Design Questions (2): Why is Ikea changing what it is known for?

How does Ikea, a worldwide company with shops from India to Scandinavia and Japan, is keeping itself relevant and future proof? I was in Almhult in Sweden the last days of February, and I got a glimpse of their way of working in their design department, prototype rooms, communication studio and test lab. I saw how Ikea slowly changes the very basic principles they are known for such as their easy to reach by car big mega-shops, their catalogue, their Allen key, their mass production perfection…. Why?

The blue and yellow megashops…

Let ’s go back, back into time. Ikea was born in 1943 and soon became  a mail order company. Founder Ingvar Kamprad prepared the orders (first mostly pencils, wallets, tablecloths, watches, jewellery and panties) in a shack, the milkman carried them to the post office. In 1958 the first shop opened.

Now Ikea has currently 414 shops in 49 countries. But it seems the big megashops are not priority anymore. Ikea is trying out new retail concepts: in Belgium they announced the planned second shop in Antwerp got cancelled. Because of “the changing retail landscape and investments in e-commerce.” The Belgian webshop was launched only a few weeks back. The chief executive Jesper Brodin recently explained it in Financial Times were they are heading: “We are eager to claim the city centre,” Mr Brodin said. “We are testing new formats. We have penetrated parts of the city centre but we are mostly outside so the opportunities are there.” So far there is one city store in Hamburg, with a full range. Very concrete plans are for Copenhagen, Stockholm and Vienna. “We have to get closer to the customer. Ikea’s business model was born from the car revolution. Now young people don’t even have driving licences,” an official told The Financial Times. To be continued for sure.

The catalogue.

It ‘s still there and it won’t go away. Millions of copies (I m not good in numbers) get printed every year. Ikea has one of the biggest photo studios in Europa in which images are constantly created. I saw them painters, builders, stylists and photographers working hard for every page in the catalogue. But then again: already a fifth of the shown images are not real photographs but computer rendered images of 3D-models of the products. Especially kitchen images are usually coming form their 3D-department. It makes sense, in this way they can show each surface finish without having to actually build the kitchen.

Another big move is made towards internet movies. Gifs and mini-movies (15 seconds long) are produced at high speed: twelve so called Web-ideas a month are produced, each country chooses which ones they use on their own channels. A drawer opening and closing, a rug being rolled up… You ‘ll see them around, more and more. On the quality social media near you, because that is where we hang around more than any other place in the house where a catalogue can be found.

The Allen key.

Although an ordinary tool, the little hex key became a symbol for Ikea. But when we visited the prototype shop the man in charge, Mr. Hendrik Holmberg, got all exited when showing us the Eket cupboard and the Lisabo table. Why? They can be assembled without any tools at all, not even the Allen key is needed.

Eket for example is just to be clicked into place, the result being a minimalist square box, without any visible screws. Just putting the legs in a keyhole-shaped hole in the tabletop can assemble the Lisabo table. By putting a flat screw in the leftover space and rolling that with your thumb the leg is fastened. Easy. These solutions are fully engineered now and they ‘ll be used in more products soon, promised Hendrik.


The mass production.

“At Ikea we want to create a better everyday life for the many people.” I can’t tell you how many times I ‘ve heard this sentence in the two days I was in Almhult. Anyway, their mantra makes that industrial mass production of goods is not just the path, but the highway Ikea takes. Ikea’s Head of Design Marcus Engman pointed out bluntly (he had a jetlag) that it has a drawback: “People love us for the affordability, but they hate us because they don’t want the same stuff in their home as everybody else.” A dilemma Ikea likes to solve with limited editions and collabs here and there. But now they go a step further: they got help of an expert in the matter of both industrial production and uniqueness: Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek. The Industriell collection he designed will be launched next month and will contain glass objects, ceramics, textile and wood furniture. “The tea towels are the clearest example of the ‘hand-made, mass-produced’ theme of this collection,” according to Piet Hein Eek. An example is a hand-drewn checkered tea-towel. “The checks give the impression that someone with an inferior handloom has really done their best to weave a lovely design. The pattern looks very handmade but is actually produced in large quantities on a superior weaving machine.” I didn’t see the towels (just pictures) but I got to see the chairs, all made from pine. Other than usually the workers were asked to use all the wood of a tree, not just the unspotted pieces. Which makes for the different and unique results. No chair looks the same and that is exactly what Ikea is not known for.

Industriell chairs

In the same “finding the personal in the mass-produced” strategy a vase “made in China” carries fingerprints and names of the makers. “In ceramic mold casting, you have to be very careful and precise, and remove the piece from the mold at just the right time. Together with the people casting the vase she found the right moment to interrupt the process to create the perfect surface without leaving any marks,” explains designer Hanna-Kaarina Heikkilä. “We wanted the workers to leave marks and modify the shape with their own hands. We want to highlight those behind the product. There are so many people involved in a process, even if it is machine made items.” Not for sale yet.

So, recap. Why is Ikea changing what it’s known for? Because its strengths were strong in the 20th century. But the future will not look like last century. Our homes won’t look like the homes of our parents and grandparents. And for sure we don’t shop like they did in the past. And neither will our children.

For all Ikea- experiments on the future,  follow the Ikea Today website. It contains interesting topics, good content and shows movies that are longer than 15 seconds.

This was the second Design Question for 2018.  It ’s a series of silly questions, really. On design, decoration, architecture. The first one was answered here. If you have a Design Question to investigate, let me know …