The master of things
Mikael Krogerus • 28.02.2018
Which piece of furniture is the most complicated to assemble? What is the worst design sin? When is stool a stool? The long list of 88 design questions will be answered by Marcus Engman, Head of Design Ikea.
Marcus Engman sits on the passenger seat of the Volvo XC60 and flicks through the operating instructions for the car with irritation. The most powerful design decision-maker in the world, who approves the designs that sooner or later end up as furniture in our living rooms, can’t find the hand brake on the hire car. His personal assistant is sitting in the driving seat and is slowly losing her nerves. «Here to the left of the steering wheel is a button with P», she calls out. «That opens the bonnet», replies Engman. We are on the car deck of a ferry from southern Sweden to Poland, where Ikea’s largest manufacturing plants are located. «I love operating instructions», says Engman, while he continues to turn the pages. «At home in the toilet there’s a whole pile and I read them like books, but this one here is completely incomprehensible.» – «I will now press this P button», says his assistant. A red P lights up on the display – the hand brake has been activated. «Okay, that’s madness», comments Engman, while we get out. «I understand that the car industry is doing away with mechanical handbrakes, but they can’t put the button where there was previously the lever for the bonnet – that’s the opposite of intuitive design. The button has to be exactly where the handbrake used to be.» The 51-year-old design boss of Ikea grew up in Älmhult, in the spot with 9,000 inhabitants where Ikea was founded in 1943 and where its headquarters are still located today. Engman’s father was the legendary Ikea designer Lars Engman, who designed the iconic «Klippan» sofa. For a long time, his son had only one intention for his future career: «Not a designer». He started at Ikea as a shopping trolley pusher at the age of 16, later he became a self-employed designer and architect. And when the call came in 2012 to ask if he knew anyone who could become the head of design at Ikea, he could think of only one person: himself. The ferry casts off, Engman thinks briefly whether he should take the operating instructions for the Volvo with him, then puts them back in the glove compartment and turns to the reporter: «You can ask me anything.» Well then.
Let’s do the famous «Ikea or Death-Metal-Band?» test. I say a name and you say whether it’s one of your products or a Scandinavian metal-band: «Dåtid»?
Would be a great band name, but it’s our extractor hood.
(Thinks for a long time) Difficult. Could be a bed frame. But I’ll go for: Metal band.
Three out of three, congratulations. What is the logic behind the names?
We have our own department, which deals with this issue. It works according to a refined system. Bathroom items are always named after Swedish lakes, beds after Norwegian towns, carpets after Danish towns, garden furniture after Swedish islands, book shelves have boy’s names («Billy»), children’s products have animal names.
There are around 9,500 Ikea products, which is the oldest?
Probably «Poäng», the chair made of laminated wood.
What has sold the most?
«Frakta», the blue carrier bag.
On what do you earn the highest margin?
We don’t think along those lines. Our aim is democratisation, every product should be accessible to as large a group of buyers as possible.
Which Ikea classics will always be available?
Hopefully none! I hope that we can always bring out new things. Even the classics in our range are never unchanged. We have slightly adapted every piece of furniture.
If you were allowed to include a design classic from world furniture history in the Ikea range – what would it be?
The 606 shelf system by Dieter Rams. It combines everything that is important to me in design.
And what would the item be called by Ikea?
Hm … «Förändring» («alteration»).
Every year you launch 2,000 products and remove 2,000 from the range. What’s your strategy to kill off darlings?
We follow the following principle: «Love, fix, exit». Every year we look at all the products and ask ourselves whether they still satisfy our criteria. If they do, then they get a «love», if they need to be adapted slightly, it’s a «fix», if a product can’t satisfy the criteria despite being adapted, then it’s thrown out: «exit».
Apropos: When will the «Gnedby» CD shelving unit disappear from the range?
You’re right, it should have been removed a while ago – and be replaced by a vinyl shelving unit!
Smart Home, Internet of Things, AI: Here Ikea is relatively reserved. Why? Overrated?
We do a few things, however we don’t want to sell gadgets but prefer only use new technology if it solves a problem.
Does Ikea copy often or are you often copied?
We don’t copy – at least not consciously, I’m very sure about that. What happens: One has the same inspiration or has the same idea at the same time. Whether we are copied? Of course, we often see things, which have been, well let’s say, inspired by us. And when that happens, we send a friendly letter.
What’s the name of the most frequently copied Ikea product?
It’s the 30-year-old «Document» series, the filing tray, basket and waste-paper baskets made of wire meshing. They’re available everywhere now.
I don’t want to interfere with your core business, but have you never thought of producing an Ikea cat range? In other words, drinking bowls, scratching posts?
We thought of that ourselves! This winter we are launching our pet range, which will be called «Lurvig» («tousled»).
Ikea is older than one thinks, but always appears young. What are the magic ingredients to always remain up to date?
I think: curiosity. As long as you remain curious, you will never appear old. Ingvar Kamprad, Ikea’s founder was a really curious man. Also a courageous man. Precisely, you have to be curious and courageous.
Everyone knows the Ikea effect, this great feeling when you have put together a cupboard: You feel clever and manually dexterous and for a wonderful moment you forget that millions of other people have already done this before you. Was this planned from the outset?
No, the flat pack package and self-assembly were a transport solution for bulky items, and the pseudo craftsman effect was an involuntary but important by-product: I make a lot of house visits to find out how customers use our products and recently I was at the home of a young woman in New York, who was furnishing her first apartment, among other things with one of our couch tables, where you simply have to screw the feet into the table top. She beamed at me and said: «I’ve made this.» Of course, there’s something laughable about this but at the same time something major has happened unintentionally with self-assembly: the creation of a relationship between the person and the object.
The assembly instructions have to be fool proof. Where do you find the fools to test them on?
We recruit them here in Älmhult.
Is there a correlation between fast, good assembly and the IQ of the person doing the assembling?
No, I don’t think so. (Laughs.) It’s more a matter of experience, as the designs are all very similar.
Which Ikea furniture is the most complicated to assemble?
They are the ones we are trying to phase out. For example, «Hemnes», a day-bed frame with three drawers sold really well but was much too complicated to put together. A good example of a product that was give the «fix» stamp: We like you but you don’t satisfy the design criterion of «function». We therefore modified it.
How long should it take to assemble a piece of furniture?
Depends on the product. For «Hemnes» it took several hours, which is absolutely mad. Rule of thumb: If the testers lose their nerves, then the maximum assembly time has been exceeded.
I failed with the «Pax» wardrobe. And you?
I’ve assembled it several times. However, the assembly design, in other words the assembly arrangement, is admittedly not the best.
Hand on heart: Can one unscrew the «Pax», move home and put it back together again or is it really a single-use piece of furniture?
Nothing should be single use! In principle in most areas of the world furniture is only assembled once. The constant moving around is a western urban phenomenon. Despite this you are right, dismantling «Pax» is not self-explanatory. We are working on it.
What’s the plan? Dismantling instructions?
A typical Ikea solution would be: read the assembly instructions backwards, instead of enclosing two different ones.
«On request we assemble the furniture you have bought at home» – is it the wrong impression or are increasing numbers of people using the assembly service?
I don’t think so and it would also be a real confession of failure if our assembly design is so complicated that one needs help. But there will always be people who have too little time and too much money and therefore arrange for it to assembled for them.
Why does the Allen key still come with the pack? Every modern person already has about forty of them at home. They could be available at the cash desk. Would also be more environmentally friendly.
Actually, you’re right, a good idea. Thanks. The Allen key was very important for us and enabled us to use flat packs for fast assembly at home. But soon it will be replaced by the «wedge dowel» – one of our cleverest developments. This means that you insert the pieces into each other just like a hundred years ago. In the long term there will no longer be any screws.
We are familiar with the design of a supermarket – entrance with fruit, chiller cabinets as the lowest highpoint, pester power items at the cash desks: What was the logic behind the route through the Ikea store?
Initially there are the «First Five» – five life situations that are intended to inspire you. Afterwards there are the living areas, in other words the living room, dining areas, bedroom, study, kitchen, children, then the restaurant and self-service. You go straight through an Ikea store. There’s a lot to be discovered on the left and right, the visual axes are directed to the corners, the so-called hotspots, which is where we place our «heroes», in other words the products we really believe in.
Saturday is suicidal: Do you have a concept in the back of your head as to how one could reduce the winding shopping routes at Ikea?
You’re right, a visit to Ikea can take it out of you. Perhaps we should position a psychologist at critical points? Set up a playroom for partners?
Where do you stand in the great retail debate: Are stores dying out?
Stores were built on the outskirts of towns so that they could be reached by car; but now a lot of customers live in town and don’t have cars. In future there will be more online shops, more pick-up points to collect pre-ordered products, more pop-up stores in the town centre. We have come a long way in product development, now we have to re-think the retail sector.
There was something: Ikea is part of a foundation, which is located in the Netherlands, which in turn belongs to a foundation in Luxembourg?
No idea, not my subject.
What is the average lifespan of a piece of Ikea furniture?
Impossible to say but the idea is that furniture should last for a long time.
How expensive would a «Billy» bookcase from a carpenter in Stockholm be that would last a lifetime?
Many hundred percent more expensive. Of course, it would also last longer, but would be unaffordable for most people.
The Ikea subsidiary Swedwood is uprooting hundreds of thousands of forests. Ancient trees are being felled every second – what is your standard argument against these allegations?
Wood is a good material from the perspective of sustainability because it regrows – if one fells trees, instead of uprooting woods. Most of our wood is FSC certified. We now have almost full control of all the steps in the production chain.
We live in a time with a lack of commitment – everything is so cheap that we simply buy something new if something is broken or we no longer want it. Is Ikea the cause or result of this form of consumer behaviour?
Neither nor, but it frustrates me when we don’t correctly portray the value of our products. Every product contains three years of work, and most of this work is making the products as affordable as possible without the quality suffering. Affordable isn’t the same thing as cheap.
People are continually getting older, but with Ikea furniture the home always look like one has just moved away from one’s parents. Problem or opportunity?
Opportunity, one doesn’t want to look old. But the topic of obsolescence is naturally a design challenge: Older people need wider handles, sturdier crockery, different proportions for their armchairs so they can get up more easily. One of our designers, who suffered a stroke herself, tackled the subject and created the «Omtänksam» range, which means «considerate».
Ikea’s central question is: What makes us feel at home? What is your answer to this question?
Spontaneously I say: it’s more about people rather than objects. If I think about it for a bit longer, then I say: scents. My grandmother is 96 years old, when I visit her then there is the same scent as during my childhood. We remember scents better than many visual impressions.
How would you describe the Ikea style in three words?
No-nonsense, blond, young.
Is it your aim when you are designing that the customer says: «Oh, that’s from Ikea!» or rather: «I’d never have thought that this is from Ikea!»?
The latter. If everyone immediately identifies us as Ikea, then we haven’t moved forward. We want to surprise customers.
How long does it take from the first idea to the finished product?
On average two to three years.
Where are most ideas killed off? In the design team, in the calculations, in production, in packaging?
In the price calculation. Our starting point is always the price, typical briefings sound this this: «We want to make the best water carafe in the world, but it mustn’t cost more than three Euros.» Or: «We need an LED lamp, which doesn’t cost more than one Euro.»
The Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad was said to be a bit tight-fisted: If he took a Cola light from the mini bar, he then went out and bought a cheaper can and placed it in the mini bar. Myth or true story?
Good story, but I think it’s a myth.
Is the Kamprad spirit still in evidence at Ikea?
Rooted deep in our DNA is the thought that we must produce at low prices if we want to sell at low prices. Price calculations are taken very seriously in our company. But this is less to do with Kamprad’s relationship with money than with his clear understanding of the business.
Is it correct that the Ikea catalogue has a higher print-run than the Bible?
Yes, that’s what is said. Over 200 million annually I think.
Which of these legendary designers would you prefer to employ: Charles and Ray Eames or Alvar Aalto?
Probably Charles and Ray Eames. Because of their playfulness and their ability to communicate their design.
How do I get a job at Ikea?
As a designer? Only through work experience. 100 percent of all permanent employees are former trainees, this is where you will learn how we think. We expect that you are not only interested in the design, but above all also in our production.
Does one actually have to be a Swede to become an Ikea designer? Or think like a Swede?
Neither one nor the other. Most of our designers are Scandinavians, but we take trainees on every six months from the North and trainees from all over the world in order to ensure a good mix.
What is your most Swedish side?
The fact I take my shoes off before I enter a home. Scandinavia is the only place where this is done.
When is a stool a stool?
When it makes it easier to sit down.
What is more important: shape or colour?
What basic item has complete shapes?
The Swedish cheese slicer. Unbeatable.
Vice versa: Which everyday item requires a designer?
All remote controls.
Which design sin should have a prison sentence of several years?
Glazed roof tiles.
What is the watch you are wearing?
A Nokia Withings. Analogue surface, but it can count my steps and measure blood pressure. I like it when something looks simple, but can do a lot.
What car do you drive?
A Ford Ranger pick-up. But tomorrow I’m buying a BMW i3. I like cars, but I don’t really identify a pattern in my purchases.
What TV series is well-furnished?
I really like the look in the show time series «Snowflakes», which takes place in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
In Erik Johan Stagnelius’ poem «A Friend! In the desolate time» there is the famous verse: «Night is the mother of day / Chaos the neighbour of God». Why are designers so tidy?
On the one hand it’s the traditional aesthetics school, golden rule and other things, whereas we see a deviation from the clear line. On the other hand, good designs deal with solving problems. Experience has taught us that tidiness gives us more time and the freedom to do other things.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how tidy are you?
Below zero. My classification system: I can tell how many weeks behind I am by the piles of paper on my desk.
What do you look at first when you enter a home?
First the scent, secondly the lighting – there you can see whether the residents are bothered about their home – and thirdly the floor. Most people fail on the floor and I think it’s exciting if people are successful in using it cleverly.
Does a home with an Eames chair give as much away to you as a CD rack with Mariah Carey or Jason Donovan would to us?
Haha, yes, every piece of furniture sends a certain message. However, I don’t really assess individual pieces but more the mood in a room.
Three fast tips of how I can make my home cosier!
Firstly lighting: Trust yourself to light your home unevenly. In other words, a spot light instead of a central light. Secondly: Give each room a different character. This is easiest if you paint it in different colours. Most people are very cowardly when it comes to giving colour. Thirdly: Music should always be playing and in every room. Music creates a home.
At six o’clock in the morning, after a short night, the ferry docks at Świnoujście in Poland. Engman, who is always in a good mood, returns to the Volvo and comments on the design of the ferry («complete refurbishment would probably be useless because passengers expect precisely this 1980s trash»), his head of communications meanwhile starts to direct the driver by Smartphone to the factory, a three-hour drive away (the extremely frugal Ikea policy allowed only one hire car without a satnav). What Marcus Engman and his team in Sweden have designed and what is called democratic design is implemented here in Poland. All Ikea production should satisfy five criteria: Shape (is it beautiful, playful, aesthetic?), function (does it solve an everyday problem?) quality (is it durable and resistant enough to be used for a long time? – Engman wants to break with the throw-away image of previous Ikea furniture), sustainability (where does the material come from, how was it obtained, who worked in what way and under what conditions on it?) and lastly price (is the product price low enough so that most people can afford it?). What sounds like obliging PR, copied from the «mission statements» of any major company, is taken seriously by Marcus Engman. The negative headlines of the noughties, during which companies were hounded as environmental sinners and their founders as tax cheats, must have triggered something fundamental in him. It’s actually more important to him to satisfy the five criteria than cool design. In the factories – enormous halls in which production conveyor belts run for kilometres – he stares at the conveyor belt for several minutes, like a child in front of an anaconda in the reptile house, annoys the staff with detailed questions, inquires about quantities of waste and delights in trivia. His attention is mainly focussed on the «wedge dowel», the click dowel, that small marvellous wooden thing, which will in future enable us to put furniture together without using screws.
Your hall mark is the term «Democratic Design». Which of your products satisfies 100 percent of the criteria?
The «365+» water carafe. The briefing was: How do we get more people to drink tap water? translated into Ikea that means: What does the perfect carafe look like? We started off with the size. In most countries – apart from Asia – people want to drink cold water, in other words the carafe must fit into every fridge door. The next thing was the neck, which is narrow so that this gurgling noise occurs, but which also has the disadvantage that it’s difficult to clean the carafe with a washing-up brush and that it also doesn’t fit into a dishwasher, so we decided on a wider opening. Then the material: We selected real glass so that it’s recyclable and emphasises the character of the water, because no plastic in the world is as clear as glass. Then the top: made of cork. Currently there is a surplus of cork, and it’s 100 percent recyclable. Also cork indicates: «I am a top» – a wonderful example of intuitive design. And finally, we believed in the product so strongly that we immediately produced a very high volume, which enable the price to be kept down further – three Euros.
Ikea is located (almost) everywhere in the world – in which country doesn’t the concept work?
It was difficult in Japan. To be honest, we don’t really know why.
Is it possible that you encroached on the territory of the Japanese? They – and not the Swedes – are specialists in making the most of the smallest space.
Yes, you’re right, Japan has an interesting concept for interiors. Things should appear small from the outside, but be roomy inside. The two-seat sofa from our «Hay» range for example was greatly inspired by this: When you look at it, it gives the impression of an enlarged armchair, when you sit in it, you immediately think you could lie down. I’m quite proud of this product.
Your comments on Muji, the Ikea of Japan?
Very good, perhaps a bit more shape than function.
Cultural differences: what are the most amusing examples of what sells best where?
In China and South Korea our children’s products sell very well – which I never would have thought –, but when you think about it, it fits: The starting point for our design for living is that children go all over a home. We have all agreed with the idea that children are not only allowed to play but should play for a long time, but in China and South Korea it’s only just coming about.
Right or wrong: One can’t beat originals?
Form follows function?
(Thinks for a long time) Correct, I would say.
Imitation is the greatest form of flattery?
Designers are perfectionists?
Wrong. I would say: Good designers make mistakes.
Trial and error, not perfection are the driving force.
Better materials were used in the past?
Most things are not yet done – this is what is written on the wall of Ikea’s development office. Which design problem will you have solved during the next ten years?
The challenges are actually more in the manufacturing field. I believe that in the future we will see two things, firstly production lines will be shortened and secondly every waste product will be able to be re-used again somehow.
What is currently the most creative industry?
Of course the music industry. It was faced with the enormous problem of digitalisation, but it managed to solve it. I believe that solving problems is a good indicator of creativity. Secondly there are a lot of compilations and mash-ups in the music industry, which one will also increasingly see in the furniture industry. You should be able to place an Ikea product in every house, mix it with every style – and it should always fit in.
What prejudice that people have about Ikea would you like to refute once and for all?
That mass production is not environmentally friendly. The opposite is true. The greater the quantity produced, the more precisely you have to work and the less is wasted.
Which furniture trade fairs are vital to attend?
Probably Salone del Mobile in Milan, but I had the most fun at the furniture trade fair in Eindhoven.
Who is the second most innovative furniture manufacturer in the world?
You will laugh, but I think that the mobile home industry is currently amazingly innovative. The major topic in the furnishing industry is namely: Clever solutions on small surfaces and the mobile home manufacturers woke up from their deep sleep and are currently overtaking everyone. At a mobile home trade fair, you will find a hundred times more inspiration than at the Salone del Mobile …
What can Ikea learn from H & M?
… the longer I think about this: We should build an Ikea mobile home! An electric one! What was the question again?
What can Ikea learn from H & M?
The speed of product development and the ability to become established in a new market.
Have you ever thought of designing clothes in the Ikea design?
Yes, we have already done that a bit, but there’s always the danger for a large company that it thinks it can do everything. I am deeply convinced that we should only be allowed to sell the things that we have mastered.
Ikea often reacts quickly to social trends – such as vegetarian meatballs. Would you for example design a wardrobe for burkas if the market demands it?
Certainly. One example are our storage systems, which account for more than 50 percent of turnover and which we are continually adapting to the requirements of new markets. Now we are starting in India and there a majority of the population wear saris – so we are designing a wardrobe in which there’s more space for saris. If burkas don’t fit into a «Pax» wardrobe, then we will adapt it.
Do designers actually work according to a formula?
Good question. Probably yes, like all artists. In my eyes one of the most interesting artists is the Swede Max Martin, one of the songwriters with the most US top hits in the last 20 years. He clearly has a formula according to which he works, but – and this is what I admire – he doesn’t follow it through, but lets himself be influenced, changes his style, works with other people.
Do you have an explanation for the fact why it’s noticeable that many famous designers – David Mellor, Dieter Rams, Alvar Aalto and also you – come from small, insignificant, actually quite boring places?
I had already noticed this in my team: The more boring the place of origin, the more exciting the designer. My theory: If there is nothing to do in your village, then you have to think of something.
The most famous designs at present are probably the Apple products by the Britain Jonathan Ive. Do you admire him?
No, I don’t. On the other hand, he admires the designer Dieter Rams, which is easy to see. I admire the early innovative spirit of Apple and the ability to awaken a requirement, which I didn’t even know I needed. But in the meantime, the company is stagnating.
Why do (male) designers do so much in white but noticeably often wear black clothes?
Probably because of the contrast so that they can be seen more easily!
How do you live in your private life: on the eccentric side or normally?
We designed our house 20 years ago with a friend who’s an architect and we found it pretty eccentric at the time and it also cost a lot of money. Nowadays it seems completely normal. It’s a basic rule of design: What you find daring today, is normal tomorrow.
How many Ikea items do you have in your home?
Quite a few, but not only. Your home is supposed to reflect your life, not your employer.
Spontaneously: Your memory of the «Klippan» sofa, your father’s stroke of genius, the great Ikea designer Lars Engman?
He wanted a sofa, which young parents could afford and didn’t need a lot of space, but which children could play around on. For two years nobody bought it, then it became a best-seller.
We journalists would like to be authors. What would Ikea designers actually have liked to become?
Multi-sport athletes. I love sport and am constantly starting new disciplines, learn half of them and then start the next one. My last three types of sport: Cycling, motocross, karate.
It’s the fate of composers that after a while they can’t hear their own music any more. Does a similar thing happen to you?
The fact that I can’t face seeing our furniture anymore? No, but on the other hand what annoys me with design – also with us – is everything that is expected, everything that is obvious, everything that is self-evident, everything that anyone could think of.