in Vietnam and Indonesia to create Nipprig, a collection of chairs made out of seagrass, water hyacinth and other sustainable materials, and has been working with Scandinavian designer and ceramicist Ingegerd Råman to create Viktigt, a range of chairs, lighting and accessories also designed with craftspeople in Vietnam. The brand regularly partners with social enterprises that employ people with traditional skills around the world, and has produced four handmade collections with RangSutra Crafts, a fair trade group which aims to provide a livelihood for artisans and craftspeople in the deserts of Rajasthan, India.

“We have had a passion for handmade for quite some time, so we try to come up with more products to make sure these trained workers will have jobs all the time, otherwise these skills will be lost, and that would be such a pity,” says Krokstäde.

“If you want to make things very cheaply in very big volumes – for example, glasses – you have to do it with a machine, so there are limitations, but for some of our smaller ranges, we have some suppliers who specialise in the handmade. We want to keep those skillsets going,” he adds.

Alongside more traditional products, recent vitality collections include HomeSmart, a range of wirelessly charging furniture created in response to research that revealed shoppers hate cable mess. Ikea says it has no plans to start making gadgets – but will continue to work on smart furniture which can be integrated with technology.

The bigger a company gets, the more difficult it can be to innovate. But through its Vitality collections, Ikea is testing out new techniques, materials and collaborations, resulting in a surprising and inventive range of products. All of these collections, however, will be designed with the brand’s core principles in mind – making quality, sustainable furniture that is affordable and has global appeal, says Krokstäde.

“There will be a small portion of our range that we adapt to fit local needs, but we want to make sure we are relevant to the many people,” he adds. “Most of the things we do are really global, and I think that’s our strength as a company. We try to learn from all over the world – how is life at home in Shanghai, how is life at home in Birmingham – and make sure we make projects suited for many people living in different circumstances, in different types of home and climates.

“That’s part of the fun of being an international company, you can look at differences and similarities. And we want to give everyone access to products with a good design and quality, that can be affordable and that will be useful whether you’re living in a small flat in London or a big house in the country.”

Making Ikea’s 2017 PS Collection at the brand’s design HQ in Älmhult, Sweden
Making Ikea’s 2017 PS Collection at the brand’s design HQ in Älmhult, Sweden

Our October 2015 print also carried a story about Ikea in print and Ikea’s brilliantly inventive advertisements

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