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What Ikea’s Designers Learned From Living In A Simulated Mars Habitat

“Being locked in this small environment, everything can kill you.”

What Ikea’s Designers Learned From Living In A Simulated Mars Habitat
[Photo: courtesy Ikea]

Ikea is looking to space for inspiration–literally. The furniture company announced last week that it will be collaborating with NASA in order to learn about what life would be like on Mars, and how the company might apply the space agency’s knowledge of living in small spaces to its products.

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For the company’s designers to understand what it might be like to live on Mars, Ikea sent five people to live for three days inside a model Mars habitation in the Utah desert. Built in 2001 by the Mars Society–an advocacy group dedicated to helping humans get to Mars–the Mars Desert Research Station hosts scientists and students for two to three weeks at a time, allowing them to simulate what life might be like on the red planet next door. The Ikea team went through a three-day version of a Mars simulation with the engineer and space architect Constance Adams, with lectures, daily routines, and even an excursion outside the building to see what working on the planet’s surface might be like.

“It’s a really amazing place because it’s such a special environment. No vegetation. It’s just in the middle of nowhere,” says Michael Nikolic, a creative leader at Ikea who was among the designers living in the Utah desert habitation. “It is like a moon or Mars landscape.”

Does that mean Ikea is designing a Mars habitat or spaceship? Not necessarily–an Ikea spokesperson couldn’t confirm that the company was officially designing anything for NASA. But by understanding firsthand what designing for truly tiny spaces means for those who might one day live on another planet, Ikea hopes to bring some of its insights back home to increase quality of life in cramped, densely populated cities. It turns out that designing for life on an inhospitable planet like Mars reveals a lot about designing for life on an increasingly fragile Earth.

[Photo: courtesy Ikea]
Nikolic is clear that the collaboration–which also includes the design program at Lund University–doesn’t mean Ikea is flying to space or going to Mars. Instead, the company is thinking deeply about small spaces, given that the trends toward urbanization mean that people will have less and less personal space. “We thought that was an interesting idea to understand this one year traveling in a space shuttle, versus a small little apartment in a cramped area,” Nikolic says.

The three days Nikolic and his team spent in the Utah desert weren’t quite what living on Mars would actually be like. They had a full kitchen, for one. They bought food at the local grocery store, though tried to only buy fruits and vegetables that might one day be grown on Mars (still, one designer slipped in some garlic so the food wouldn’t be so plain). While they were supposed to be confined inside, the doors weren’t actually locked. The designer Jon Karlsson, who joined Nikolic and three other designers in the fake Mars habitation, said that it was unbearably hot inside, so he slept outside on the stairs (despite warnings about wild animals, another problem he wouldn’t have to worry about on Mars).

Other things were more realistic. The designers had a limit of five liters of water per day–so no luxurious showers. They also had to exercise in the limited space to keep their muscles strong despite the imagined weightlessness. When it came time to use the bathroom, Karlsson says that they would play loud music to give each other a bit more privacy. “It’s interesting to try to understand from a theory point of view, but it comes to your heart when you try it yourself,” Nikolic says. “The thing we did wasn’t a scientific study, it was just to get the feeling.”

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[Photo: courtesy Ikea]
And according to Karlsson, he filled an entire notebook with ideas. In between learning about Mars and space habitation, the team would have design brainstorms. Karlsson says that the team is working on design proposals for NASA’s Mars habitat project and for the hub in Utah. The team is also designing a new collection of products inspired by their experience, which will be released in the next few years.

“For us, in Ikea–especially in Scandinavian design–it’s form following function,” Nikolic says. “Designing for a spaceship is actually quite good for us, for finding out the function for a few pieces. When you produce an industrialized thing, it has to be efficient, both in production and how you use it.”

The designers were interested in the kind of efficiency and sustainability required in space. If you have a plastic bag for food, for instance, it can’t just be thrown away. Similarly, all the materials used have to be sustainable and safe–if there’s any toxicity, it could endanger lives. “We’ve been working with small space for a long time. But this is taking it to a different level,” Karlsson says. “Being locked in this small environment, everything can kill you. If you don’t get clean air you will die. If you have a material that’s toxic, you will also die. When you look at it, it’s the same on Earth, it just takes a longer time.”

While the designers wouldn’t be more specific about what ideas they have for future products, they are hoping to design solutions that humanize living in small spaces–something NASA doesn’t necessarily think of as its top priority. “All the life support systems, everything needs to be taken care of. If something fails, you’ll die,” Karlsson says. “But the thing with being locked in a small space for such a long time? In the end, we’re humans.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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