‘Biggest mistake in Ikea’s history’
WHEN it comes to Ikea furniture, there's a hell a lot of Lack tables out there. And the globe bursts at the seams with Billy bookcases.
But there's one product that, despite high hopes, barely sold at all. It's the piece of furniture the Swedish home furnishing giant would rather forget.
And yet, it was a product fail Ikea committed twice, decades apart.
"This is one of the biggest mistakes in Ikea's history. An amazing fiasco," said Ikea's global design head Marcus Engman in Sydney this week. He should know, he's partly responsible for the balls up that was the a.i.r. sofa.
"There were some things we didn't think of." He's not kidding: it was too expensive, it broke when people put it together, it didn't work even when it was erected - and was just really, really odd.
Mr Engman was in Sydney this week for the company's Democratic Design Days, a showcase of all things Ikea. Democratic design is Ikea-speak for five core principles that guide its new products. These are: form, function, quality, sustainability and low prices.
The sofa fell down on just about every one of those five principles, he said.
Wind back to the mid-80s and an idea came across Mr Engman's desk in Almhult, the town five hours south of Stockholm that hosts Ikea's head office, that seemed a winner.
"It's one of those eureka moments when you sit around the table and instantly feel this might be the best Ikea idea ever," Mr Engman said.
"What could be better and more flat than doing air and to sell nothing and get paid for it? That was the starting point?"
That idea became the a.i.r. sofa. It solved a conundrum for the company which prided itself on its flat pack products. But the complex design of sofas and chairs meant most were sold to customers full size.
So why not an inflatable sofa, Ikea thought, that would be sold flat and then inflated at home? Once blown up, a material cover could be draped over it to make it seem just like an average sofa.
"The idea would be to fill it with air from a hairdryer as we realised almost all homes around the word had hairdryers," said Mr Engman.
It was here that the problems began. Ikea assumed people would inflate their a.i.r. on the cold setting of their dryer. Nope.
"People usually have them on hot and we didn't think of that because if you have it on hot and attach it to plastic, it melts it."
Despite all the engineering built into it, the sustainable plastic and the fancy valve to keep it air tight, over a matter of days it would leech air crumpling in front of people's eyes. As the air was in separate compartments often one side would sink before the other.
One of its selling points was it was so light you could pick it up with one hand and vacuum beneath it. But this lack of weight was another drawback.
"We didn't think if you sit on something that is so light it has this tendency not to sit still. You were actually floating around in your living room," Mr Engman said.
"And it had this squeaking noise; every time you moved you could hear it."
Ikea Australia chief executive Jan Gardberg concurs with the view of this epic fail: "We ordered a hell of a lot of products and then we had to discount them all at a big loss."
Mr Engman is sanguine about a.i.r.'s failure to rise: "I was part of making the mistake so I'm really proud of it."
He called it a "failing forward" experience because the company learned lessons about what wouldn't work. Mr Engman said if Ikea's democratic design ethos had been in place at the time, the inflatable sofa would have stayed on the drawing board. It clearly didn't function properly for instance.
It was also just a bit too out there for furniture buyers, he said.
"If you want to do new engineering maybe put it into something people can relate to from the beginning instead of something that is such a new form because it's hard to relate to - (people) can't understand it."
Ikea's actual best-selling item in Australia is far more mundane. Nothing as big as a sofa, the company revealed to news.com.au earlier this month, it was a simple, plain white plate.
Despite the initial disaster, Ikea a gave inflatable furniture another whirl in the 2000s. This time it was designed as fun and safe seats for kids. Tested to destruction and with firmer valves, they again thought they were on to a winner. And, again, the seat leaked air.
Would they give a.i.r. a third roll of the dice? "No," said Mr Engman. "We're a little bit smarter now."