After a third child’s death in two years prompted the largest furniture recall in American history, Ikea USA president Lars Petersson told us that dressers tipping over aren’t an Ikea problem, but an industry problem: “The only truly safe way to have a chest of drawers in your house is to secure to the wall.”
Is that actually true? Last year, a team of Northwestern Engineering students at the university’s Segal Institute of Design was tasked with modifying the design of a freestanding Ikea Malm dresser so that it couldn’t tip over if a child climbed on it. The dressers were designed with the requirements that it not tip over when 50 pounds of downward pressure were applied to any given shelf, have similar storage size to standard dressers, have a low manufacturing cost (less than $200), and be capable of shipping flat–just like Ikea dressers.
These four designs suggest that what Ikea says is an “industry” problem to solve is actually something individual designers thinking outside of the box can solve on their own.
Every fall at Segal, as part of the Design Thinking and Communications course taught by Walter Herbst, students are assigned to tackle a real-world problem. “A lot of these students come to the school effectively having been told for 18 years there’s only one design solution to every problem,” Herbst says. “We try to break them out of it.”
Many of the design thinking problems that Herbst’s students work on are suggested by Nancy Cowles, the executive director of the children’s product safety organization Kids In Danger. This time, her tragic inspiration was the news of a child dying after an Ikea dresser tipped over. Cowles felt like there had to be some way to make furniture tip-resistant–beyond attaching it to a wall.
Cowles made the suggestion to Herbst, who loved the idea, and told his students to design something that would cost less than $200 to build, but which could support 50 pounds of weight on each drawer. On hand to advise the students were Cowles and Lisa Siefert of Shane’s Foundation, an advocacy group founded upon Siefert’s two-year old son, Shane, who died in a tip-over accident.
Finally, Herbst told his students that aesthetically, each dresser needed to look like something Ikea might sell, and have the same emotional design language. “We’re trying to get students ready for the real world,” he says. “The idea was if they could design something that met Ikea’s standards, they’d learn to understand other clients as well.”
The first dresser produced by the students was the SafeSlant. Designed by Devon Buckingham, Arjun Jaykrishna, Maximillian Nelson, and Ximeng Zhao, the SafeSlant takes a shape-based approach to improving stability. It transfers the center of gravity of the Malm line so that it is closer to the wall, while also preventing the drawers from coming out as far as the base Malm design. The slant, meanwhile, makes the drawers harder for a kid to climb. The result is a dresser that should remain stable, even with a kid using the drawers as a ladder–albeit at the expense of slightly less drawer space.
It might look from the front like a traditional Malm, but the TipStop Dresser has a clever trick up its drawers to prevent tipping. The top drawer has floor-length eaves on the side, which serve as a second set of legs when pulled out. It was designed by Cameron Averill, Blake Strebel, and David Oh, who found that the critical tipping point of a Malm dresser is when the top drawer is pulled out and has weight applied to it. “Basically the idea was to keep the dresser looking as close to a stock Malm as possible,” Strebel says. “We thought of a design that made the drawers childproof, but then that discourages kids from dressing themselves, so we came up with an alternative that makes the dresser stable, even when a kid has pulled out all the drawer.
The largest departure from the Malm aesthetic, the Safe Shelves system is more like a lazy susan cupboard than a proper dresser. Designed by Austin Johnson, Jamie Zhang, Milan Samuel, and Noah Rosenthal, Safe Shelves prevents tipping by not allowing the furniture’s center of gravity to be redistributed in the first place. “We didn’t go the traditional dresser route, but instead came up with an idea of rotating shelves,” says Samuel. Originally, the case of the dresser was round, like the shelves, but Samuel says her team found through testing that parents found the shape “too radical.” Ultimately, they made the outside of the dresser rectangular, adding rounded corners and an extended base to guarantee children couldn’t get hurt by falling on the Safe Shelves unit–or for that matter, having it fall on them.
Designed by Jethro Au, Katherine Hartman, Ethan Park, and Giovanna Varalta Ciavolella, the Stable Storage system is another one–like the TipStop Dresser–with built-in extensions to prevent the drawers from triggering a full-on dresser collapse. “We really didn’t want our design to be too wild,” says Hartman. “From interviewing parents, we heard what they really wanted was a bunch of different storage types.” Instead of a bottom drawer, the TipStop has a built-in toy chest, which increases the unit’s stability. This, in turn, is supplemented by replacing the second drawer with a couple of cubbies. This not only gives the TipStop fewer drawers which can be pulled out to create a tipping hazard, but Harman says it also encourages kids to put things away, since their research showed that kids were less likely to put toys away in drawers instead of cubbies.
None of these designs are production-ready yet, but they could be–something Ikea, as the world’s largest furniture retailer, is perhaps better positioned to tackle than anyone else. Ikea has said in the wake of the recall that it will be making design changes to its dresser line, though it has not discussed specifics. (Kids In Danger passed Segal’s tip-safe dresser designs along to Ikea. Ikea did not immediately respond to an inquiry about whether or not they would be using them.)
“Ideally, everyone should be strapping their furniture to the wall, but that’s not going to happen,” Lisa Seifert of Shane’s Foundation says, arguing instead the stability of furniture should be better regulated. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates consumer goods in the U.S., has guidelines for designing chests that don’t tip easily, but they’re voluntary, so manufacturers decide whether or not to follow them. “The voluntary stability standard companies can choose whether or not to follow right now needs to be stronger,” she says. “And after it’s stronger, it should be mandatory.”