Ikea’s Head of Design Marcus Engman in an interview


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2017)

Only very few enterprises enjoy as much affection among people across the globe as the Swedish furniture and home furnishing company Ikea. The wonderful, diverse designs on offer at Ikea’s countless emporia allow everybody to express their personality. However, just what steps the individual products have to go through before being added to others on the shelves in stores is known only to very few. The primary focus of the rigorous design process is always very clearly on customer benefit. As Head Designer, Marcus Engman manages a team of 20 designers, responsible for creating and producing all Ikea products. We spoke to Marcus about his exciting work and the design philosophy behind it.

Marcus, what fascinates you about your work?

All the people I get to work with and meet. At Ikea, we want to make things better and to accomplish what we need to challenge ourselves and explore. Working together with others is a great way of doing just that. When you bring people together from various disciplines, backgrounds and passions to solve a problem or come up with a new idea, something happens. The friction and discussions between people drive innovation, and that fascinates me. And daily life, I’d say that’s my source of inspiration. 

What does a day at the Ikea design team look like?

I guess part of the charm with my job is that most days are different and include working both hands on with current things as well as future plans. There are a lot of meetings of course, and then lots of reviews of new samples almost every day, since we design more than 2000 new articles every year.

There are five key design principles that are at the heart of every Ikea product. Please tell us about this philosophy.

Ikea believes in making good things accessible for the many. It’s about democratising design, that good homes shouldn’t be determined by the size of the wallet. So, to offer good design that as many as possible can afford, we work with Democratic Design, which means we include form, function, quality, sustainability and a low price in everything we do. It’s challenging to deliver to all five aspects and there is no shortcut, only hard work. To get it right we involve different competences from the beginning in the development and design – from designers and engineers to packaging and supply-chain experts. We simply want to show the world that it’s possible to create low-priced products with good form and function and lasting quality in a sustainable way.

Your suppliers play a very important role in the design process. What does that look like, and what are the advantages of this close cooperation?

We work closely with our suppliers and see them as our long-term partners; in fact, on average our suppliers have been with us for 11 years. A lot of the product development takes place on the factory floor where the experience and expertise of our suppliers is very valuable to develop better products. We try out new techniques and production methods, find more efficient ways of producing and saving material. In the collaboration with Piet Hein Eek on ‘Industriell’ for instance, we worked a lot together with both the supplier and Piet to find new ways and techniques to mass produce things with a unique touch, keeping the benefits of mass production but offering the customer variation and uniqueness in each product. The advantage of building long-term partnerships like this is that we get to know each other, grow and develop together. We dare to fail now and then, learn from it and try out new things.

People’s demand for sustainable, environmentally friendly products has risen sharply over the last few years. To what extent has that impacted your work?

Sustainability is one of the key dimensions in Democratic Design, so it has been part of what we do for a long time. But even before Democratic Design was put in print, sustainability was part of what we do – since we want to reach the many, affordability has always been key to us. A prerequisite for creating a low price is efficient usage of material, efficient and innovative processes, elimination of unnecessary attributes such as too much paint. Hence, thinking sustainably and not being wasteful is part of who we are. But I would say over the last years we have put even more focus on developing products that are not only produced in a good way but also encourage and enable people to live a more sustainable life, to design for behavioural change. A LED bulb for instance uses about 85 percent less energy than a traditional bulb, which is good for the climate. So, Ikea therefore decided to develop a LED bulb for less than one Euro, enabling more people to make a sustainable choice at an affordable price. 

You visit thousands of homes every year to learn about people’s needs and dreams. What are people longing for? 

When we talk to people all over the world, they use similar words to describe the essence of what makes a home to them. It has to be comfortable, safe, and it has to provide familiarity. Relationships, love and belonging have to be balanced with room for privacy, relaxation and recovery. And people want to be personal and express who they are. With urbanisation and smaller living spaces, people long for solutions that can fit these needs, so for us it means we have to cater to differences, versatility and the fact that the home of today/tomorrow is more about activities than rooms. We need to design for life in flux, multifunctional products and personalised furniture. It also means that if we know music, for example, is important to people, we need to do something about that.

Is this proximity to customers exactly what differentiates you from other manufacturers?

I can only speak for how we do things, but I think you have to be truly interested in people, their lives, challenges, dreams and everyday needs to do what we do and do it successfully. We are curious at Ikea and want to be close to people so that we can understand people’s needs and turn everyday problems into solutions. Then I think our way of working with Democratic Design makes us unique and being passionate about fulfilling our vision: to create a better everyday life for the many people.

Even though Ikea’s products are settled in the lower price segment, your customers are of every age and salary. In your opinion, what are the reasons for that?

I think that making good design affordable is a question of accessibility, not about style. A lot of good design is universal and to the liking of people of different age and salary, so why should you keep that to only a few? It doesn’t make sense. Ikea is for the many, and I think our customers appreciate the efforts we put into offering affordable products with good form and function, and lasting quality that are made in a sustainable way.

You once said it’s this culture of daring to make mistakes that makes you more innovative. What did you learn from your mistakes?

Well, I’ve made so many and I keep on making them, maybe I’m just plain stupid? No, seriously, I guess it’s all those mistakes that have made up my strong gut feeling for stuff. I’ve also learned that stamina and being persistent are so important if you really want to achieve big changes. Grit eats talent for breakfast any day.

With which Ikea product do you have a special relationship and why?

There is a textile pattern in the Avsiktlig collection which we recently released that I have a strong personal relationship to. It’s an old pattern made by Carl Johan de Geer who was part of 10-gruppen. I remembered that pattern from when I was 6 years old, following my father to the studio where both he and Carl Johan worked at the time. It was love at first sight all those years ago and I still love it!

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Marcus Engman is Head of Design at Ikea. In 1983, he started working there during his high school studies at weekends and summer breaks. During the mid-80s, Marcus was a home furnishing apprentice to Ikea designer Mary Ekmark and has since held positions within the company such as Communications & Interior Design Manager, Global Range Strategist and Marketing Manager. He has a strong passion for Democratic Design and home furnishing for the many. Marcus is known for his creativity, his ambition to think differently and his ability to empower others to be bold and find new ways of doing things. 

Picture credit © Inter IKEA Systems B.V.

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