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Ikea promises ‘democratic’ design. Has its Virgil Abloh collaboration lived up?

August 25, 2020, 12:22 PM UTC

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Last week, I argued that IKEA’s embrace of “democratic design” principles is a key reason the Swedish home furnishings giant is thriving amid a pandemic that has dragged scores of other big-box retailers into bankruptcy.

At its essence, democratic design is the idea that good design should be accessible to everyone. The concept is often associated with French designer Philippe Starck. It also can be traced to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian House and, arguably, Henry Ford’s Model T.

IKEA has expanded and formalized the definition of democratic design to include five “dimensions:” function, form, quality, sustainability, and low price. On the company’s website, IKEA Sweden senior designer Sarah Fager explains that “when there is a balance between all five, we consider that the design is democratic.”

That may be. But the last of those dimensions has always been first among equals at IKEA. The company focuses relentlessly on containing costs so it can offer products at mass-market prices.

That ethos is generally ascribed to IKEA’s founder, frugal and hard-working Ingvar Kamprad, who launched a small mail-order business selling household products from a shed in his native village in southern Sweden and, partly by leveraging the efficiencies of flat-pack shipping, transformed it into a multi-billion dollar global colossus. The concept of democratic design is now central to IKEA’s corporate literature and marketing. Each spring since 2014, IKEA has hosted a Democratic Design Days convention, drawing thousands of journalists, bloggers, and creatives to Almhult, the tiny town where Kamprad opened the first IKEA store in 1958.

IKEA, however, wrestles with the challenge that vexes many “democratic design” companies: even the most cost-conscious consumers can be put off by products that feel too generic. I love my new bright red Ivar bookshelf. But I’d love it less if I were to discover it in the kids’ bedroom of my next-door neighbor or the hallway of that “quirky” beachside cottage listed on Airbnb. (Edwin Heathcote, in this weekend’s Financial Times, highlights exactly this dilemma in a brilliant meditation on the pervasive sameness of Airbnb properties.)

IKEA tackles the generic-ness problem by making a vast range of different products, and periodically updating long-running bestsellers. But much like Henry Ford—who famously decreed that his customers could buy Model Ts in whatever color they liked “so long as it’s black“—the house Ingvar built remains acutely sensitive to the trade-off between variation and cost.

In recent years, the company has launched a series of innovative collaborations to infuse its product line with an aura of exclusivity and uniqueness. They include alliances with companies like Adidas and Lego and star designers like Tom Dixon and Virgil Abloh. These new partnerships take IKEA far beyond flat-pack furniture and Swedish meatballs.

The collaboration with Dixon produced modular, multi-functional Delaktig sofa that was a shout-out to the burgeoning community of IKEA hackers who find ever more ingenious ways of reconfiguring standard IKEA products into completely novel pieces. Last year IKEA signaled its intent to develop new products for smart homes with the release of Symfonisk, a line of unusual WiFi speakers created in partnership with Sonos. One model did double-duty as a lamp, another as a bookshelf.

The wackiest collaboration has been with PizzaHut, which resulted in this year’s release of Sava, a three-legged white plastic table designed to replicate those do-hickeys that prop up pizza box lids. (Naturally, the table comes in a flat-pack shaped like a pizza box.)

But it is IKEA’s Markerad collection, designed in collaboration with Abloh—founder of streetwear brand Off-White, top designer at Louis Vuitton, and one of the hottest names in fashion—that has generated the most buzz. The collection, which includes 15 pieces, reflects Abloh’s signature “ironic” style. Among the most popular items: a simple chair with a door-stop wedged on to one foot, a backlit reproduction of the Mona Lisa, a wall clock with “TEMPORARY” stamped across its face, a mirror designed to look as if it is cracked, and a white rug that resembles a giant IKEA receipt.

The collection was launched at IKEA’s Wembley store in London on Nov. 1 of last year. When free tickets for the drop were announced online in October, they sold out in five minutes. Fans came from around Europe, and queued up outside the store overnight. For the occasion, the retailer transformed the big blue exterior of the store by adding giant quotation marks, a favorite Abloh design motif, to its yellow IKEA logo.

All items were sold at IKEA’s trademark low prices, but in limited numbers. Pieces sold for a hundred dollar or less were soon being hawked online for thousands.

Abloh explained to Architectural Digest that the challenge he set for himself with Markerad was to create something that would both feel distinctive and appeal to the masses, especially jaded Millennials. “With this collection, I was interested in making everything very generic but very much with my thumbprint on it,” he said. “The chair in this collection has a doorstop on one foot—in one way it is very generic, but it also has this surrealist take on it.”

Abloh’s penchant for ironic quoting made headlines this week because veteran Belgian designer Walter Von Beirendonck accused Abloh of copying his work for the latest Louis Vuitton menswear collection, presented in Shanghai on August 6. “It’s very clear Virgil Abloh is not a designer,” Von Beirendonck declared in an interview with Knack Weekend, a Belgian magazine. Abloh denies cribbing from the Belgian designer. In a statement released by his personal publicist, Abloh said the inspiration for the collection came from a 2005 Louis Vuitton menswear show.

Whether Abloh’s approach to design conforms to Kamprad’s democratic vision is hard to say. It’s certainly popular, and at the very least, “democratic.”

More design news below.

Clay Chandler
Clay.Chandler@fortune.com

NEWS BY DESIGN

Epic battle

Epic Games, the developer of the hugely popular battle royale Fortnite, has sued Apple on antitrust grounds. Earlier this month, Epic tried to skirt Apple’s 30% commission on in-app purchases by offering players a way to make purchases directly from Epic. Apple promptly kicked Fortnite out of the App Store, prompting the lawsuit. Facebook and Microsoft have since piled in against Apple and some are viewing the whole ordeal as a challenge to the App Store’s future.

Bobbing for Apple

Apple will open a new store in Singapore’s Marina Bay that floats on the water. The giant glass orb—reflective during the day and illuminated at night—is a radical break from Apple’s conventional store designs.

Road of the Future

A 40-mile stretch of highway connecting Detroit and Ann Harbor in Michigan is being designed to service autonomous vehicles exclusively. The AV lanes will add on to existing corridors and depend on the development of a2 common software platform that all AVs on the route can interact with.

Nature calls

Tokyo has installed brightly colored public bathrooms made from glass that frosts over when an occupant locks the door. Designed by architect Shigeru Ban, the see-through toilets are supposed to let visitors inspect the cleanliness and safety of the cubicle before deciding whether to enter.

Work

Salesforce has repurposed its office management system, work.com, for schools as the education sector frets over how to manage students during the pandemic. The program includes analytic tools for tracking cases and finding potential transmission points.

EVENTS BY DESIGN

August

The 6th International Conference on Design Creativity will continue as scheduled August 26-28, but will be online rather than in Finland, as initially planned.

Hong Kong’s Knowledge of Design Week will also run online this year, from August 26 to September 3.

September

London Design Festival has decided to go ahead September 12-20, with a stripped-down offline program that will target Londoners much more than international visitors. Other events will be online. The organizers are still figuring out how exactly to proceed.

Design Matters in Copenhagen appears to be carrying on, too, September 23-24, although it is now selling tickets to view a livestream of the event.

November

Dubai’s inaugural architecture festival, d3 Architecture Festival, will run November 11-13 on the sidelines of Dubai Design Week. The event will focus on sustainability—an existential issue for the desert city.

QUOTED BY DESIGN

"In non-places, history, identity, and human relation are not on offer. Non-places used to be relegated to the fringes of cities in retail parks or airports, or contained inside shopping malls. But they have spread. Everywhere looks like everywhere else and, as a result, anywhere feels like nowhere in particular."

So writes Darran Anderson, lamenting the homogenization of urban spaces for The Atlantic. Anderson argues for “a return to vernacular architecture—the built environment of the people, tailored by and for local culture and conditions” as a panacea for the mundanity of modern streets.

 

This week’s edition of BxD was curated by Eamon Barrett. Email him tips and ideas at eamon.barrett@fortune.com