365 Objects Of Design

Democratic Design at Ikea

13th June 2017

Ikea is written into the fabric of the national consciousness. Rare is the home without a single piece. Landlords furnish rental flats with it; first-time buyers rely on it, high end designers all have a favourite item and middle class, and middle-aged, homeowners nearly always have something that comes from the giant Swedish superstore. Mine is the giant Maskros pendant light in case you were wondering.


Tom Dixon’s collection is reminiscent of the iPhone

And yet we are quick to dismiss it as cheap and a bit rubbish. “Oh it’s only Ikea,” we say as we point guests in the direction of the fancy sofa, the expensive side table. “It’s just an temporary thing. We’ll get a better one when it falls apart.”

But the truth is it hardly ever falls apart. Because they test it and bash it and bash it and test it. And because to sneer at the pricing is to miss the point. Ikea was founded on the five principles of democratic design and these five elements run through its core like the chipboard through its tables. And to understand that is to understand more about why its furniture is the way it is.


a Danish candle for a Swedish retailer

So what are these five principles? Well it seems obvious when you see them. But to see them as five pillars that prop up the whole but which are also interdependent is the key to Ikea.

Form: it must look good

Function: it must be fit for purpose

Quality: to a point that doesn’t interfere with the

Affordability: we know about that one

Sustainability: it should be created from sustainable products and, where possible, lead to sustainable behaviour – ie the client will recycle it when done. To that end the new, and famous, Frakta bag that will come out in 2019 has been made in Egypt from recycled crisp packets. And yes – that makes it silver. And yes it’s very cool – you can see it in the picture of the Tom Dixon chair below.


self-styled fashion activist Bea Akerlund designed this top hat storage bowl for ikea

Take, for example, that chipboard that everybody talks about. Traditional Scandinavian furniture was made from pale birch with no knots which was expensive. The knottiest pieces ended up as offcuts and woodchippings. Waste in other words. Until one co-worker came up with a way to use all these “impossible” bits of wood. Which somehow makes you look at it in a different light – it’s about using everything they can rather than shunning expensive materials.

Of course, if it was all just about cheap furniture then no-one else would want to work with them and yet the list of collaborators grows more prestigious every year. At the company’s headquarters in Almhult last week, they revealed the designs of their latest partners including Tom Dixon, Hay and Bea Akerlund (stylist to celebrities including Beyonce, Madonna and Lady Gaga) while announcing who they will be working with over the next 12 months, including Byredo scents and Virgil Abloh from Off White who will look specifically at the needs of millennials.


this Hay mirror comes with a built in shelf

And it doesn’t matter if you haven’t heard of these people yourselves. It is enough to know that they are all big in their respective fields. Ikea is also working with NASA, by the way, to develop new ideas on sustainability and storage in small spaces. Never let it be said they don’t push their research to extremes. That team is currently living in a series of tin can-like structures in the US desert under conditions similar to those you would find on Mars while they look into this.


part of the 72 piece Hay collection for Ikea

Previous indepth research led to the water carafe with cork stopper which has a wide neck so you can add ice cubes and its height is precisely calculated to fit into almost every fridge in the world. Researchers spend months visiting people’s homes all round the world to observe how they live, how they use a dining table in different cultures – bringing all the dishes so everyone can serve themselves, or doubling up as a desk, extending for the weekend, folding for two for the week. They think about all of it. And then they design the piece.

But it doesn’t always work out. Marcus Engman, the head of design, tells of the time Ikea decided to create an inflatable sofa therefore monetising air as a cheap commodity. It was a disaster: it moved around the room as it was too light to stay put. The quickest way to inflate it was with a hairdryer but the warm air prevented the seal from working properly and it gradually deflated. The sofa was shelved.


stacking tables by Hay for Ikea

One of the company’s great success stories however, is the LED lightbulb. I wrote about this in my book in the context of why grey has taken over as the neutral of choice because the cool blue light of an LED bulb makes magnolia look dreadful. However, it was Ikea’s decision to bring those formerly expensive bulbs to the masses that really did for magnolia.

Engman regards this a perfect example of democratic design: “They were so expensive and we needed to make them more affordable. One way to do this is to use cheaper stuff  and make them smaller. We decided to use more expensive stuff but to use less of it and instantly the bulb became more affordable.”

ikea through the decades

ikea through the decades as seen in the museum

The two stand-out new collections, it won’t surprise you to know, are those by Tom Dixon and the Danish design brand Hay. Dixon, whose collection will be permanent and is out early next year, has created a collection in conjunction with students from the Royal College of Art and Parsons School of Design. The base was deliberately created to look like the frame of an iPhone – a platform from which we can jump into different worlds via apps. His furniture, the Delaktig (being involved in Swedish) is designed to be altered and built on according to your needs – a sofa bed, a bed, clip on a lamp, or bolt on a side table.

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The Tom Dixon adaptable chair for Ikea

Hay, whose collection launches in October and which comprises 72 pieces, have created perhaps the most accessible and stand out range. An expensive brand available only to a few, their collaboration with Ikea gives them a diffusion arm making their work available to all. The sofa is extremely comfortable and if you want one I suggest you move fast as they will sell out at €649 for a two seater.

Other collaborations include Chris Stamp, the American streetwear designer, whose storage takes into account that people might want to show off their clothes as well as store them, so there are clear shoe boxes and open rails as well as the first ever Ikea skateboard. The Dutch designer Piet Heek Eek was keen to explore the idea of mass production which is so different from his small-scale, high-end way of working.


Dutch designer Piet Heen Eek’s chair for Ikea

It’s not bad for a company that was founded in 1958 and so outraged the traditional furniture making establishment with its desire to create every single thing necessary for  the modern home, that Swedish factories refused to work with Ikea and it had to move production to Poland.

Now designers from all over the world are lining up to collaborate (remember the Ilse Crawford collection from 2015), its vintage pieces are fetching thousands of pounds on ebay and there’s even a rumour – which they didn’t confirm or deny when I spoke to them yesterday – that they are about to start distributing via Amazon so we will be able to order from the comfort of our Poäng chairs.


The Ikea Hotel and Museum, in Almhult, are open to guests all year round. You can see all sorts of vintage pieces, learn the history of the company and even be on the cover of the catalogue.

ikea catalogue


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  • Helen McMillan 13th June 2017 at 6:13 pm

    Ikea is brilliant, and so is that picture of you on tha brochure!

  • Suzanne 13th June 2017 at 12:37 pm

    The problem with Ikea, I go for a quick trip to buy lightbulbs and come out 2 hours later with a rug, side table, cushions, flamingo glasses, toys for the kids and tea lights! At least I’ve had a very reasonably priced breakfast and a free cup of tea. First world problems!

    Honestly, just wish they did more options for their sofa covers.

    • Kate Watson-Smyth 13th June 2017 at 12:52 pm

      Yes that’s always the problem. have you looked at Bemz – they make covers for Ikea furniture….

  • Carin 13th June 2017 at 10:25 am

    Currently hacking Pax wardrobes to refit into tween son’s room; offsets the cost of the Fornasetti wallpaper he insisted on having! I have only myself to blame

  • Stephanie Heath 13th June 2017 at 10:04 am

    Love the Hay stacking tables and the Piet Heek Eek chair (when is that out?)….now, to make room for them!

    • Kate Watson-Smyth 13th June 2017 at 12:08 pm

      That chair will be out next year. Most of it is 2018 except for the Hay which is this October.

  • Sandra 13th June 2017 at 9:57 am

    We do tend to be somewhat negative about IKEA here in Sweden but it us the place we still go to when we want something practical, hard wearing and relatively neutral. Things are changing with these wonderful new collections though. These sell out before you get around to deciding what you want. Can’t but help being impressed. The staff are always knowledgeable and helpful too. Apparently there isn’t a house or a flat in Sweden that doesn’t have something from IKEA.

  • Libby 13th June 2017 at 9:29 am

    Could not agree more. When we downsized in 2008 Ikea met so many needs for a smaller space.
    All items purchased are still going strong AND we still like them. They fit perfectly into a much modernised 1960’s bungalow with enormous south facing windows at the back and a ‘cottage garden’ frontage. Items get moved around, loaned to friends and family, painted, re-upholstered, used on the garden deck……..
    Now I really must get back on their web-site as I really need more book shelving.

  • monica 13th June 2017 at 9:05 am

    Thanks for this Kate. Being an Ikea customer for over 20 years like so many others, I have seen the evolution and I must say that the recent collaborations only make the brand more attractive. The pieces you showed are all great, but the Piet Heen Eek chair takes the cake for me. What a simple powerful design. I instantly thought of replacing my upholstered living room chairs with a pair of these. I’m going on 62 and keep looking for pieces to replace my existing furniture. Tastes do, indeed, change.

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