Founded in 1943, IKEA is now one of the biggest and best-known homeware brands in the world. It started out as a mail-order business selling pens, lighters and stockings and today, has 328 stores in 28 countries. Each of those stores stocks over 12,000 items and a staggering 700 million people shopped at IKEA last year.
The brand’s success is built on selling practical furniture at very low prices – you can still buy a light, a rug or even a coffee table for as little as £10. It describes its design approach as ‘democratic’ – creating products that are affordable for the many, not the few – and products must have “just the right mix of form, function, quality and sustainability” to make it on to the shop floor.
But how do you go about creating an item that is as useful or desirable to a couple in a small urban flat as it is to a family in a large rural home, whether those homes are in Asia, Africa or Europe? It’s a complex process – and one that starts with visiting a lot of people’s homes.
Each year, IKEA carries out thousands of home visits in different countries to ask people about their daily routines, how they organise each of the rooms in their house and anything that frustrates them about their space. Answers and images are then recorded on a vast database.
In some regions, home visits have led to country specific furniture – Ikea carried out around 900 interviews and home visits in South Korea before opening its Seoul store last year, resulting in a Korea-only super sized single bed for small bedrooms – and research also influences in-store displays.
In some homes, with the owner’s consent, IKEA installs cameras to record occupants’ daily routines, with footage then analysed by anthropologists to determine why people use their homes the way they do. It may sound like a rather voyeuristic approach, but Ikea’s head of research Mikael Ydholm says this video footage, along with home visit data, presents a more honest view of people’s everyday lives than traditional questionnaires.
In the brand’s annual Curiosity Report, a publication which outlines key areas it is focusing on for the year ahead, he notes: “To make better, more relevant products, we have to be constantly curious about people and their everyday lives: how do they behave, why do they behave like that, and why contemporary phenomenon arise. As humans, we are also not aware of a lot of our own behaviours. …[By filming and observing people], we come even closer to their everyday lives, and are able to see what works and what doesn’t.”
Another key part of IKEA’s research is its annual Life at Home report, a global study focusing on a particular aspect of home life. 2014’s looked at morning routines, while this year’s explores how people eat, store and prepare food. Ikea surveyed over 8,500 people in eight cities for this year’s report, speaking to residents in Mumbai, London, Moscow, New York, Paris, Shanghai, Berlin and Stockholm aged between 18 and 60 years old (admittedly, a demographic that misses out a large percentage of the population, but a broad range nonetheless).
The results are published online and reveal some interesting cultural differences as well as common kitchen traits – for example, the fact that 25 percent of people feel guilty about the amount of food they throw away, that 36 percent never eat in the kitchen during mealtimes and that six in ten urban residents grow herbs, fruit or vegetables. Findings will inform a new range of kitchen accessories and storage as well as larger products, and the report is also given to the brand’s communications team, informing catalogue artwork and ad campaigns for the year ahead.
IKEA’s long lead times make it difficult to respond to trends – it can take up to five years to make an Ikea kitchen, partly because of its extensive testing process but also because the brand won’t sign off on a product until it is as cheap and economical as it can be – but by carrying out such extensive research, the company can spot global shifts in the way homes are organised or opportunities for new products. It also helps the brand fulfil its aim of making products that are genuinely useful for the masses.
Outside of its studies and home visits, IKEA partners with universities (including Lund University and Eindhoven University) to develop concepts and prototypes based on ideas about the future of the home – such as a vision of what our kitchens might look like in 2025.
The brand has also been working with social enterprises, fashion designers and craftspeople around the world to create limited edition ranges which will be sold alongside long-standing products, such as its famous Billy bookcases and Lack tables.
These ranges – called Vitality Collections – include products made using sustainable materials or traditional crafts (it has produced four handmade collections with RangSutra Crafts, a fair trade group which aims to provide a livelihood for artisans and craftspeople in the deserts of Rajasthan, India) or unlikely collaborations: next year, the brand is releasing a series of home accessories featuring surreal digital prints by menswear designer Katie Eary and a collection created with the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi, and this summer, launched an affordable range of cork furniture by Ilse Crawford, a London designer whose products usually come with considerably higher price tags.
“It’s really interesting us working with fashion designers,” says Per Krokstäde, business leader of Vitality Collections. “We come from a heritage of furniture design … and these fashion designers can bring a new way of thinking and looking at patterns or products that we haven’t really explored before. It’s a great learning experience for us to work with them.”
“But we want that learning experience to be mutual,” he adds. “With Ilse Crawford, she’s been making some fantastic furniture for years, but where we have an advantage is making those products affordable. So by working with us, Ilse learns too – it’s about sharing [skills] and seeing how we can keep her level of design and detail, but do it in a way that keeps prices down, so that the many people can have them.”
Collaborating with high-end designers to create affordable ranges is nothing new in fashion – brands from Vans to H&M have been teaming up with such designers for over a decade – but it remains pretty rare in mass-produced homeware. And IKEA hopes it might help change perceptions among those who don’t see it as a fashionable or desirable brand.
“As we see it, people like Walter and Katie’s designs are probably going to appeal to teens, or people in their 20s and 30s, and Ilse Crawford’s targets another group – the people who perhaps don’t associate Ikea with fashion. We use Vitality Collections like this both to get existing customers to come back more, but also to get more customer groups into Ikea.”
As Krokstäde points out, limited edition ranges and new collections are particularly important in regions where IKEA has been around for a long time, and where customers might feel little incentive to go there unless they need something specific.
“We’re viewed differently in many different countries. If you come to South Korea, everything we do is new because we haven’t been there for long, but in the UK, people might have been to Ikea many times, either with their parents, or shopping for their first home, and know our range well. We want people, whenever they come to IKEA, to see something new, something they haven’t seen before,” he adds.
This article was originally published in the October issue of Creative Review.