Ahead of a party to celebrate Ikea’s 80th birthday during Milan Design Week, a cherry picker is rising up to make the final touches to a giant allen key hanging from the ceiling.
What better icon for the flat-pack furniture innovators, you might think, except it may soon be resigned to the past for Ikea, suggests Ingka Group (Ikea retail) creative director Marcus Engman.
“The allen key is really good for assembling, but not so good for disassembling”, Engman says, explaining that Ikea best-sellers such as the Billy bookcase are now constructed with a wedged dowel that was developed by the design team.
This allows people to “click together their furniture”, and can then be taken apart and reassembled “many times without losing structural integrity”.
As part of Fuorisalone, a former factory was a “perfect choice” to host its design week displays, “as for us, production is always very close”, says Engman.
In contrast to its usual room sets, the challenge was in “furnishing a gigantic room”, he adds. “Coming into this space it was completely empty, almost like a church”, he says. “We thought we could have the allen key like a cross. There’s a golden one, and we have the disco allen key where the DJ set will be”.
While these allen key icons are “a bit of fun”, they, along with the other elements of the space, point to how Ikea is considering its “past, present and future”, as it celebrates its eighth decade.
For the historical contingent, an exhibition of Ikea designs was chosen from the Ikea museum in Älmhult, Sweden, before being sold during the fair.
“You can see that it’s actually possible to create things with high value, even though they had a low price at the beginning”, Engman says.
“That’s a learning for us, and also a reassurance that we’re on the right path”, he adds. To the wider design industry and Milan Design Week visitors, meanwhile, this display looked to show “that we’ve got a long history of design, and not just as a retailer”, he says.
“Freshly made” designs
Mirroring the archive display on the other side of the space, was a new collection to be released in July. Called Nytilverkad, meaning “newly made” or “freshly made”, the collection takes archive Ikea pieces and reinvents them for the present.
“We don’t normally do this, because we often work in the forefront of design instead”, says Karin Gustavsson, creative leader of Nytilverkad. “But we had done so many bold designs – some of them 60, 70 years old – so we thought it was a great contribution to the design agenda”.
The project is also capitalising on a current vogue for Ikea vintage in countries such as the UK, she explains, while for some regions such as China, where Ikea has only more recently opened, the designs are new to consumers. “They think it’s super cool and new”, she says.
What the project also provides “is a history of Ikea we’re building up to show this is us: we invented the pop market for furniture”, she adds.
According to Johan Ejdemo, design manager at Ikea of Sweden, the designs “don’t feel dated at all”, because “they are quite iconic in their design, and quite immediate in their simplicity”, he says.
In the collection are new versions of chairs originally designed by long-running Ikea employee Gillis Lundgren.
Along with Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, Lundgren was one who really “cracked the code with Ikea”, Gustavsson says. “We always say it’s easy to do extreme, expensive designs, but doing Ikea design is a complexity”.
Engman stresses that the new collection “is not a museum collection” but has been reinterpreted.
Gustavsson describes how the collection features bright colours to break from the “grey soul” people went into after the pandemic, and as something that Ikea knows is “very popular” with its young audience. There are also bold prints from the 1970s and 80s, she explains, while subsequent product drops spread over the next two years will explore more recent decades.
According to the designers, however, it was not just a case of updating the look of items but also reconsidering construction methods and health and safety standards. “Some products you cannot do any more”, Gustavsson says. “Today we’re very into child safety, and safety for everyone”.
“Anyone can look back at the 60s and see maybe it wasn’t the first priority then”, Ejdemo adds.
“We always start with how we can be smart with materials”
According to the designers, the revisited designs are able to benefit from developments in materials since they were first created, many of which Ikea itself has pioneered.
While sustainability has grown in importance for Ikea more recently, to some extent, Edjemo says, its focus on affordability and sustainability can go hand-in-hand. “We work with as little material as possible in our products to make them affordable, and that’s also a really good start for sustainability”, he says.
Added to this, “we work with the right materials and don’t do anything that’s not purposeful”, he says.
Even without a collection like Nytillverkad, there is a constant process of revisiting and redevelopment, Edjemo adds. “We always challenge everything that we do and try to improve every product”, he says. There are significant changes “even if you can’t see them or feel them”.
Given Ikea’s scale, for materials such as wood, “there we are very developed, with a whole system from growing the trees to the whole chain”, he says.
“Using high-strength steel in some products has halved the CO2”, he says. Polyester in textiles now comes from post-consumer waste such as PET bottles, as well as recycled cotton – although there are differences globally “because of legislation in different markets”, he adds.
As part of the Milan exhibition, a large-scale installation draws on the elements to present a wide scope of Ikea’s future. For each of earth, air, water and fire, one of Ikea’s most common items is selected, along with a story exploring the impact of these objects’ production, use, and disposal.
For the Earth section, for example, Ikea has selected its Oftast bowl – first developed to be “the cheapest bowl in the world” and originally made of porcelain, Engman says.
To make it sustainable and recyclable, however “we couldn’t do it in porcelain so then we rethought it and took the French way”, he explains, where they “have a lot of glass bowls”.
“How could we make that into a new kind of production technique and make it far more sustainable so it’s completely recyclable”, he adds.
Other elements include a glass carafe, home fans and air purifiers, while the fire section focuses on a portable solar lamp developed with Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson.
“To form and function we added low prices, quality and sustainability”
Reflecting on how Ikea has changed, Engman refers back to its long-running concept of Democratic Design. “When we launched Democratic Design in 1995”, he says “then we only had three pillars: so it was form and function, which is the typical Scandinavian way of doing it, and then we added low prices, which was about accessibility, because we wanted to make great design accessible.
“And then from that we have added quality and sustainability also”, he says.
While Ikea explains that today it is looking to how it can “nudge” consumer behaviour in more sustainable directions, it is equally important to continue looking outward to ensure what it is making is representative of how people live across the world.
The Milan exhibition comes under the phrase “Assembling the future together”, and that “together” part is crucial, Engman says.
This is some of the motivation behind recruiting the company’s first artist in residence, the American photographer Annie Leibowitz, whose insight as a portrait photographer provides a pair of “fresh eyes”, as she photographs homes around the world for Ikea – even if they aren’t Ikea-filled.
Meanwhile Ikea’s new campaign Fraktacore, shows the diverse uses of its recognisable blue Frakta bag – from carrying dogs on the New York subway to subvert restrictions, or using it to safely scoop up the hem of a wedding dress on your way to the ceremony.
For a big brand like IKEA, its ubiquity and accessibility can afford such rich insight – particularly in an age of social media – into the diverse ways its products might be used.
But Ikea has also been running its Ikea: Life at Home project for ten years, which collates its research speaking to people all over the world “to find out what life at home means”, into a publicly available report and mini-site.
“We know from all of our research and years in this business that a better home makes a better life”, he explains.
But beyond recognising on a fundamental level the need of a home to provide safety and shelter, “when we interview people about what they see as a better life, the home doesn’t come up”, he says.
“Which is of course something we’d like to change, because we believe in the home”, he adds. “Our biggest challenge today is to bridge the gap”.