Ikea’s Next Big Frontier

You’ve just got to see this dimmer. Seriously.

It’s a plastic coin about the size of a silver dollar. You can pick it up, twirl it in your hand, and the lights magically dim. Irresistibly designed and inexpensively priced, it has all the hallmarks of an Ikea product, save for one: It’s a tech product. Who woulda thunk, the future of smart lighting is being pioneered by a Scandinavian furniture company?


This impressive dimmer is part of Ikea’s new Trådfri line. Comprised of roughly a dozen products, many of which seem to stem from Ikea’s 2014 investment in Scotland’s Design LED Products, the line includes LED bulbs and light panels that operate on the Zigbee smart home standard, which uses low-power radio waves similar to Bluetooth to turn lights on and off, rather than conventional wired switches.

The line, which launches today in the U.S. and will arrive in stores in April, shows Ikea is using its expertise in how people live at home to build better UX for the smart home—starting with lighting.

Trådfri’s LED bulbs are priced around $20 to $25, and they can be toggled between three different color temperatures ranging from the warm glow of 2,700 kelvins to the whiter light of 4,000 kelvins. This alone is a pretty big feat, especially for the price, as most LED bulbs are either set to a single color temperature forever, or they cost quite a bit more to do color shifting. A comparable bulb from Phillips runs a bit over $40.

In this sense, Ikea isn’t going pure budget with its new lighting solutions; The company is going budget premium, if you will. It’s undercutting the best of the smart lighting market instead of competing with the sub-$10 GE or Cree-branded LEDs you can snag at Target or Home Depot.

While Trådfri bulbs can be controlled via a smartphone app, that’s nothing new in this crowded market. What makes it novel is its UX. The line is a unique chance to see Ikea’s ethos applied to digital design, and a glimpse at how a company that literally studies how people live in their houses thinks about smart homes.

[Image: Ikea]
The baseline controller ($13) can stick to a baseplate on the wall via a magnet, and it features buttons to turn on or off the lights and change their level of warmth. This button is fine. But its cuter, younger brother is the real star: It’s the aforementioned coin-shaped dimmer ($20, with a bulb). Loaded with a two-year battery, you can place it on any surface, grab it, and twist to dim up to 10 bulbs at a time. Perhaps it’s a gimmick, but there’s something about this almost subconscious gestural interface that seems quietly revolutionary, especially as Ikea has stuck it in the simplest of objects.


And finally, Ikea is offering a motion controller ($30, with a bulb) for its lighting, too. While these have been around forever, Ikea’s solution looks like it can be installed as simply as taping a 3M hook to the wall. Then, when you walk into a room—like a dark kitchen at night—it will slowly ramp up the lighting in a pleasing way that doesn’t feel like a security alert. Then it will turn itself off, minutes after you leave.

What’s brilliant about these interventions is that they show Ikea is thinking beyond the smartphone as remote—which is a whole lot more time-consuming than you’d like for flicking on the lights. Instead, the company’s designers are considering the real benefits of smart lighting within domestic life, and crafting a UX language around those benefits. Light should be able to change color or brightness on a whim. Light should be absurdly casual to control. And in the best cases, light should just be contextual, seeing you, and providing the perfect light at the perfect time as a result.

In the last few years, Ikea has broadened its scope, expanding from home decor to solutions for your life in general. The company now makes bikes, tents, and even a vegan version of its infamous meatballs. In this sense, Ikea seeping into our wired world seems inevitable.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.