Trip update Part 2: Entering the heart of IKEA

Read Part 1 here.

After a good night’s rest, I was ready to be wowed by IKEA of Sweden (IoS). I was told that this is where IKEA is most IKEA. The DNA thickest. The heart. And indeed it is.

The new extension of IoS opened not that many weeks ago and there were still many unsettled corners in the building. Spots of chaos aside, it was new and shiny. It has an amazing expansiveness about it. Lots of light, blond wood and dashes of colour.

We arrived at the same time the co-workers were getting in. They were busy getting their morning coffee, sandwiches. We, tourists, went crazy for knäckebröd – a type of crispbread – slathered with Swedish honey. There were muffled talking, mingling, laughing. It felt like I entered a buzzing hive.

The lobby with stacks of the new catalogue – in different languages.
The ‘stairs’ overlooking the cafeteria. I love this!
The cafeteria – the lively busy hive.

Sufficiently fueled, we met up with Marcus Arvonen, the designer behind the iconic MASKROS chandelier.

One day, while walking in one of the fields he noticed the weed – the dandelion – and how common yet beautiful it was. It was the seed thought that inspired him to created a dandelion-like chandelier. But the initial design was way too complex with too many parts to put together and could not pass the IKEA process. Through numerous revisions, the MASKROS bloomed and became a bestseller. (And a lamp we love to hack it: Like this, this, this)

His MASKROS story brought to life the concept of “Democratic Design” which is the starting point for every IKEA product design. “Democra-what?” Big term and I’m sure I had a “huh?” look on my face. Marcus explained that Democratic Design is essentially a just-right combination of form, function, quality and sustainability at an affordable price, in order to offer good design to as many people as possible. It is the backbone of every IKEA product. Some products are high on design, not so low on price. Some the other way around, but every product takes into consideration these 5 elements.

With the “conceptual stuff” behind us, we toured the facility. With the expansion, the design process now takes place all under one roof. And that has helped shorten the process dramatically. Previously, it took almost 2 years for an idea to leap off a designer’s sketchbook to the retail floor. Now, it may take half that time or less, which IoS is continually pushing for. So let’s hope we see more timely on-trend designs from IKEA.

Prototype centre for 3D models. No, IKEA is not coming up flatpacked faces.
Prototype centre: Printing new textiles to be made into slipcovers, etc.
Sewing centre

Then, drumroll … the highlight of my visit. I was told earlier in the day that I would get a preview of next year’s range. Top secret stuff. No photos allowed. I felt humbled and privileged to be privy to their new collection. As much as I want to, I can’t share what I have seen from the new range, but I can say that there will be a lot of good stuff coming next year. Interesting new materials and designs, that are quite a departure from the IKEA staple. I am seriously holding off buying furniture till 2015.

This is not the new range.
Me doing some “product testing”

The Design Team comprise about 20 designers actually, with hundreds of contract and freelance designers worldwide.

The design team
Learning from designers Knut Hagberg and Johanna Jelinek

I always thought IKEA of Sweden was just a big workshop full of designers but IoS is so much more than that. Lena introduced me to the other co-workers who are just as important in keeping the IKEA engine running.

The risk management team who handles any reports of product failures, accidents, etc. They issue recalls and learn from these recalls to ensure that no similar accidents happen in the future. I must admit I’ve always had question marks about IKEA product recalls. Don’t you? What’s with all this stuff that fail or have safety issues? That day I had a mindshift about recalls. It stems for their low tolerance for product failures. Despite their best efforts to test and retest, a company can never fully know the ways in which their products will be applied and used (er … IKEA hacking for example). When there are reports of incidents of product failure, IKEA will not hesitate to recall the product. The incident is then investigated and findings fed back to their design process to come up with a better, safer product.

The Risk Management team sharing what comes out of a recall

Our next stop was the test lab and we witnessed first hand the punishing tests that all IKEA products are subject to. They are punched, pushed, hammered, trodded on mercilessly. IKEA products need to exceed a long list of safety and quality standards from around the world and often, the strictest standard is applied. Every aspect of a product is tested for durability, safety and whether it stands up to its claim. For instance, this LED light bulb is supposed to last approximately 25,000 hours. So it is tested for 25,000 hours (with some down time to mimic normal usage). And did you know even your IKEA candles are tested? The flame is measured as the candle burns down to ensure that the flame burns at a consistent height, with no sudden flare ups to minimise fire hazard.

It was a wet day at Älmhult
Light testing
This machine opens and shuts the cabinets
Test machine mimics a sitting position. Another machine tests jumping on beds.

Last stop in Älmhult was the communications department. This is the place where they create the most distributed catalogue in the world. It is like a giant photography studio with makeshift room sets. I gather this building is never static – always shifting in colours and looks for a new shoot. We also dropped in at the 3D graphics department and caught a peek at the 3D drawings that are changing the way room sets are presented. At the end, we were given a test. We were shown 3 photos. First, a conventionally photographed room set; second, a totally 3D rendered room set; and third, a room with mixed elements – real images and 3D renderings. We scrutinised the photos for about 5 minutes and passed! The salad gave it away but it was really quite hard to tell. The way 3D graphics are improving, I doubt we would be able to pass the test next year, or even next month.

A giant mock-up of the bedroom set featured on the 2015 catalogue cover.
It is really me jumping in there. Not photoshopped. 🙂  

And that was our day at IoS. We had a plane to catch so we made a beeline for Copenhagen airport. But not before stopping to buy knäckebröd and Swedish honey.

(Next: The Concept Store and Meeting in Delft. Read it here.)

Photos: Katherine Law

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  1. Jules! You are my hero, I'm so glad IKEA has embraced you. I have drawn inspiration from so many of the IKEA hacks on your website and if it weren't ikeahackers, I might never have gone to IKEA!

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