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Ikea's Quest To Think Like A Software Company

Ikea's new collaboration with top British designer Tom Dixon reveals how the company is embracing open-source thinking.

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Every year, Ikea introduces around 2,500 new products to customers around the world. Working under the umbrella philosophy "Democratic Design," the company evaluates every single piece—from humble tea towels to elaborate kitchen systems—on its form, function, sustainability, quality, and price. One of its most ambitious products to date was announced last week: a sofa bed in collaboration with big-name British furniture designer Tom Dixon.

Inspired by the car and technology industries and made from extruded aluminum, the design is based on the notion that it's a platform that can change and mutate along with its owner. The sturdy frame—referred to as a chassis—is designed to be modular so that users could add components to customize the piece's configuration. One day it could be a bed. By clipping on a back and arm rest, it becomes a chaise longue; hitching on an additional backrest and arm turns it into sofa. Bridging another unit turns it into a sectional.

While the piece is still very much in progress and will evolve before its launch date in August 2017 (it doesn't even have an official name), we sat down with Dixon and Marcus Engman—Ikea's top design brass—at the company's headquarters in Älmhult, Sweden, to learn more about the sofa's development and its implications for the future of product innovation at the company. The thumbnail version: After years of exerting firm control over its designs, Ikea wants to start acting more like a software company.

Forging A 21st-Century Collaboration

At first glance, Ikea—a manufacturer known for its mass-produced, inexpensive minimalist wares—seems like an unlikely partner for Tom Dixon, a self-trained designer who's built an empire that includes a thriving product business and architecture/interiors firm. Some of his recent endeavors? Swanky speakeasies, gilded household goods, hulking monolithic furniture, and even custom fragrances.

But for Dixon, who's quipped about plans for global domination, it's a chapter in his ever-evolving career and fascination with all elements of design, from the actual creative process to exploring means of production.

"I'm interested in exploiting Ikea to my own ends," Dixon says. "People always try to put you in a box, like 'They're the people that do the fancy goods.' I'm doing luxury goods now. I never used to. I used to make things with my own hands and then I was the guy who made things out of rusty metal. You want to defy what people think you're supposed to be doing. Why should we be doing the same things?"

More to the point, Ikea offers Dixon the unprecedented chance to design at an unprecedented scale. Ikea has over 300 stores in 28 countries and generated more than $35 billion in sales last year.

"Ikea opens up a completely different opportunity, which is you can reach so many more people, which we're all interested in as designers," Dixon says. "You can be snobby about design and production, and you'll reach very few people. There's a big movement now for one-off pieces or limited editions, which is interesting in itself because it allows you to be more extravagant. But what this affords is an opportunity to get to the whole world. And if you're any good, then you'll have a massive, massive impact on how people live. And that's the extraordinary opportunity."


For Marcus Engman, Ikea's head of design since 2012, working with Dixon is symbolic of the brand's interest in shaking up its status quo of boxy birch furniture. Developing new products is "not about just doing just another thing," he says. "One of the strongest driving forces [at Ikea] is when you find things and you say, 'Is this really right? Do we keep on doing things like this?'"

The collaboration is also about the realities of designers competing in a global market. "The business has got to evolve and change," Dixon says. "It's dangerous for designers out there right now. We're going to be in a position where no one will want to pay for our services, just like in the music business or in journalism where there is no value to that unless you can change your model. In music, you become a performer rather than a recording artist. What does that mean for us as designers of small brands when there's actually a dominant force in furnishings, which is Ikea? Actually being part of that rather than outside is very fascinating for us."

The Problem With Sofas

Upholstered goods—like sofas and armchairs—is one product category that Engman believes is particularly due for an overhaul.

Sofas are among the most complex pieces of furniture both in construction and logistics. First there's a frame that supports enough springs and foam to keep you sitting nice and comfortable. This mix of materials makes it impossible to recycle. And because of its size and heft, shipping is expensive and difficult. Moreover, local tastes influence its overall form. In Italy, they tend to sit low to the ground. American sofas are big and plush. In Asia—as Ikea discovered in one of its studies—many people sit on the floor and use the sofa as a backrest.

"Sofas are often made to measure—it's a quite bespoke business actually," Dixon says. "I thought, we can't compete in that game so why don't we look at other possibilities? That was the initial departure point."

Another challenge with sofa beds is how they're approached. Typically, you start with a sofa then add a bed, which is usually flimsy and uncomfortable and feels like an afterthought. Dixon and Ikea wanted to reverse that: Why not start with a bed and turn it into a sofa?

Borrowing From The Automotive and Tech Industry For Answers

When Ikea develops a new product—with or without a celebrity designer—it follows more or less the same process. A product development team ushers a design through conception, prototyping, and commercialization. Designers and technicians evaluate a piece for its form and robustness and how easily it can be shipped. At the same time, they're in conversation with people on the supply chain about where the product will be sourced and the fabrication capabilities of those factories—information that feeds into the design. Sustainability experts look at the overall impact of the product, and commercialization specialists think about positioning the product and how well it will sell, which informs how many units Ikea produces.

Since the sofa bed is in its nascent stages, much of the work so far has been in devising the initial design and concept. In rethinking how sofa design and manufacturing could be updated for the 21st century, Dixon and Engman looked to two industries that have evolved remarkably well with the times: automotive and tech.

In automotive design, it's common to build different models using the same chassis. Toyota (a budget brand) and Lexus (a luxury outfit) share the same platform, for example. In technology, you develop a program that you constantly upgrade. Dixon and Ikea took those notions and spun them into the basis for the sofa: an open-source platform that individuals could modify at will.

The frame is extruded aluminum, meaning that it has lots of slots and cavities. The extrusion has a lip that goes around the perimeter and allows you to slot things in without needing any tools. Some of the slots have the circumference of a bolt that would allow you to affix something—like a tabletop or lamp—to the frame.

"We can build a lot of properties into the extrusion," Dixon says. "Then we had this idea for the future that it's not just an Ikea product. Maybe it's actually this chassis as an open platform and people can use it for different reasons."

"Open-source thinking is one of the things that I believe will affect a lot the way we do things," Engman says. "When we look at mass production and what's 'good,' the measurements of quality are set by engineers. It's very much that everything should be exactly the same. But what if that's not the goal? Is [an experiment] 'wrong' but in the right way? That's how the software industry works and how they develop."

Hackable by Design

In the past Ikea resisted hacks to its designs, threatening legal action against a website that shared ideas on how to customize its bland pieces. Now, the company is firmly embracing the notion.

"If we do this platform, you could turn that into a different type of sofa if you wanted to," Engman says. "You buy the platform from Ikea and the upholstery from somewhere else."

For Dixon, having a flexible, easy-to-adapt line makes sense. "What we want is something that will sell in volume, so we want something that's relatively conventional," he says. "But it can mutate into something more space age or hotel-oriented depending on what someone wants to put on top." For example, a user could easily outfit the frame with custom upholstery or design their own seat backs and add-ons. Part of the motivation for customizability isn't just to appeal to a broad set of consumers; it's also extending the product's useful life.

"It's got a solidity to it, it sits comfortably in the Ikea world, but it could happily sit in a hotel, contract, or more military scenario," Dixon says. "There's something interesting about its neutrality."

This way of thinking is emblematic of the type of change Dixon would like to see in the furniture industry. "It's not about my company, it's not about Ikea," he says. "It's about something we can do which engages more people—whether it's students or companies—creating apps for our platform."


Thinking Globally

Because the sofa is made from aluminum—a material that's available and manufacturable all over the world—the design is well-suited for mass production. Ikea always looks at the entire supply chain when it develops a product to find the least expensive suppliers. As of now, Ikea is investigating a manufacturer in Sweden that fabricates parts for automotive companies like Volvo and Scania. Since the sofa's substructure is a kit of parts—as opposed to a monolithic sofa—it's easier to ship, which makes it cost-effective. "The logistical costs are rising more than material costs," Engman says.

Additionally, the sofa's metal framework plays into Ikea's ambitions to enter into global markets. One of the newest is India, which will receive its first Ikea store in 2017. "It's brilliant for India where it's humid and where we can't use a lot of wood," Engman says. (Wood is temperamental in humid climates and warps from moisture in the air.) Moreover, Ikea researchers learned in its home visits that's its normal to wet clean floors multiple times per day because of dust accumulation that's a byproduct of air pollution. This also means that Ikea needs to use water-resistant materials on pieces that touch the floor, like a sofa. Aluminum—a rust-proof metal—is ideal.

For Engman, the motivation to sink so much research and development into a sofa might also have some roots in his personal history. His father developed the Klippan sofa in the 1970s and it has become one of the brand's perennial best sellers. During a press conference about the Dixon collaboration, he alluded to a desire for this new design to eventually eclipse the classic piece in sales and popularity. And—like father, like son—perhaps some day it will. "The only thing you should hold onto is your ability to change," Engman says.

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