Ikea goes back to the future
The furniture company's new range is inspired by classic pieces
By: Natasha Ann Zachariah
At 69, Swedish furniture giant Ikea is fully embracing the digital revolution.
Last month, it started selling its Wi-Fi-ready Uppleva television sets in a few European markets, marking its entry into electronics manufacturing.
The Scandinavian company, best known for coining the phrase 'you don't have to be rich to be clever' for shoe-string home decorators, is going back to its past.
At a recent preview in Sweden, Asian reporters eyeballed the Ikea Post Scriptum (PS) 2012 collection. The collection, in its seventh edition, has Ikea designers digging into its archives to come up with updated classics.
Started in 1995, the PS range is known for quirkier, iconic designs compared to its usual, no-frills furniture, and with slightly higher price tags to match. These start from $2.50 for crockery and go up to $1,799 for a three-seat sofa.
Nineteen designers were behind the range, made with new, sustainable materials such as bamboo.
Take, for example, designer Wiebke Braasch's easy chair. Her inspiration, the 1959 Cavelli classic armchair, still has the metal frame of the original but no longer has upholstery.
Other gems in this year's collection: the majestic, tutu- esque Floor Lamp - Ms Braasch's update of the 1960s Rysch tulle shade table lamp - which uses eco-friendly LED lights; glass door display cabinets designed by Lisa Widen and Anna Wallin Irinarchos, inspired by a photo of picture frames in a 2008 catalogue; and Jon Karlsson's 1950s- inspired fold-down table, now in bamboo instead of the teak favoured in that era.
Singapore will get the entire range of 46 PS products next month.
Old, it seems, is gold for Ikea, which had its roots in a roadside match-stick stand started by founder Ingvar Kamprad, then aged five.
He opened his first furniture store in Amhult, Sweden, when he was 17. Now 85, he has left the running of the company to his sons Peter, Jonas and Matthias.
Walking through Ikea Tilsammmans, the company's culture centre in Amhult which houses an Ikea furniture museum, you find yourself traversing the decades while getting a crash course on how Ikea changed the face of furniture design.
Museum archivist Hugo Sahlin, who has worked at Ikea for 37 years, says it is natural that the company would eventually tap on its heritage.
Referring to Ikea's early years, he says: 'We already had good design, even at that time. Why reinvent the wheel?'
But as furniture trends shift, it might seem that Ikea is not running out of ideas but has smartly taken on the vintage, retro trend - the same one that has caught on with today's younger home owners.
Ikea's PS range project leader Peter Klinkert is quoted in Readme, the company's in-house magazine, saying: 'The design world is in something of a crisis. Many ideas have already been realised, so lots of companies are now making new products in old style.'
But, he stresses, the new range is not just about putting out what has already been done but, rather, improving design.
A foot into digital world
It does, however, get difficult thinking of ways to constantly put out great design, says Ms Gunilla Waxnas, a project manager at Range Strategy, an arm that looks at new ways to develop products at Ikea. 'Even for us here, it's a challenge. There are a lot of markets with different needs that we want to please.
'A big starting point for us is customers' needs and how they live with their furniture. It's not about going out to trends and reacting to them,' she adds.
The relook at its past comes at a time when the furniture company looks to expand its control over the mass market digitally. While Ikea has not been on top of technology, it is slowly but surely starting to embrace it fully.
The real possibility of failure in this area, where Ikea has been a success story and leader in the business for the most part, has put it off leading the pack.
But it is getting there. The launch of its Uppleva television marks its foray into the electronics realm. Priced at about 6,500 Swedish krona (S$1,175), it integrates an LED TV, a sound system with wireless speakers, Internet connection and CD, DVD and Blu-ray players.
The company declines to reveal Uppleva sales figures. But human resource manager Ake Larsson, one of the hosts for the Asian media junket, tells Life! that it sold three times more than the estimated number on June 14, the launch day.
It is not confirmed if or when the set will hit Singapore's shores.
Only last year, the company started putting out videos, as an extension to its catalogue book, on YouTube.
An Ikea application for smartphones is available here but it is not as extensive as, say, interior design app Houzz, which has a comparatively larger database and higher interactivity.
When the print Ikea catalogue starts arriving at homes here next month, readers can use a smartphone to scan an icon on its pages that will link them to image galleries and interactive videos.
It is exciting times for Ikea as it tries to balance the needs of a changing customer demographic with rising costs and economic crises around the world as well as to keep design relevant and fashionable.
But what is most important to Ikea, which prides itself on being accessible to all, is to try and keep prices low.
Ms Waxnas says: 'Quality doesn't always have to mean it costs more. It's about understanding what's important in a product.'
On the products being rolled out this year, she adds: 'Good, functional design isn't only for people with money. Many have big dreams but small wallets. Sometimes, it just takes a different way of thinking to make it happen.'
The writer's trip to Sweden was sponsored by Ikea.