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Ikea’s Doomed Quest To Design A Couch You Can Carry In Your Hands

Sometimes an idea is so good you have to try it and fail–twice.

Ikea’s Doomed Quest To Design A Couch You Can Carry In Your Hands
[Photo: courtesy Ikea]

This is one of the most fun Ikea mistakes ever. And what makes it even better is the fact that Ikea made it twice. First in the 1980s, and then again 20 years later. We just couldn’t let go of this glorious, fantastic, beautiful, and insanely wonderful idea of making furniture out of nothing.

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One of the premises behind Ikea is the flat pack. You might have seen it, or even dragged it home occasionally. A brown box, so tightly packed and cleverly designed and engineered that no air ever gets transported between suppliers, warehouses, stores, and customers. The challenge for Ikea has always been the fact that sofas and armchairs were excluded from this flat-pack universe. They were just as bulky as they were at stores that competed with Ikea. Gaaaah! Imagine if someone could just figure out how to fit a sofa in a flat pack!

[Photo: courtesy Ikea]
Well, back in the mid-1980s, innovator and designer Jan Dranger did. He came to Ikea in Älmhult and presented one of the most genius ideas ever to Ingvar Kamprad: furniture filled with air. The idea was pretty much to use inflatable plastic elements to create seating furniture. Sofas, daybeds, armchairs, and foot stools. This was magic. Right there, in the meeting, Ingvar Kamprad decides that this is an innovation too good to let go. Let’s do it! Let’s make furniture made out of air!

Before we go further, we should share an aspect about the Ikea founder that may not be that familiar. Ingvar Kamprad is a rebel. And he has a curiosity that is hard to match. He would never say no to a good idea, he would never obstruct development. He would also never read lengthy analytical PowerPoints. But if an idea sounds good and feels good–then he’ll just go for it.

So the idea was to fill the couch’s plastic body with air using a hair dryer, and then close the valve to keep the air inside. After that, it was covered with a fabric cover so that it looked like any normal sofa. Sounds good, right?

The people involved in the project at Ikea were also pleased that they reduced the use of raw materials by 85% and the transport volume by 90%. Sounds good, right?

In the Ikea stores, enthusiasm about the new air furniture was, well, lower, to say the least. The static of the material turned the pieces into dust collectors. And since they weighed close to nothing, they moved around in the stores and homes. Someone internally at Ikea even described the collection as a gathering of swollen hippos. The aesthetics were clearly missing. And usually so was the actual furniture, since people could so easily move it around the store.

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But that wasn’t the biggest problem. There were several obstacles here. First, the customers used warm air, instead of cold, which damaged the plastic. Second, the valve couldn’t take the pressure and started to leak. What was a comfy sofa on Monday was a shapeless piece of dusty fabric on Friday. And to be honest, it wasn’t even that comfy. And then there was the sound when you sat down, a sound of something not at all glamorous.

Back then, Ikea didn’t work with the five principles of democratic design that have come to define Ikea’s methodology: form, function, quality, sustainability, and low price. If the company had, this project would probably have taken another direction right from the beginning. But Ikea didn’t. And what sounded so irresistible at the outset, turned out to be pretty flat.

But the core idea was, and still is, amazing. And that was maybe why Ikea tried it again. This time Ikea turned to kids. The idea seemed to suit kids perfectly: lightweight, safe, and playful furniture! The plastic was improved, and so was the valve. And this time Ikea tested the collection. They invited kids from all over the world to play with the entire collection. The collection passed, but as soon as Ikea started mass-producing the pieces, the same old problems arose. The air started leaking and the party was over.

What do you learn from making mistakes? Well, first of all you try something you believe in. And you learn to argue your case. And you learn how to be brave and curious and rebellious. Even wild. Sure, it’s only furniture–but wouldn’t it be fun if someone figured out something new and wonderful? Something really smart and sustainable? Just like this could have been. Are we going to make mistakes again? Yes.

Stina Holmberg is a copywriter at Ikea. This article was adapted with permission from Democratic Design, a publication forthcoming from Ikea in 2018. 

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