"I want to bring the surprise back to IKEA" says head of design
Marcus Engman portrait

"I want to bring the surprise back to IKEA" says head of design

Interview: in this exclusive interview, IKEA's design manager Marcus Engman reveals how the Swedish furniture giant is using design to overhaul its reputation for "doing cheap stuff".

Speaking to Dezeen in Stockholm this week, where the brand launched a collection designed by Ilse Crawford, Engman said: "I want to bring the surprise back to IKEA... We are putting a bigger emphasis on design."

"We could be misinterpreted as a low-price company doing cheap stuff," he said. "But we're all about affordability. There's a big difference. And this is one of my crusades."

In order to bring high-end design values to affordable products, Engman is working with product and fashion designers to launch more capsule collections, and integrating electronics into its products.

He revealed that IKEA is set to launch furniture with induction-charging capabilities – transferring energy across surfaces with an electromagnetic field to wirelessly charge devices – as early as April this year.

Ilse Crawford's Sinnerlig collection for IKEA

Engman has also introduced collaborations with studios like Stockholm's Form Us With Love, as well as fashion designers Katie Eary and Walter van Beirendonck, to create furniture and textile collections.

The 48-year-old Swede was appointed as design manager three years ago, following a series of creative roles at the company over 14 years ago.

He leads a team of 20 in-house designers and six scholarship students who work in teams alongside engineers and communications experts to develop products.

Ikea is best known for providing affordable flat-pack furniture, operating 351 stores in 46 countries and boasting annual sales of €28.7 billion (£21.5 billion) in 2014.

The brand was founded in 1943 by Ingvar Kamprad, who stepped down from the board in 2013 – signalling a change in direction for the world's largest furniture company.

"This is the opportunity for a big company like us to also cater for the differences instead of just using our mass-production skills for doing the same thing," Engman said.

Form Us With Love's Janinge plastic seating range for Ikea
Form Us With Love's Janinge plastic seating range for IKEA

Read the first part of the interview with Marcus Engman below. Part two can be found here.


Dan Howarth: What changes have you put in motion since you started as design manager at IKEA?

Marcus Engman: It's not just about me; it's actually about the way forward that we see. We are putting a bigger emphasis on design, obviously – that's why I came back. I wanted to do that. And to work through our own formula we have for doing great design, which we call democratic design. And that has also put the focus within the product development on design in general and also on quality, obviously.

I want to bring the surprise back to IKEA. You know, we're good, but I want this to be more surprising all the time, and to work in different ways and to work a bit faster and be a little bit more agile. What I'm mostly afraid of is us as a company, when we grow. We've doubled up so many times as a company, we're really, really big now. The thing about being big is that you could lose your agility, and stop being fast and exploratory.

For me, IKEA is at its best when we're being really curious. And I'm a really curious person, so I want to bring that curiosity to the company too. Because if you're curious… curious people are interesting people, because they're interested in you – they're not just interested in talking about themselves. So what about the curious company that is interested in people?

Dan Howarth: And there's also the challenge of making those solutions more affordable?

Marcus Engman: Of course, and that is what it is all about. From time to time we could be misinterpreted as a low-price company doing cheap stuff. But we're all about affordability. There's a big difference. And this is one of my crusades also, as a person. Letting everybody, and making it possible for everybody, to buy good stuff.

So first of all to try and make them with a good form, great function, great quality, everything sustainable, but at price levels that everyone could afford. It's a big difference to doing cheap stuff. And everything we do is product developed by ourselves from scratch. We don't buy anything from the shelf and that is also a big difference to a lot of other companies.

Dan Howarth: Ikea has started working with designers including Ilse Crawford and fashion designer Katie Eary. What was the idea behind getting these people involved?

Marcus Engman: It's all about learning. It's us – me – being curious about things – and I constantly want to learn. And I want to learn from Katie Eary, and we also work with Walter van Beirendonck right now. It's their view upon textiles from a fashion-eye perspective, and also their skills as textile designers. I think that varies a lot to the way that we work with textiles from a home-furnishing perspective.

So it's what could we learn from Katie, of course she's really good at digital printing. That is what she's famous for. And Walter is good at building his worlds. So it's bringing that learning to us to make us better for the future. It's not actually about getting big names into IKEA; it's about learning from great guys. And some of those great guys and girls are big names. There's a reason for them to be a big names. So it's not a marketing tool. Honestly it's about learning to become bigger.

Dan Howarth: How does the new collection by Ilse Crawford fit into the wide Ikea range, or is it purposefully different?

Marcus Engman: I think it's very good because this one is really exploratory. With both the ways that we have done it, it also for Ilse and her team together with us to get to know each other. And those discussions that we have had along the line have been really fruitful. And you will see that tonight in the range, also. But it's also exploration into new materials for us, and actually completely new production techniques that nobody has done before. So that is also the fun part.

And also getting the skills from out of the Studioilse team, from all of the particularities. She's really there, really into the detailing, and there's a lot of learning for us there to become even better. Also, for them: how could we work with mass production? And our skills in how to produce in really good ways. And how to adapt to production, but still keeping the particularities and the quality to it.

Ikea's 2014 PS1 collection
IKEA's 2014 PS collection

Dan Howarth: The 2014 PS collection was really geared towards smaller apartment spaces. Is that a growing trend that you are having to cater for?

Marcus Engman: It's not a growing trend, but what is happening is urbanisation. And the fact of the urbanisation is that people living big cities are living in smaller spaces than the ones who are living in the countryside. So of course we have to see that our furniture fits there.

Dan Howarth: Recently it's seemed like some consumers are eschewing mass-produced furniture in favour of hand-crafted or artisanal products.

Marcus Engman: I think the good thing about us is that we could do it all. We do arts and crafts, also. You're going to see now in a couple of weeks, we're going to have a big thing around art. We're going to gather street artists from all around the world and do a collection around that. So it's actually democratising art – because that is a thing that is needed – and also to talk about the importance of art in people's homes. The arts and crafts, and natural fibres, and small craftsmen, we're taking care of that in small collections too. This is the opportunity for a big company like us to also cater for the differences instead of just using our mass-production skills for doing the same thing. You're going to see more of that.

There is something about uniqueness that everybody wants, you want to be much more unique nowadays than before. So how could we crack the code of doing unique pieces in a mass-produced way, so we still don't jeopardise the price levels? Because we know for a fact that if we want to spell our message and things to the world, the major threshold for the ordinary people is actually the price level. So if we jeopardise that then we won't spread the message. And then it won't make any good. It's as easy as that.

Dan Howarth: With connected home products coming onto the market, do you have any plans to integrate this technology into your products?

Marcus Engman: Of course we do. We have a big thing going on there. The fist step is going to be launched in April. That is about induction charging – to get rid of cables in the home, because that's one of the hassles.

We don't want to go into electronics; we want to make the home smarter. And what are the big things that you could make smarter through electronics? So we're still going to be in the home furnishing business, but make home furnishings smarter by electronics.

Dan Howarth: What other plans do you have over the coming year?

Marcus Engman: I think one of the biggest changes is that previously we've been working on launching products and from this year we will be much more focussed on launching collections instead. Before we maybe did PS every third year. This year we are going to do ten different collections, just because we can't help ourselves from being curious around a lot of things. It's this curiosity driven strategy that makes it so much fun to work, also. And you're going to see that in the range.

If you look from a communication perspective, it's so much better to talk about the totality because home furnishing is about putting things together. It's not just about the simple product. And it makes it stand out from the crowd also, so that's one of the reasons.

Dan Howarth: Are these collections all collaborations with different designers?

Marcus Engman: Some of them might come from a material perspective – just exploring a new material. Some of them are collaborations with designers, some of them are collaborations with schools. We're working right now on a thing that is coming up with a design school in India. And then we're collaborating with a Swedish stylist to see what happens.

Dan Howarth: Is India a big market for you?

Marcus Engman: It's going to be, because we're going there and we're retailing.

Dan Howarth: Because of the country's emerging economy?

Marcus Engman: It's not just about that. Since we're a value-based company and we're based upon our vision, we want to more or less change the world. That's what we say. We want to make everyday life a little bit better.

And then we'll have a look at where we could do the most difference. And of course India is one of those countries where we could make a really big difference if we go there. So that's one of the reasons, also.

Dan Howarth: Do the markets you target change the types of products you create?

Marcus Engman: I don't think so, actually. It wouldn't make any sense to us to go to India and start off by doing Indian furniture. Why? Because then it puts us in a crazy competition first of all and we're never going to do that type of furniture better than the Indians themselves. So we're sticking to our Scandinavian roots, and being Scandinavian in India.

What we will change though, actually, is sizes. And the way you clean your homes in India, you use a lot of water so then we have to construct our furniture to withstand a lot of water. And what about the moisture in this area of the world? Then you have to do another kind of particle board that withstands that.

Dan Howarth: But it will effectively be the same range that you present there?

Marcus Engman: That is the idea of IKEA. We want to have our own identity. So far it has turned out smart.