What makes IKEA furniture so appealing

Column: Ikea, the terribly beautiful furniture store

From Elmar Schüller. The authorAs initiator and founder, runs the ILI Innovative Living Institute, an interdisciplinary knowledge platform that advises companies strategically and operationally, trains them and develops new concepts and products for the forms of living, living and business of tomorrow. Before he has received the renowned “red dot” design award for many years as managing directorCo-developed.

Does design really have to be democratic? Does innovation have to be based on new ideas? Don't copies pay homage to the original? All of these questions concern a furniture store that the Swede Ingvar Kamprad once called simply IKEA after his initials and origins. Today IKEA is everywhere. Elmar Schüller doubts that this is a step forward for mankind.

Ikea is truly a phenomenon. Hardly any other company has influenced our western living culture as much. Nonetheless, the question may be asked whether the “democratic design” of what Ikea claims in the mid-90s was really so good, innovative or even sustainable - or is it rather the sympathetic seduction of Ikea marketing, its Charm we succumb again and again?

Let's start with the company itself. Founder Ingvar Kamprad formed the abbreviation IKEA from the first letters of his name, his parents' farm Elmtaryd and his hometown Agunnard. In 1943, the young company began selling nylon stockings and stationery, a mail order business that expanded nationally five years later, after the publication of the first order catalog.

Success through flat-packaged furniture In the early 1950s, the trained carpenter Kamprad expanded his range to include furniture and furnishings, which he had commissioned using the IKEA design that soon became known as typical.

As early as 1951, Kamprad had the simple but ingenious idea of ​​not viewing furniture as a singular product, but in the context of the overall interior and the people living in it.

The fact that from 1956 onwards, with the “Lövet” table (picture here), IKEA was able to send furniture ordered via catalog in flat packs for the first time is thanks to the commercial artist and designer Gillis Lundgren, one of Kamprad's first employees.

Faced with the problem of packing a table, he had the resourceful idea of ​​unscrewing its legs and adding it to the package. From then on he was considered to be the inventor of prefabricated, assemblable furniture.

The recordings for the attractively designed IKEA catalog that appears annually in 28 languages ​​and has a global circulation of 200 million copies, are still created in the now more than 8,000 square meter photo studios of the Swedish company headquarters. The fact that the furniture giant has long since become multicultural is not only reflected in the choice of models, but is also reflected in the global nature of the IKEA branch network.

Whether Dortmund or Singapore, Munich or New York: the colorful world of IKEA in sample interior booths encourages us to buy from around the world between the market hall and high-bay warehouses, restaurant and children's paradise. In this way, the company generated sales of EUR 3.48 billion in Germany alone, the second largest sales market after the USA, in the 2009-10 financial year.

The online business still plays a subordinate role. It is much more interesting that of the 99.1 million customers in the German branches, a good half spent an average of just under 76 euros. Only around 60 percent of this was for furniture, the rest for other items from the range.

Old idea, reissued You don't just buy the products you were looking for on a skilfully guided tour, rather the IKEA loan bag is always filled with utensils that we have always wanted to have, but will never really need. So much for seduction.

Back to the original idea of ​​flat packing and shipping of furniture. It was unquestionably good - but not new! It was in fact already 150 years earlier in the course of the production of the coffee house chair, which is still considered a design icon today, “Consumer chair No. 14 “implemented by Michael Thonet.

Thonet perfected the technique of bending solid wood, which was new at the time, and made series production possible. The sales idea was just as brilliant: 36 dismantled chairs were packed in a one cubic meter box and exported all over the world.

The assembly took place on site. The first furniture that could be dismantled and shipped was born. In 1964, the designer Lundgren designed the “Ögla” chair for IKEA (picture here), which the Swedes also had the bentwood manufacturer Fameg produced in Radomsko, Poland, a factory founded by the Thonet brothers that still had the corresponding bending molds. So how new, unique and innovative is IKEA really?

Billy becomes a world success

Another IKEA icon, also designed by Lundgren, is Billy - the shelf. It stands for IKEAS claim to make good design affordable for everyone through high print runs. It has been sold over 42 million times around the world since 1979, and smiles at us in medical practices, study rooms, private libraries, and now even in museums.

I don't want to deny it: I'm friends with Billy too. But - is the shelf really well designed? A large part of my books protrude from the front due to the lack of depth of the boards. In addition, the lovingly self-assembled shelves cannot withstand the weight of the book and, over time, sag as ugly as they are impractical. With all the records that Billy has achieved quantitatively, the question arises as to what percentage of this species can actually stand independently, i.e. without additional wall anchors?

Whether I can expect from such a shelf that its back will delight me too, I have not yet answered this question for myself. But what Billy shows us there is dubious. Especially for the self-assembler who - for whatever reason - has to connect the two-part hardboard back wall to Billy's body with microscopic nails. Democracy in design doesn't help either.

Speaking of democracy: A large part of the Billy production was already in the hands of the IKEA subsidiary Swedwood (which used to use tropical wood), which began in Gardelage in Saxony-Anhalt and had to be closed in 2009. There are always the little bumps of this company that likes to see itself as social.

The idea of ​​the Bauhaus completed? Let's approach IKEA and its design from the Scandinavian side. The reform movements in the second half of the 19th century already claimed to ban functional everyday products from the elephant tower of the rich and powerful and to make them affordable for the general public.

The Bauhaus also pursued this political claim, although from a design point of view the success was rather modest, as the designs never reached those for whom they were actually intended.

In Scandinavia in the 1950s, the time was ripe for it. On the one hand, a Scandinavian form of social democracy emerged; on the other hand, mass production methods were advanced and the materials available, such as wood, plastic or pressed steel, were inexpensive. IKEA's success is still based today on the strength and charisma of Scandinavian design.

One of the most important representatives of this design style was the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto. Impressed by the Bauhaus ideas, he transferred those visions to his Scandinavian culture. Starting in the 1920s, he designed the cantilever chair no. 406 made of light birch plywood from 1935 to 1939 (picture here) and achieved world fame as a designer.

With this cantilever chair, which the Artek company produces today, the warmth and softness of the material contrasted with the cold, angular steel tube of the Bauhaus furniture. In 1977 the designer Noboru Nakamura made the cantilever armchair “Poäng” (picture here) out of it for IKEA. It has little in common with innovation and design, the strength of Nakamura's draft was at most in the fact that Aalto's draft was changed in such a way that no justiciable allegations of plagiarism could be raised.

The Scandinavians are masters in copying and understanding democracy à la IKEA. In 2001, the German designer and furniture manufacturer Nils Holger Moormann litigated the furniture giant in a spectacular and very successful manner, which then had to remove his trestle "Sture", which was all too obviously based on the Moormann design "Taurus" (picture here), from the market.

But IKEA wouldn't be IKEA if it didn't have its own forge for "independent" and "innovative" design. The "PS Collection" has stood for this since 1995. At certain intervals, IKEA commissions established designers and also the juniors of the guild to develop new products and new ideas.

That is praiseworthy! Or would be commendable - if doubts did not always arise as to what is really hidden behind it.

Take, for example, the Gullhomen armchair (picture here) from the PS series. The armchair is made from banana fibers, which is otherwise unused waste, and the company also promises: "Rocking gently helps body and mind to relax." It's that simple with sustainability at IKEA.

The seating comfort of this chair is, however, on the level of an ascetic monk cell. How relaxation should come about with such a backrest remains a mystery to me. And what is supposed to be sustainable in such an unusable product has not yet been revealed to me.

How sustainable is Ikea really? Another example of the truly innovative PS series is the PS cabinet (picture here), which Nicholai Wiig Hansen designed for IKEA in 1998. It is a folded locker. That is very special. For the PS 09 collection, IKEA also commissioned the now well-known Swedish design group front and the Dutch designer Hella Jongerius with the focus on sustainability.

When looking at the importance of the ordered products - vases and lamps - for the entire range, the importance of the project also becomes clear. But there is also a tapestry collection created for the IKEA UNICEF program.

The products are even signed by the Indian craftswomen - together with Hella Jongerius, of course. But is all of this really enough to convince with really good, innovative design? Hasn't the validity replaced the utility here, as the legendary Otl Aicher once feared: styling instead of design?

This ultimately leads to the question: Shouldn't Ikea as a company have the courage to act more innovatively and independently and thus become a trendsetter in design and sustainability itself?

Now one can find it democratic to make well-designed products inexpensive and affordable for everyone. But is it worthwhile to surround yourself with products whose function can no longer follow their external charm? The older of us still remember that you had to be pretty rich to be able to afford cheap products.

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