Redefining craftsmanship

Taking the handcrafted feeling into an industrial way of producing products, from leather sofas to mouth-blown glass.

”Smart Craftsmanship” is the message used to describe the most recent STOCKHOLM collection. But those two words could easily summarise the overall approach and IKEA philosophy to craftsmanship. The work of taking that handcrafted feeling and industrialising it on a large scale with high quality has been a big focus in 2014 and continues to be.

“Craftsmanship” is a word with many definitions, and is often used quite freely to add product value and quality perception – whether it is with food, fashion or furniture. Most of us perceive “craftsmanship” as something positive. And in many ways it is. The knowledge, training, precision and passion that go into a truly handcrafted product offer a certain beauty, sensibility and feeling of quality that satisfies our minds, as well as our hearts. But those products often come at a price that in most cases is unaffordable for the many people.

We love a challenge

The IKEA way is never more successful than when there are obstacles to overcome and problems to solve. Many people seek out and desire well-crafted products with a bit of extra attention paid to the details. But they are often expensive and inaccessible, and often presented in a context of exclusion. Therefore, something interesting and challenging happens when our vision, “to create a better everyday life for the many people”, is paired with the big promise of the word “craftsmanship”. But it’s not as big  a contradiction as one might think; large-scale production can fit perfectly well with craftsmanship and high-quality details.

“IKEA products need to have that industrial and affordable craftsmanship, but the results need to have that superior feel,” says Peter Klinkert, Range Communication Matrix Manager at IKEA of Sweden AB. “Many times the industry is perfectly capable of delivering exactly the same result; the handmade is more a question of emotional value. The quality assets when talking about IKEA products and craftsmanship often sit in specific details, like a soft closing on a drawer, round edges or a leather seat.”

The STOCKHOLM collection clearly reflects this approach to craftsmanship. In the collection, there is no shortage of carefully selected, tactile materials like walnut, velvet and full-grain leather, paired with beautiful proportions, great comfort and clever, multi-use functions.

The STOCKHOLM collection does an important job when it comes to building quality perception and attracting new and retaining existing customers.

“For the customer, the biggest savings and difference in price compared to the competition can actually be found in the highest price segment,” Peter says. “One good example is the STOCKHOLM sofa in genuine aniline leather. The same product from a higher-end brand would probably sell for twice as much – minimum.”

FYLLIG and NORDRANA – great handmade stories

In the IKEA store you can also find products that are entirely handmade from start to finish. In glassware, there are plenty of vases, glasses and bowls that are mouth-blown. FYLLIG is a floor vase, mouth-blown in the glassworks outside Krakow, Poland. Here the skilled craftsmen blow several kilos of molten glass through a long, narrow steel pipe and then form it into a floor vase. For the glassblowers in Poland the biggest challenge may have been blowing the glass in an even thickness, so there are no fragile areas on the vase. “Sometimes, I don’t think we understand what enormous skills our producers use when they make our designs,” says Knut Hagberg, who co-designed FYLLIG with his sister, Marianne Hagberg. Both are designers at IKEA of Sweden AB.

Visiting the factory is inspiring for designers, technicians and product developers, confirms Marianne. “As designers, we learn how the production process works and can adapt our designs to suit it, and the producers get the affirmation that we appreciate their work when we observe and listen to their knowledge.”

NORDRANA is a series of baskets for the bathroom that are crocheted by hand, but on a large scale. The products are developed on-site in Vietnam together with local craftspeople in one of our handicraft centres – far out in the countryside, among rice paddies and grazing water buffalo. Many of the women who are part of the group making these handicrafts live in rural areas. In many cases, this is their first formal job outside the home.

Learning to crochet

For the team from IKEA of Sweden, NORDRANA was a challenging but rewarding project. They began preparing sketches before they left for Vietnam. And since these were crocheted products and no one had any in-depth knowledge of the craft, they decided to dust off the old crocheting skills they had learned in school. No sooner said than done, crochet hooks were purchased and the product developer and two designers attended a crocheting workshop at the Association of Swedish Handicraft in Malmö.

Person knitting

The handmade quality was important, so the supplier sent thick binders filled with potholder-sized samples to test different patterns, yarn thicknesses and textures, and to give a taste of what the local craftspeople in Vietnam could deliver. It was important to choose patterns that would not look machine made. The samples became the base for the designers’ sketches that were sent to the supplier. Once on site in Vietnam, the designers worked further with the local craftspeople, and together they developed the baskets and hanging storage in the NORDRANA bathroom series. When the real production stage started, one basket was crafted after the next at the rapid pace of truly skilled craftspeople.

“It’s the kind of project that I’ve longed to work with for years,” says designer Johanna Jelinek. “I’m passionate about collaborating directly with people in the production process, and taking responsibility for people and the environment. I believe that within IKEA we have a mega responsibility in the world and I want to contribute to that.”

Knitted basketsA social livelihood

The NORDRANA series has also benefited the local women. In Vietnam, those who work with handicrafts are usually farmers and women living in rural areas. Instead of each person working from his or her own home, which was how it was done before, everyone goes to the local handicraft centre where the work is performed. For the first time, these women are able to have a job on their own terms, as well as good working conditions and a salary. It’s a great example of how in the IKEA world, there are truly many dimensions to the word “craftsmanship”.