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High Design

Billy, Max and Gustav in my bedroom!

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SMART PRICING: IKEA symbolises design democracy at its best. (Above) The Billy bookcase has become an iconic design for its functionality and flexibility

"God, what a lot of space this takes up".

These were the words that changed the way furniture was designed, made, sold and bought. A young Swedish designer called Gillis uttered these words in 1951 while trying to stuff a table he designed at IKEA into the car boot, followed by, "Let's take the legs off. " Max was the first "self-assemble " flat pack table that appeared in the 1953 catalogue of IKEA and the rest is history.

Scandinavian design is known for its simplicity, minimalism, and accessibility through mass production. Roots of this design ideology emerged as part of the social democracy wave in Denmark, Norway Sweden and even Finland post WW II.

Beautiful, functional everyday objects should become affordable to all was the core of this ideology which started becoming visible in the 1950s across Scandinavian countries. It was also the time when low cost methods and manufacturing processes were coming into play for mass production of furniture and home dêcor.

A Swedish company called IKEA perfected this wave of "design democracy" and took it further through flat packed selfassembly furniture which has stood the test of time for nearly seven decades.

So what does IKEA mean? I and K come from initials of Ingvar Kamprad, the founder, and E and A from Elmtaryd and Agunnaryd, the farm and village where he grew up. Young Ingvar founded IKEA in 1943 at the age of 17 with the money his father gave him for doing well in studies. Two years ago, IKEA's turnover was over 23 billion euros. Ingvar Kamprad is rumored to be the richest man in the world, but we will never know the truth - IKEA is owned privately.

Ingvar's pride in his origin is evident from the Blue and Yellow identity of IKEA that takes its colours from the Swedish flag and every single piece has names of people, birds, seasons, towns, rivers and even bridges of Scandinavia. Billy the book-shelf is one of the most memorable ones, followed by the Gustav desk and so on...

Everything about IKEA is a case study in itself. The founder's obsession to make objects accessible to the masses leads to really tough briefs for designers. As soon as an object looks nice enough comes the next question, "Can we make it at half the price?" And there are amazing examples of how innovation happens in manufacturing by selecting unusual materials or vendors for producing IKEA pieces. We often talk of frugal design and jugaad innovation in India. But we don't have commercially successful examples of jugaad. A bucket manufacturer originally made IKEA's Skopa plastic chair and a round metal dustbin was made by a tin-maker who sold cans for industrial supply of soups.

A totally juxtaposed idea came up when someone saw Ingvar staring at rows of chicken in a wet market in China with complete fascination. His mind was goingm "What happens to the feathers?" IKEA manages to sell feather stuffed duvets and futons at unbelievably low costs because of this ability to put such seemingly unrelated stories together.

The great trick was also in doing away with assembly labour costs that were quite high in Sweden as well as other countries. Long before we started using methods like "participatory design" or "co-creation", IKEA made its buyers become a part of the building experience by asking them to assemble everything themselves. And who would fault something he assembled?

IKEA also reinforces "my daddy hero" idea - the man in the house can visit his DIY instincts and make a bookshelf or assemble a lamp out of stuff that comes out of boxes right in front of his family! My husband says IKEA is the adult LEGO.

The store experience is as unique as many of these stories. I must have first visited an IKEA store somewhere in Europe in the 90s when retail design was not really evolved as a science, especially in India. We barely had any self-select stores for clothes or grocery in India then. And there I was, standing in 10, 000 square meters of a completely anti-service furniture store where one floor was full of dozens of room sets, kitchen and bathroom sets, pots, pans, vases, shelves and rugs with neat price tags that leave no scope for ambiguity or embarrassment.

There were piles of random but desirable objects in huge boxes which later I learnt was a technique called "bulla bulla" (like 'bhel' ) in which you throw unrelated objects together to encourage treasure hunt instincts and yet give a feeling of abundant accessibility. Just when I started wondering how I could pick up one of those lamps or spatula sets, I spotted a pile of notepads and pencils that were to be used for noting down the objects you want to buy. On yet another floor, there was the warehouse that stocked all those objects in flat-packs with clean line drawings of the objects. So all I had to do was to spot the particular object and pick the box. Of course there was the apprehension whether that box would have everything I need for getting that lamp lit, but that did not deter me or millions of others who pick up stuff at IKEA stores. Across less than 350 stores in 38 countries, about 2 million people visit IKEA every day.

As IKEA believes in keeping costs low, almost all the stores are located on the periphery of a city that necessitates a destination visit, but guarantees ample parking space. Because you cannot shop on an empty stomach, a cr?che and a restaurant that serves a mix of proudly Swedish meatballs, cheap ice creams and some localised menu complete the IKEA store experience. Food menu is the only thing IKEA is believed to localise as per country's tastes. But IKEA never changes products, finishes or pricing strategy, no matter which country or culture it goes to.

For IKEA's entry into India, this is perhaps the best time, with the mushrooming of suburban living, double incomes, weekend lives, two-and-ahalf bedroom apartments and no time for supervising the carpenter...But we are not really a country that welcomes all things Western with open arms. We love our brocades, biryanis and Bollywood. We find ourselves lost if there is too much order and calm. We like the ornate and intricate. A local carpenter is not only skilled, but also measures our homes, brings shade-cards to select colours and finishes, buys and carts the raw material and then makes our furniture right there, sitting in our backyards or parking lots. So where will the clean, minimalist DIY fit in? Apart from furniture, we already have cheaper imitations of kitchen and bath accessories. So that too may take a while to establish.

But having seen many global giants including P&G, B+L, Daimler, McDonald's develop specific products for India, I am keen to see the strategy IKEA adopts for India. For now, let's get ready to make space for Billy in our bedrooms.

The writer is co-founder director of strategic design consulting firm Elephant Design

Reader's opinion (1)

Himanshu MuniJun 30th, 2012 at 17:42 PM

IKEA makes extensive use of plastics,as far as furniture is concerned. It is light weight and hence easy to shift and rearrange rooms.--Himanshu Muni.

 
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