What is IKEA’s ‘DEMOCRAtIC DESIGN’?

Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post, but I have attended an event where goodie bags were given. 

What is IKEA’s ‘DEMOCRATIC DESIGN’ and what it means to us as interiors consumers?

I recently had the pleasure of attending IKEA’s ‘DEMOCRATIC DESIGN – Design for everyone’ event in Dublin, a local version of IKEA’s annual Democratic Design Festival which takes place in Älmhult, Sweden. The event provided an opportunity for guest journalists and influencers to discuss Ikea’s latest product designs and creative collaborations.

The event took place in D-Light Studios in Dublin’s North Strand. To me, this is the first subtle nod to what they call “democratic” when it comes to design. That they chose a quintessentially Northside location is another sign of its commitment to creating products and experiences for the middle and working classes primarily. Like their designs, they keep the events simple but effective, nothing like the over-the-top branding-heavy experiential launches of PR-fuelled events other companies go for.

So what is this democratic design all about? ‘We feel good design combines form, function, quality, sustainability at a low price. We call it “Democratic Design” because we believe good home furnishing is for everyone.’, reads their press release. Indeed, IKEA does create products for large to micro homes, and has scaled pricing for essentially the same quality of designs. It is how they managed to become ingrained in the modern psyche over the decades they’ve been in business.

So how did the idea of “democratic design” come about? It all started when IKEA looked at what we call “home”, which can be the place where we live, but it can also be a state of mind. You can look into what this means for you in their online quiz here, which explores five ideas or five core emotions when it comes to what “the feeling of home” means to you: privacy, security, comfort, ownership, belonging.

IKEA life at home democratic design

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Alongside this exploration of what “home” means to us nowadays, they’ve also done a global survey that reveals, among other things you might find interesting, a startling statistic: ‘Today, around 1 in 3 people all over the world say there are places where they feel more at home than the space they live in.’ This has many causes and connotations, both positive and negative. We know that in the millennial age, home ownership is decreasing for economic, societal and lifestyle reasons; Millenials either can’t afford or won’t invest into a permanent abode, and marriage and the family home are no longer the strong society pillars of old. We also spend our days and live out our relationships in places other than home, like gyms, eateries, yoga studios, day spas, hotels, co-living suites, co-working hubs, hobby clubs, etc.

IKEA makes products for the home (even though you will find countless offices using their organisation ranges). So, if IKEA wants to keep selling home furnishings for a generation of people with a more diluted sense of home than before, it needs to make us fall in love with our permanent – or temporary – abodes again. Based on the findings of the report mentioned above, IKEA came up with, or rather distilled, five key design principles that are (or should be) at the heart of every IKEA product: quality, affordability, sustainability, form and function – five perfect dictates for the design-loving Generation X and Y. There is even a book to explain it further. I will explore these concepts and what they mean to me, as a design enthusiast, homeowner and branding expert.

Ikea democratic design

1. QUALITY

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While sophisticated, functional design is what makes IKEA, IKEA, product quality is not often its forte. Demonstrably, not all of the brand’s flat-pack products stand the test of time, and lots of us bought pieces that fell apart within a period of time shorter than expected or simply did not assemble well. I am not well placed to do a percentage classification of superior and inferior IKEA products, but the company does actually have a great number of sturdy, quality items that even high-end design lovers will not turn their nose to. Indeed, the company is changing strategy to a “less is more” philosophy by developing more functional and long-lasting products from durable materials. Another way IKEA is looking to achieve higher quality is solid materials and less complex assembly, both of which increase product longevity and reduce breakage. Notably, you will find these products mostly in their collab collections, like Ilse Crawford’s cork furniture and Tom Dixon’s aluminium designs among the most recent.

2. AFFORDABILITY

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We all flock to Mother IKEA because you can furnish a whole house with half a decent salary. Accessible Scandinavian design is available fast and for an affordable price that most people can pay; thus, volume for the seller, low prices for the buyer. And this is what makes the company stand out and dominate the flat-pack, affordable interiors industry, where most players concentrate on a single type of furniture or a niche look. In addition to cheap manufacturing resources and economies of scale, one of the reasons IKEA is cheap is because the customer shops in store and performs the assembly at home. You would think that should be a deterrent as most of us were not born to assemble anything based on complex instructions (yes, most men included). But this appeals to a lot of consumers, especially some who might look to add a little more creativity to their grown-up DIY: the fact that some products come flat-packed means that the buyer is involved in putting together the end-product, which may be further personalised by hacking, painting, decorating. IKEA produces a lot of unfinished products because they lend themselves to personalisation, which most people prefer when it comes to home decor. Have a look on Pinterest and you find thousands of ways their famous step stool was decorated all over the world.

3. SUSTAINABILITY

This is the area that interests me most when it comes to products I buy nowadays. And if a company manages to be affordable and sustainable, then most conscious consumers would be happy. When it comes to “sustainability”, I am always slightly suspicious when it is used by mass production companies. After all, they are the biggest consumers of natural (and artificial) resources.

What we’ve seen in the last few years at IKEA is a new strategy that aims to change the way it uses and impacts on its manufacturing sources, from materials to people. One of the reasons must be that the company is becoming aware that securing long-term sustainable materials is vital for its survival. IKEA sources wood from 50 different countries around the world, mostly from Sweden, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Romania and Germany, which makes it the largest consumer of natural wood in the world (1% of all timber globally goes into its products). Its designs are largely manufactured in developing countries to keep costs down, while they mostly sell in the First World, which means they are shipped back here to reach the end consumer, resulting in a considerable transport carbon footprint. Not to mention the astronomical carbon footprint of its mega showrooms. So how sustainable is the company then?

While 1% of Earth’s forests goes into IKEA’s products, the company is also one of the world’s largest buyers of FSC-certified wood in the retail sector. It aims to source all of its wood from sustainable sources, either recycled or FSC-certified, by 2020 and is already in a good place when it comes to timber sourcing. It also funds reforestation and rainforest restoration projects in various parts of the world through the WWF and other global organisations working in the area of forest conservation and renewal.

The other major source material IKEA uses for its products is cotton, which is a natural, biodegradable type of fabric, but also the end product of a heavy agricultural process that impacts both the environment and communities around the world. At the same time, however, IKEA is part of the Better Cotton Initiative, which aims to help transform the way cotton is produced, by improving cotton cultivation processes and educate small and large producers on sustainable farming methods.

Critics of IKEA’s sustainability commitment also point out that the company produces “fast furniture” of mostly inferior quality and that its low prices encourage impulse buying and disposability. Along with other Scandinavian- or Europe-designed, Asia-manufactured “disposable interiors”, such as Sostrene Grene, Tiger, Primark, etc., IKEA is said to inflate consumption in the First World at the expense of consumers, the Third World manufacturing communities, and our environment globally.

This is a hard reality to dispel, and one that will take time to remedy. The good news is that IKEA does do something about it. As an early pioneer in flat-pack mass production, it is also one of the first companies to attempt to minimise the impact of consumption and manufacturing, two aspects of the post-industrial world that are not going anywhere. My view is that this also has to do with consumer behaviour, particularly unfettered consumption of cheap, disposable, unnecessary “stuff”. Some argue, and I agree, that furniture and homewares are not as easily disposable as “fast fashion” if only due to their size. However, the problem lies primarily with the smaller items, which are often easier and cheaper to replace than repair, and that these are not recycled properly.

One of the solutions, promoted by IKEA itself, is to produce and own less “stuff”. Can you imagine a company saying to people to stop buying so many things they don’t need? While it sells things no one really needs? Well, IKEA did. One of its directors stated some years ago that the world has reached ‘peak stuff’. It all comes down to the “less is more philosophy,” owning less “objects” and purchasing mindfully and strategically, for long-term purposes, and, crucially, for a reason. Which is something that the decluttering and home organisation industry is also looking at these days. It is also hoped that the new impetus to recycle, reuse, upcycle is changing the way we look at things – that our purchases, our collection of personal objects can be re-purposed and have a second life, either as they are or recycled into something else.

IKEA’s sustainability and environmental mission really seems genuine, and IKEA has always managed to inspire trust, despite safety issues and sourcing scandals. But, ultimately, one must ask how a company that implements a low-cost, high-volume business model (the single most important reason it is so successful) that encourages mass-consumption can be truly sustainable? One of the ways is through the design itself, by using what they call “the circular model”, whereby newly-harvested raw, natural materials are replaced by recycled, second-life materials, such as plastic; essentially getting more out of durable, non-biodegradable material.

This is what Ikea’s chief designer had to say last year in an interview:

“[sustainability] is part of everyday work for every product we do. That’s what I love working for Ikea. We are a doer company, not a strategizing kind of company. We don’t talk so much. It’s not just something we say. We see that we use the right materials and production choices in everything that we do, but what lately has been the big thing we’ve been talking about is how we can cater for a behavior of change through our design. Also where we have to go with a far more circular approach on how to handle resources for the future because it’s already there, there’s a resource scarcity. So how can we take care of that? The only way is to work in a circular way, and we have both the means and scale to be at the forefront, of that so we’ve decided to be at the forefront of that.”

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Ikea is certainly working hard to transform its green credentials. As a volume-based global manufacturing enterprise, incorporating waste and recycled materials in the billions of products they sell every year can have a substantial positive environmental impact and accelerate positive social change. In their latest collections, we see a lot of natural, sustainable materials like rattan, cork, bamboo and recycled plastics. It’s quite a feat for a mass production corporation to embrace the “slow living trend”, “less is more” mentality. They must have been listening to what conscious consumers were saying. It also works with environmental scientists to reduce chemical compounds from their products’ manufacturing processes. Finally, it also works to improve conditions for people working in its manufacturing bases in the Third World in the same way First World consumers can improve products standards and credentials here by simply demanding it.

4. FUNCTION

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Smart and functional, comfortable and practical products manufactured by IKEA  brought home organisation to the masses long before Marie Kondo was born. It’s not just about practicality in our grown-up lives, it’s a new way of looking at things and incorporating them into our lifestyle in seamless, innovative ways. It certainly appeals to OCD-prone individuals like me who like to have boxes and compartments for every little item they own.

There are other ways IKEA makes us look at our home with fresh eyes, home as a place where families or groups come together to do things other than chores, sleeping and Netflix. For instance, it recently partnered with other consumer product giants to promote traditional play through design in the home, a refreshing take in our era of social media-fulled sense of disconnection. Research by LEGO, another Scandinavian stalwart and design partner of IKEA reveals “a strong link between the hours spent playing together and the happiness of families, with nine out of 10 families (88%) who play for five hours or more a week claiming to be happy, while, of those who play for less than five hours, only seven out of 10 (75%) say they are happy.” This is literally bringing people together again through everyday things in the home.

Another important aspect of IKEA’s products when it comes to their utilitarian function is that they are versatile, adaptable, with a high potential for personalisation. This essentially gives the end user more control on the design itself; this is how the phenomenon of IKEA hacking began. So with playful, functional, useful products, IKEA is here to stay in our hearts and minds, no exaggeration.

5. FORM

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I would not call Ikea’s products beautiful overall, but they have mass appeal, which is what matters most of all, and are versatile, in that they are used and loved by anyone. But it’s a specifically Scandinavian phenomenon that attractive design is also affordable. Indeed, the Scandinavians succeeded in cornering both ends of the design spectrum – they lead the way in both high-end and low-cost design pretty much globally. They also manage to dominate the cheap end of interiors design in a tasteful way, unlike other cheap and cheerful but definitely cheap-looking mega brands. And this is an achievement in itself. From my own point of view, the enduring appeal of IKEA is its flexibility and adaptability, specifically alternating between or successfully combining busy patterned maximalism and Nordic minimalism.

There is no verdict on my part in this article. I am a moderate IKEA consumer and live among other IKEA lovers. It is definitely my go-to store when it comes to home organisers of any kind. I am also very fond of their glassware, and my kitchen is full of IKEA products. As a parent, I appreciate that it minds and entertains my children so I can shop in peace. I love that it feeds you a decent meal for next to nothing, which is why we spend half a day in IKEA and only 1 hour in Woodie’s and B&Q. I admire them because it does not compete with high-end designers but looks up to them and invites to work with, i.e. “democratic design”.

The world that we live in around here, Western Europe and parts of the developing world, is both dependent and infatuated with IKEA, so it is not going anywhere. It’s quite interesting to look at the evolution and global success of IKEA from a cultural and historical perspective: the epitome of capitalist enterprise and an enduring design disruptor that actually came out of the values of Swedish Socialism (maybe sometimes it does work?), making sophisticated design accessible to everyone. Overall, I would say it is moving in the right direction, committing to sustainability because it makes good business sense. It’s a company that is both pro-active and responsive, one that started working on balancing financial imperatives with sustainability objectives because it knows its business model, as well as its consumers’ trust, depends on it. And turns out IKEA does listen to the people.

Read my thoughts on sustainable design and conscious consumption here

 

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