Is IKEA a Four Letter Word (in the World of Design)?

A 15 piece meatball plate for only $3.99! Last year’s price $4.99! Now who can’t resist that? Before talking about blue plate specials served in over 300 stores, we should first ponder the magnitude of this corporate wonder. 9,500 products, 626 million store visits and 712 million website visits in 2010 alone. Pushing flat-packs and self-assembly since 1956 and touting environmental stewardship since the 1990s, there’s a lot going on there that’s hard to ignore.

Perhaps best known in the college crowd or with budget minded home decorators; IKEA has probably graced everyone’s space to some degree at some point in time. Walking the showroom maze, plunging down into the well stocked supermarket of accessories, then finally emerging into the cavernous warehouse, the trip is part Disney and part spiritual. A finely crafted set of vignettes entice us to imagine how our lives could be if only we had the odd Liatorp in which to store our Luftig Hoo. This is retail perfected.

But let’s consider their product designs. Personally speaking, from a distance, their designs do no harm. They have a relatively balanced mix of contemporary form and function in which the form has been greatly simplified for lowest cost manufacturing, shipping and storage. Unfortunately, this leaves the “function” functioning for perhaps a shorter time than more substantial products elsewhere. In our disposable society it fills a void. It’s the result of laminated fiberboard and thin gage metals, of items which just about do the job but go no further. It is accessible design.

As a designer I expect a lot from my products that I recommend to clients. I always contemplate each object that catches my eye from afar. As I get closer, I reflect on how I can incorporate it and perhaps even improve it. After foraging IKEA’s isles over the years, a clear pattern emerged. I’ve found some items do actually offer substantial value for the price while others should be silently ignored. With a discerning eye you can learn to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Case in point, their cabinetry: They have an enormous variety of sizes and styles, they’re easy to purchase ship and assemble, and design into spaces. You won’t mistake them for custom cabinetry. But add some trim, a carefully selected countertop, some internal lighting and upgraded hardware and the differences become less apparent from a modest distance. Their precision fames and euro-style hinges yield consistency and ease of installation. For the more creative – replacing stock doors with your own design means no one will even notice you shopped at the big blue and yellow. 

There are many other examples of good and poor design residing along the isles. Accessories can to be utilitarian but useful. If chosen with a discerning eye they can easily blend in with more expensive items in your home. However for furniture, I’d not recommend backing your truck up to the loading dock there as their durability and materials do not always provide value or longevity. Saving a bit more and shopping elsewhere should ensure well-wearing and sturdier selections. Better yet talk to a designer; we all have our favorite sources for great furniture.

So from a designer’s perspective… do we dare say the word IKEA in front of our clients? Of course we do. With every project it is our job to optimize our client’s time, effort and money to fulfill their objectives. Sometimes to get your high end marble countertops you need a less expensive cabinet base and IKEA is right there to help out.  A designer will help you navigate these choices and most often will save you money along the way.

 And I admit: a $1 ice cream cone is pretty hard to pass up on your way out the exit.

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