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Return of the native
THERE were over 820 million visits to Ikea stores around the world in 2014 and more than 1.6 billion hits on Ikea.com. The print-run of its popular catalogue also came in at around 219 million copies last year. With this sort of global reach and penetration - Ikea is in 47 countries - Marcus Engman, the design manager at Ikea of Sweden could just be the most powerful man in furniture design and home accessories. So, when the man talks about design trends, we listen because our lifestyles may depend on it.
Speaking at Ikea's headquarters in Almhult, Sweden earlier in May, the 48-year-old Swedish native, whose casual attire belies the fact that he is upper management in a company that reported sales of over 30 billion euros (S$44 billion) in 2014, proclaims that we will soon be forsaking our faux fur cushions and disposable furniture for something more authentic.
"What we see as a trend now is a craving for natural materials, surface treatments and honesty in materials," he says with unabashed certainty.
While this forecast seems reasonable enough (as evidenced by the growing awareness of environmental issues like sustainability) for Ikea, it represents nothing less than a paradigm shift. Indeed, one only has to consider what Ikea means to many people - that it is affordable and replaceable - to understand that if Mr Engman is serious, the way millions of people live around the world could look very different in the next few years.
And he is very serious.
Describing himself as "extremely hands-on", he was part of one design team at Ikea that came up with a new collection of furniture made from birch called Bjorknas. Birch, another Swedish native, is not an exotic timber but for decades, Ikea has been mostly producing furniture from soft woods like pine which are "cheaper", if Ikea produces solid timber furniture at all.
"It doesn't make sense to make a wardrobe in solid wood because you don't need that. The wardrobe itself is invisible although you can make the doors in solid wood," he explains. "When you make a chair, you have to use solid wood, metal or plastic because of the construction, so it's also about going back to honesty in materials," he adds. (Unfortunately, Bjorknas will only be available in selected markets and will not be available in Singapore.)
If the return of birch is not radical enough for Ikea - the promotional blurb defines the range as "pieces that are crafted so they can be passed on to the next generation" - then consider that the 72-year-old company, whose founder Ingvar Kamprad started the company selling matches, is going to be one of the first (if not the first) to make smart furniture that will have wireless charging docks.
Wireless charging docks for smart phones have been around for a couple of years but as Mr Engman points out: "Our approach to making furniture in the home is not to make gadgets. It's actually using technology to make furniture and home furnishings smarter."
And with feedback on the range positive - ""We foresee it is going to sell a lot," he quips - Mr Engmar says Ikea will be looking into how to incorporate new technology with furniture, "in a big way". For now, products include side tables and lamps with wireless charging discreetly flushed with the furniture so that the docks actually look like design features rather than utilitarian ones. And because it is Ikea, it will be affordable.
Indeed, Ikea is probably the only furniture maker in the world that can produce the same furniture today at a cheaper price than it did 70 years ago. A case in point would be the MK armchair that was sold in 1951 for the equivalent of 3,098 Swedish krona. The armchair was reintroduced recently, in line with the trend for retro furniture and now sells for just two thirds the original price.
It is of course no real mystery how this is done; more affordable materials and production costs in lower cost countries helps, as does the economies of scale. Transport and logistics costs are also tightly controlled with 34 Ikea distribution centres around the world, the biggest at around 300,000 square metres in size.
Still, what Mr Engman wants to do at Ikea sounds expensive. Not only has he set the ambitious target of launching 20 new collections this year, he also wants to ensure it is all sustainable with the use of sustainable cotton textiles set to go from 70 per cent to 100 per cent by 2015.
Perhaps even more challenging is his desire to make Ikea more fashionable too. There have been earlier attempts at this - Ikea launched the younger, more urban PS Collection in 1995 - but it was not able to sustain the buzz. Mr Engman's strategy, however, will not only be to introduce hipper products, but also to collaborate with well known fashion designers including the streetwise Brit, Katy Eary (who made her name after working with Kanye West) and the very alternative Belgian, Walter van Beirendonck (whose work is as likely to appear in a museum as it might in a shop front).
How all of this will all read as one cohesive brand is still not clear. Mr Engman himself only rejoined Ikea three-and-a-half years ago after an absence of 12 years when he had his own design firm. Before that, he rose through the ranks of Ikea, starting as storage hand pushing trolleys at age 16 before going on to become an interior designer, range strategist and marketing manager. His father was also an Ikea man who co-created the Klippan sofa, one of Ikea's most popular and recognisable designs, with over a million sold since its introduction in 1979.
So, will the Bjorknas collection be Marcus Engman's own legacy or will it be something even bigger?
Describing another collection for 2015 called Sinnerlig - a collaboration with London-based Ilse Crawford - Mr Engman spoke with fervour about how imperfections in mass production could be the next big authentic thing. Sinnerlig celebrates imperfections like the glaze on a water jug that could not be kept to a consistent colour because of problems with production. But instead of rejecting the defect, he wants consumers to embrace it.
"Is it really a bad thing? Maybe we should measure quality in a different way. Maybe we should measure quality in uniqueness instead of every mass produced item exactly the same. Then it is up to the customer to choose and maybe the customer will stick to it for a longer period," he adds with palpable conviction.
Ten years ago, Mr Engman might have been taken out and shot by Ikea's board of directors for such heresies and Mr Kamprad himself might have pulled the trigger. But the world today is changing and Mr Engman believes Sweden and Ikea must change with it.
"We are always going to be a Scandinavian company but you can argue what that Scandinavia is today," he says with mischievous grin.
SHOPPING at IKEA can be a bit of an assault on the senses with the smell of meatballs in the air and the bright colours of thousands of different household furniture and home products stacked high.
But amidst the Billy bookcases and Lack tables, Ikea has introduced new designs with special attention to details that might not be appreciated at first glance because of its subtlety. This is a shame because as Ikea designer Wiebke Braasch notes, Ikea is making, "an effort to re-strengthen the Ikea style" and re-emphasise what Ikea refers to as its five 'Democratic Design' principles. These can be summarised as form, function, quality, sustainability and low price.
One new collection that embodies these principles is Risatorp which includes a kitchen trolley that has a wooden handle and wooden castors. The handle and castors could easily have been made from plastic or some cheaper material but as Ms Braasch explains: "When you touch a product, it must feel warm and good, and nice." But to add the wooden handles and castors, the designer had to think hard about how to make it affordable. Of the Democratic Design principles, "cost is the most challenging", adds Ms Braash.
The solution was to make the baskets out of stretched metal which is cheap and strong. "The material is very inexpensive so suddenly we can have other details like the wooden handle and wooden castors. That's the challenge - we don't make cheap things with cheap materials but focus on the right things," she adds.
Other new collections to look for at Ikea in the future include:
A collection that explores the raw properties of materials and celebrates the imperfections in mass production.
With the design process happening on the factory floor in Vietnam, Viktigt uses natural fibres like water hyacinth and rattan, helping take local craftsmanship to the next level.
A new toy collection that includes musical instruments and board games to encourage adults to play along with kids.
4. Veggie balls
Ikea will offer vegetarian meatballs that have a third of the carbon footprint compared to its regular meatballs.
Ikea uses acacia wood for the first time in a collection that includes a dining table, a workbench and a butcher's block.
The collection encourages a more green lifestyle with products like the sprouter, paper planter pots and grow trolley.