Thursday, Sep 27, 2012

PS: I love you
Design-forward line is more of what customers want
By 24 Hours (Sherry Noik)

There once was a young Swedish lad, the son of a farmer, who struck out on his own to start a business selling matches door-to-door. Riding his bike each week through harsh climate and topography, he made an astute observation: It cost him no more to deliver greeting cards, pens and packets of seeds to the customers he was already visiting. Then came larger items -- furnishings for the home.

Growth was his growth industry. Today the company he founded has 296 stores in 36 countries and is worth billions.

Ringing any bells yet? What if I told you the company name is an acronym of his name, his farm and his village: Ingvar Kamprad of Elmtaryd in Agunnaryd. What Kamprad realized was that, in business, a good idea is not enough. You had to sell what customers wanted.

And is there anyone out there who hasn't, at one time or another, wanted something from Ikea?

Now there is even more of what we want. It's the sixth Ikea PS Collection -- a line of design-forward products added as a "post-script" to the nearly 10,000 items already in store.

I had the opportunity to speak with Ehlen Johansson when Ikea previewed the PS Collection at their HQ in Sweden. She was one of 20 designers assembled by Ikea to think outside the blue-and-yellow box to create this year's collection.

Her Sinka is a solid birch cabinet of drawers raised off the ground by simple aluminum-rod legs. For her inspiration, Johansson recalled fond childhood memories of spending time at her grandparents' house, where a chest of many drawers, some large, some small, held endless mysteries for her.

If she behaved, she says, "I was allowed to go look in the drawers. [My grandmother] had some nice things ... some nice jewellery in one, some bottles in another, some old photos. Sometimes she would even hide something [special] for me."

Her Ikea-appropriate interpretation is a treasure trove with 12 drawers -- four rows of four -- that get smaller from left to right. And behind each of the smallest four, which don't slide in full depth, there is an extra little secret hideway.

"The cabinet meets our instincts to collect and sort things," Johansson observes.

In her own Sinka (which she bought!), she has chosen to store all the tools and fittings an Ikea designer needs -- nuts, screws, dowels and so forth. But she encourages customers to use the chest in any fashion they like -- and even to customize its look.

You could, she suggests, change out the rope handles. Perhaps seashells if the chest is in a beach house or cottage; vintage crystal pulls if it's going in a formal dining room or brightly coloured plastic handles for a child's room. (For more on customizing, see "Pimp my Ikea" at right.)

"People are free to do whatever they want. I wouldn't be offended at all," she says. "I saw a picture in a magazine ... some graphic designer painted a motif across it. That was very fun, I thought."

Johansson's Slingra armchair, on the other hand, needs no customization. Dozens of design meetings were required to nail down the exact specifications of this birch-and-white-plastic chair.

She had in mind the curves of an iconic Thonet chair, which gets its shape from steaming solid wood to soften it so that it can be bent into arcs, bows and loops.

But that concept wouldn't fuse with Ikea's flat-packing requirements.

"I wanted ... a straight chair with some rich shape on the armrest. We tried different versions. We weren't sure about the materials, where to divide it..." says Johansson.

They figured it out, and in doing so, even devised a new technique for affixing the plastic and the wood together.

This, she says, is the job of Ikea's designers: to take the constraints of cost and production, the directives of function and design, and push the envelope to keep creating fresh and new items the public wants.

That's the type of can-do spirit that would make Ingvar Kamprad himself proud.

The PS Collection is available now in the Toronto area at the Etobicoke store, as well as in Coquitlam, BC, Edmonton and Boucherville, Quebec.

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