The fluid home
It is not just the fundamental principles of ‘Democratic Design’ that are important in IKEA’s product development process; IKEA also needs to identify future needs in advance to pre-empt the changes to people’s living habits.
As any musician will tell you, you need to play the hits if you want to keep your loyal fans. But at the same time, you have to stay away from nostalgia. Times are changing, and you can’t just cling to the past. Maintaining a balance between progress and recognition is crucial if you want to remain relevant to your audience. If you look through the entire IKEA product range, you can see this very logic played out in front of your eyes. On the one hand, there are the well-known, timeless and basic classics, such as the KLIPPAN sofa, the HEMNES series, the EKTORP sofa, the BILLY bookcase and the POÄNG armchair. At the other end of the spectrum are the temporary, limited editions by designers such as Kit Neale, Walter Van Beirendonck, Katie Eary – instant, fashionable hits that come and go at the blink of an eye.
The core collection, internally known as New IKEA Basics, represents about 50 % of the entire product range. It consists of basic products, designed to work in almost any home environment, with a focus on functionality and affordability. They include everything from kitchen utensils to lighting, furniture and storage solutions, and are the everyday products most of us associate with IKEA. Some of the current IKEA basic products have remained in production for 20 years or more. But as people’s needs change, the collection has to be updated to stay in touch with the times. Global trends, such as urbanisation and compact living, have to be taken into account during product development. Since product development generally takes two to three years, this entails looking into a fairly distant future. The process goes beyond mere trend reports – it is a matter of some serious, scientific research, partly based on in-depth interviews and home visits with people in different countries. For a company like IKEA, staying ahead of the curve and anticipating peoples’ future needs is at the very core of product development. What are the needs we have to solve in a near future? How will we live in ten years’ time? And how do you create a future classic? “The main driver behind the current changes in society is urbanisation,” explains Creative Leader Viveca Olsson. “Today, five billion people live in cities globally. In 30 years’ time, that figure will be seven billion according to prognoses. To meet their needs, we have identified different mega trends that will influence domestic life in the future. By concentrating on these, we can make a huge difference in people’s lives.” One of the most important of these trends is fluidity. As living quarters become increasingly cramped, a room has to serve a multitude of purposes, from socialising to working, playing, being entertained, eating and sleeping. We may study, work and eat at the same table, sitting on the same chair.
This development is in large parts driven by the possibilities of new technology. With smartphones, tablets, laptops and other personal devices we can sit in the same room and be together even though we are doing our own thing. Technology also makes it possible to ‘be’ together in a digital space even though we are apart physically. All of this calls for more versatile furniture, according to Viveca. “The ambition has been to make everyday life easier in busy cities with the help of good everyday products that are universal, flexible, space-saving and solve different needs. An obvious example is a stool, which is primarily used for sitting, but also doubles up as a bedside table or a ladder. It’s about products that meet many demands.” The majority of the world’s population lives in small apartments. As a consequence, we focus on five different living situations. These include micro living, either with or without children, urban nomads (people without a permanent address), extended living by utilising communal outdoor spaces, and conscious downsizers – people who voluntarily sacrifice living space, either to save money for other purposes, such as travelling, or to be able to afford to live in attractive neighbourhoods. In large cities around the world, people also tend to use the city as an extension of their homes, working in public spaces such as cafés and meeting friends in restaurants, rather than cooking at home. This trend applies both to professionals and students. Still, eating and cooking remain everyday tasks around the world. But as people’s lifestyles change, even the most common furniture and kitchen objects have to be questioned and reimagined. Take a common flat plate, for instance, which is a given on the dinner table around the world. But research shows that current eating habits demand a better solution. “Today, many people don’t sit around a dinner table anymore. We move about, do other things while eating, such as watching television or surfing on the sofa. A flat plate doesn’t do the job anymore. Bowls or deep plates are more functional and easier to carry around without spilling. We have also provided the traditional flat plate in the IKEA 365+ series with an angled brim, to make it more portable. Bowls, like stools, serve many purposes: you can use them for preparation and storage, yoghurt and cereal, soups, rice dishes, hot drinks, desserts and much more. Add a lid, and you can use them for storage in the fridge.”
In her daily work, Viveca is now securing the strategy throughout the entire product range. This includes coaching some 50 different teams, made up of product developers, technicians, designers and others, in a step-by-step process incorporating all IKEA departments. The process, which will take place over the next few years, includes product categories such as sofas, lighting, storage, outdoor furniture, textiles, beds and more. Some products, such as the new IKEA 365+ series and the VARDAGEN cooking and eating products, have already been rolled out, including a versatile and already popular carafe in glass and cork. Others, such as the HAVSTA storage system, designed for the fluid home, will be presented gradually over the next few years.
“Usually, we designers are presented with a finished brief,” says Designer Nike Karlsson. “This time, we were involved from the very beginning. We created the brief as we worked together, questioning everything: what is a good cooking pot? What would the ideal cup look like? The existing IKEA 365+ eating series, which was created in the ’90s, is very functional. A single piece, such as a glass or a plate, can be used both for everyday use and for parties. But as the series grew, it became incoherent, the different pieces didn’t really connect to each other anymore. So we needed to work from the ground up.” By overseeing its basic product range, IKEA will affect how many people around the world live their everyday lives for a long time. It is a huge undertaking, and a huge responsibility. They just can’t afford to get it wrong. “Design to me is a means of solving a problem,” says Nike Karlsson, “not a form of self-expression. That’s what sets us apart from visual artists. I more or less get embarrassed if I see one of my designs in somebody’s home.” The guiding light, as in so many other IKEA projects, has been the five Democratic Design principles: form, function, quality, sustainability and low price. “The Democratic Design principles have been an important tool for us during the whole process,” says Viveca. “The five principles lead us from start to end to secure the right quality of every product.” Nike Karlsson continues: “All of the five Democratic Design principles are super important in this project.
These products are designed to be in the IKEA product range for a very long time, so they must be made to last. They must have a high quality and functionality, be environmentally sustainable, offer great value for money and look good.” Does that mean they will become future classics? Will some of these pieces be remembered as IKEA ‘greatest hits’, along with the likes of BILLY and KLIPPAN? “You never know,” Nike Karlsson shrugs. “A classic is always defined in retrospect.”